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Planet Earth: quarry and dump.

By John Gibbons.

In 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a ’safe operating space’ for humanity.

The researcher team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans.

The era known as the Holocene began almost 12,000 years ago, just as the last Ice Age was in full retreat and climatic conditions favourable to humans led to our exponential surge. Human expansion was marked throughout this period with spasms of extinctions, as well as major changes in land cover and use. Our mastery of fire in particular allowed humanity to alter entire ecological systems radically, thousands of years before the industrial revolution. We have been a significant force on the planet for millennia; what has so profoundly altered in the modern era has been the rate and scale of change.

In the last two centuries, human numbers increased more than seven-fold. In the 20th century alone, we consumed more energy than used by all humans in the preceding 10,000 years. And in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, the exponential surge in human numbers and impacts has continued unabated.

Growth, expansionism and the meeting of human needs and desires primarily by consumption is the dominant ideology of this era in human history, and are essential to the ever-expanding engine of globalised capitalism. In this paradigm, the entire natural world is both a quarry from which we can extract an unlimited supply of ‘resources’ to fuel the Age of Man and a dump into which we can quietly excrete the toxic by-products of this whirlwind of activity.

To downscale the biosphere into a single human body, you could also identify nine key systems which operate both independently and as part of a closely integrated biological system. The heart, lungs, liver, endocrine system, brain, nervous system, kidneys and digestive system are all ‘boundary’ systems, and each in turn support myriad sub-systems, as well as combining to define our overall health and well-being.

The ‘planetary boundaries’ report is the planetary equivalent of the doctor informing an individual that his heart is badly damaged, his lungs are diseased, his liver is barely functioning and his kidneys are showing signs of acute organ failure. The good news is that his brain is still functioning well, his digestive system is in reasonable shape and his neurological function appears normal. After the initial shock, how would you expect the patient react to this news? Humanity’s collective response thus far has been to call the doctor a quack, accuse him of faking the x-rays and lab results and head out the hospital door with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other.

While all nine boundary systems are important, by far the most critical are biosphere integrity and climate change, as these are what are known as overarching systems, upon which all other systems depend, and “operate at the level of the whole Earth System, and have co-evolved for nearly four billion years”.

Prof. Will Steffen, lead author on the ‘Science’ study describes the pace of change as the most striking aspect of their findings. “Almost all graphs show the same pattern; the most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950”. It is, he added, “difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime, humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force”. This is genuinely new, he pointed out, “and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global scale”.

In a masterful piece of understatement, the study authors advise: “The precautionary principle suggests that human societies would be unwise to drive the Earth System substantially away from a Holocene-like condition. A continuing trajectory away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth System, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies”. That is scientist-speak for a future that looks somewhere between ‘Mad Max’ and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.

Another of the report’s authors, Dr Steve Carpenter argued that the study’s findings mean “we’re running up to and beyond the biophysical boundaries that enable human civilisation as we know it to exist. It might be possible for human civilisation to live outside Holocene conditions, but it’s never been tried before. We know civilisation can make it in Holocene conditions, so it seems wise to try to maintain them”, he added wryly.

As one of 18 experts in the group which completed this study, Carpenter’s main focus was on nitrogen and phosphorus, elements which attract far less headline attention than they actually merit. “We’ve changed nitrogen and phosphorus cycles vastly more than any other element. The increase is of the order of 200–300%.” In contrast, he pointed out carbon has ‘only’ been increased 10–20%.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are the inevitable byproducts of the ‘Green revolution’, in which global agricultural output increased dramatically as a result of the massive input of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. In the short term, this bought humanity several decades reprieve from the risk of widespread famine, which had been predicted in the 1950s and 1960s, as world population boomed.

The father of this revolution was a gifted scientist, Dr Norman Bourlag. In his speech accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in boosting food output, he warned: “The green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger… but the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed.” Failure to rein in human numbers and impacts, Bourlag added, would mean that: “The (21st) century will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before”.

It was a coincidence in timing if nothing else that as the ‘Boundaries’ paper was being debated, news came through in joint statements from Nasa and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that 2014 had been confirmed as the hottest ever year in the global instrumental record that stretches back to 1880. Indeed, 14 of the 15 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred in the 21st century. The statistical odds on that sequence being a coincidence are reckoned to be of the order of 27 million to one. What really astonished researchers about 2014 is that it occurred in the absence of an El Niño warming event.

UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon solemnly wrote in recent weeks that “we are the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”, a theme echoed recently by Mary Robinson.

What is truly difficult to believe is that while we have the great misfortune of living in an era of unprecedented ecological and climate crisis, these extraordinary facts are in no way impinging on our national discourse, either through the media, civil society groups or our political classes. Instead, the gathering ecological storm is fenced off into an obscure corner tagged ‘environment’, where it is left to a handful of activists to try, against near-impossible odds, to draw the attention this existential crux so desperately demands. •

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim