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Finding a Safe Operating Space for Humanity – The Planetary Boundaries

by Kennedy Graham

The problem is, our global technology has leapt ahead of our global governance.

The concept of world federalism gripped the popular psyche, and the feigned imagination of some Western leaders, between the inter-state world wars of the 20th century.

It gave way, at the critical moment, to international cooperation amongst sovereign states, acting in the common interest, when the UN Charter was struck.

National sovereignty trumped international cooperation during the twin phenomena of mid/late century – Cold War stagnation and the decolonisation movement.

The post-Cold War paradigm – it has no defining name – is a potpourri of failed US hegemony and directionless multi-polarity, against background static of destructive corporate globalisation and a cacophony from the emerging global civil society.

During all of this, humanity’s ecological footprint has enlarged at an almost exponential pace, eclipsing Earth-share in 1981 and relentlessly shooting up to a 50% overshoot today.  Technology, which generated and facilitated this, has failed to protect against its destructive side-effects.  The result is a global crisis.

And for most of this period it has been the generals advising the leaders, largely to purposeless effect.  Now it is the time of the scientists.  Germany’s Schellnhüber advised the UN Security Council in February this year.  The UN’s Military Staff Committee has been comatose for decades and is in cryogenic state – perhaps best advised to remain that way.

Meanwhile, an array of research institutes, largely in Europe and loosely linked to the UN process through the IPCC, are exploring new conceptual ways of understanding global change – starting with empirical scientific enquiry, continuing with economic and social impact and, more recently if more hesitantly, foraying into political issues of global governance.

One step further removed, and thus on the frontier of enquiry into global affairs, is the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It is no accident that progressive thinking of this kind is conceived in Sweden.  It would not be the first time.

The SRC, along with some enterprising Australian counterparts, have taken the initiative some four years back to identify certain planetary boundaries pertaining to the ecosystem.  The boundaries, measurable in quantitative terms, form the thresholds within which humanity must operate if we are all to remain ‘safe’. For ‘humanity’, read global economy and, above all else, global biodiversity.

This is closely related to the new geological concept of the Anthropocene – the era that is taking over from the Holocene of the past 10,000 years.  A stable benign climate is giving way to turbulence that is anthropogenically driven.  The Anthropocene is, by definition, the era in which the future of the planet’s ecosystem lies, for the first time, in the hands of one species.

It is not just climate change (atmospheric concentration of gases). That is only one of the nine boundaries identified. It is also ozone depletion, the bio-geochemical cycle, biodiversity loss (causal as well as consequential to global change), resource depletion (fresh water, oceans, land use) and other waste (chemical pollutants).

The work on planetary boundaries is at early prototype stage – with many acknowledged gaps.  It is roughly akin to where the ecological footprint was back in the late-‘90s.  But it will almost certainly bed in as the years go by, and it is likely to prove to be the saving ingredient, if there is to be one, of humanity’s climb out of the abyss it finds itself in, during the late-Westphalian era of globalisation.

And that is just the science.  The Centre is venturing into the political implications of all this.  It has new projects. Some are exploring the implications of the planetary boundaries for global environmental governance.[1]  One is exploring the religious-spiritual dimension of planetary boundaries thinking.[2]

Another is beginning to plot the ‘policy relevance of planetary boundaries for measuring national environmental performance’: the track record of individual (61) countries in terms of their national contribution, positive or negative, to humanity remaining within the boundaries.[3]  Sweden is one of those; so is New Zealand.

What, then, might this mean, if anything, for New Zealand – our society and our glorious government?  If we so choose, not much.  And, if we so choose, potentially everything.

It is about exploring, probing, finding our way to planetary stewardship – custodianship, vice-regents of Earth as Islam has it.  Learning, as we make our way along the precipice that is the 21st century in the Year of Our Lord, but actually 10,000 years of experience in government and development, learning to be good, if fledgling, Anthropocenes.

So we could, perhaps, look to coordinate some work with the Australians in this fascinating area of enquiry.

Something, perhaps for like-minded research bodies in New Zealand: the Institute for Governance & Policy Studies in Wellington, and the NZ Centre for Global Studies in Auckland.

Time will tell.

[1] Global environmental governance and planetary boundaries: An introduction

Transforming governance and institutions for global sustainability

Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance

Planetary boundaries – exploring the challenges for global environmental governance—exploring-the-challenges-for-global-environmental-governance.html

Institutional and Political Leadership Dimensions of Cascading Ecological Crises

12/02/2013 – 00:00

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