“Planetary boundaries” research constitutes an important advance in our ability to identify and quantify the components of global overshoot. Permit me to suggest that all presentations on planetary boundaries should include a discussion of Liebig’s Law—an ecological truism that can be boiled down to “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” We don’t have to wait for all nine boundaries to be transgressed before global calamity threatens; all it takes to shred the ecosystem web is for one boundary to be breached far enough, long enough. Seen in that light, the fact that four out of nine identified boundaries are already far behind us should be cause for profound concern.
Nevertheless, Johan Rockström’s exposition follows the familiar and necessary formula: industrial civilization is propelling us toward planetary collapse, but there is still time to change civilization’s operating system so as to ensure survival and well-being for everyone, even as population continues to grow. I have used that formula in essays and lectures any number of times, and, each time I do, I catch myself feeling just a bit disingenuous. Yes, as public intellectuals, it is our job to prescribe the medicine we think will improve the patient’s (i.e., civilization’s) condition. But is our prescription really capable of curing the disease?
Let’s face it: our patient’s condition is worsening. Further, we have seen cases like this before (i.e., there have been previous civilizations that overshot their environment’s carrying capacity), and in all instances, the outcome was dire. Nevertheless, following the discursive formula, a hypothetical treatment is proposed, consisting of energy substitution, massive resource efficiency improvements, wealth redistribution, and global governance; though it has never been tried, it seems to be our only hope.
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