Environment and Society
A Safe Operating Space for Humanity Revisited: A Political Necessity How can humankind limit anthropocentric global environmental change and stay within safe planetary boundaries for development? This question is an issue that relates to both climate scientists investigating ecological guardrails as well as for policymakers looking for workable pathways. Since its publication in 2009, A safe operating space for Humanity [sic] has become a leading framework for analyzing global environmental issues. Authored by Rockstrm and Steffen along with 26 other leading academics and published in Nature, the 'planetary boundaries' hypothesis postulates that there are nine global biophysical limits to human development. These boundaries comprise land-use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen, and phosphorous levels, freshwater use, ocean acidification, climate change, ozone depletion, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution, and the paper posits that overstepping any of these boundaries could have catastrophic consequences for humans and the environment alike. (Rockstrm et al. 473) The 'planetary boundaries' hypothesis has been adopted by the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability and nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam and the World Wildlife Fund and underpinned the initial Rio+20 report (Irwin, "Your guide to science and technology at Rio+20") And while the empirical evidence for the 'planetary boundaries' hypothesis is not without flaws, its ability to identify boundaries and illustrate these trade-offs, to usefully inform the public, decision-makers, and interest groups about potential courses of action and their implications make it invaluable.
However, it is important to note that the arbitrary nature of identifying non-threshold planetary boundaries and assigning them 'planetary boundaries' fundamentally challenges Rockstrm et al.'s claims that these boundaries are non-negotiable or that they exist irrespective of peoples' preferences, values, or compromises based on political and socioeconomic feasibility. In fact, this is precisely what these 'planetary boundaries' are about. For example, the amount of nitrogen added to the environment as synthetic fertilizer provides enormous benefits to people in terms of the food production it enables, but it also has adverse side effects such as groundwater pollution, dead zones in coastal oceans, and emissions of greenhouse gases. (Rockstrm et al. , 474) Conversion of natural habitats to agriculture can increase food production and improve livelihoods, but may also harm biodiversity and lead to emissions of greenhouse gases. Extracting more freshwater from rivers and groundwater can allow for irrigation or other human uses, but also compromises the resilience and functioning of associated ecosystems.
Moreover, these costs and benefits are unevenly distributed temporally, spatially, and socially, there are both winners and losers in this equation. Balanc...