Planetary Boundaries


The planetary boundaries is a scientific model that describes the human overshoot in more detail. Johan Rockström collected a selection of world leading geo-bio-physical scientists to see where it is possible to make quantitative models of our human load on different subsystems of the biosphere.

The first article on the planetary boundaries was published in 2009, and I think I read it in 2013, when I lived in China and saw the ecosystems collapse. For me it was great to read a more granular analysis of the planetary systems, since the different problems are moving in different directions. The Ozone layer is improving, the Climate is destabilizing and there are still a lot of problems that we do not understand.

Planetary Boundaries original model from 2009

The Planetary Boundaries depict to the best of our current knowledge what the planet can take and how much we load the ecosystems. In the pie diagram the green zone is the safe zone. When we transgress the planetary boundary we risk destruction and come into the orange area. When we come into the red zone we know for sure that our civilization will collapse, if we stay there. We just don’t know exactly how long it takes. We have been in the orange zone for the climate system since 1990, when we passed 350ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.

The main takeaway for me when I saw the planetary boundary model was that the climate is not the main pain point. The top three problems are biodiversity loss (that we destroy life on the planet), eutrophication (too much nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers in surface waters, which kills rivers, lakes and seas) and erosion (cutting forests to grow annual crops). Climate is “only” on the fourth place, of the known systems.

All top three are mainly driven by chemical-industrial agriculture. We cut down forests to grow annual grains (corn, wheat) and soy beans, mainly as feedstock for meat production animals (beef, pigs, chicken). These practices are now at enormous scale and cause extreme destruction wherever we look in the world.
That is why I switched from working on wind turbines to growing ecologically sound food (nut trees).

400 years old sweet chestnut tree in Bretagne, France. Food that strengthens the ecology.

Science is developing continuously and new and better models are published for more and more of the planetary systems. The last addition was the quantification of toxic chemicals spread over the planet, in January 2022. Unfortunately, the conclusion was that we have transgressed that boundary as well.

Until here, the lecture on which systems we destroy and how bad the situation is. Now is a time for reflection.

Now comes the questions:
Why do we do this?
Why do we destroy the future of our planet?
Why do we continue the overshoot and degrade the biocapacity?
Why do we destroy life and reduce the real wealth on the planet, just to get cheap beef that makes us sick?
Why do newspapers publish the stock indices every day, but not the really important levels of the planetary boundaries?

Already since the 1970s, we have known that the human project was approaching limits. (As was explained in “Limits to Growth” in 1972 by Meadows et al.) Why do we ignore these scientists and prefer to listen to economists who insist that the market will solve everything? I studied at one of the most prestigious university of science in Sweden in the 1990s and nobody talked about this in any of the courses I took. How come?