Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries

  • 04/18/2013
  • Terelle Jerricks

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

Johan Rockström, briefly referred to in Random Lengths’ 2010 Earth Day feature on the environment and the economy, was the lead author of Nature magazine’s 2009-featured study: “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.”

Although the range of impacts studied was quite sweeping, the key concept was remarkably simple: global warming is but one of nine or 10 different ways in which human civilization is threatening to cross boundaries of over-consumption and overuse. These, will undermine the natural foundations on which our civilization is built.

Thus, we need to attend to a much broader range of environmental concerns in order to ensure the long-term well being of humanity, as well as the planet we share with so many other forms of life.

The environmental concerns include three fully global problems: climate change, ozone depletion, and ocean acidification. Other problems that have the greatest impact on the ecosystem levels include: nitrogen and phosphorus flow, agricultural land use, biodiversity loss and freshwater consumption. Then, there are two more that can’t be fully quantified yet, which includes: chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol load.

Directly or indirectly, all these problems entail the erosion of nature’s ability to provide what have recently come to be known as “ecosystem services,” which was the subject of Random Lengths‘ 2005 Earth Day feature on the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report. Although climate change has gotten far more political attention over the past two decades, the planetary boundaries research showed that it’s only one piece of the larger challenge facing humanity—the challenge of living within our means on a planetary basis.

Now, more than four years after the Nature study was published, Rockström, who heads the Stockholm Resilience Center, has co-authored a book with a prominent Swedish politician and non-profit leader, Anders Wijkman, to bring his message to a broader audience.  Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries is written less for a popular audience than the non-scientist policy-wonk set, with copious references to other significant studies and reports (such as the Millennium Assessment) issued in the past two decades. But the subject is far too important to wait for the graphic novel version to come out.

Some local environmentalists Random Lengths spoke to were decidedly pessimistic in their response.

“We have heard this repeatedly for decades,” said Jess Morton, founding president of the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society. “It’s quite simple, really, humanity has the option of solving the climate/population/resource-use conundrum voluntarily or having it solved for us, quite possibly in a manner that excludes Homo sapiens from the result.”

“They are right to connect various issues in a systems approach, but are certainly late out of the gate with these observations and do not make the links as strongly as they should,” added Tom Politeo, co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s Harbor Vision Task Force. “It is utter folly to think we can work economic, social and environmental problems in isolation from one another.”

But if there isn’t a graphic novel version out yet, there is a TED talk (, and in it Rockström is decidedly optimistic about what we can do—though what we will do remains another matter.

We’re now in a position to understand the limits we’re up against, he argues, and thus also in a position to create integrated strategies for a future that doesn’t undermine the natural foundations of human society.

“There is ample science to indicate that we can do this transformative change, that we have the ability to now move into an innovative, transformative gear far across scales.”  The hard part is that “Two hundred countries, across the planet, have to simultaneously start moving in the same direction,” said Rockström.

Rockström’s co-author, Anders Wijkman, is an on-again/off-again politician who spent a decade heading Sweden’s Red Cross. A self-described conservative—who even in the United States make up a sizable minority of environmentalists—he has nonetheless battled with the leadership of not one, but two, Swedish conservative parties in which he’s served as an officeholder; first, in Sweden’s Parliament and then as a representative in the European Parliament.

Wijkman’s solo contribution is the chapter, “Politics in Crisis,” which concludes with this frank advice to political parties generally, “make a broad analysis of the world we live in and develop new policy platforms. Otherwise, new political parties will sooner or later emerge and step by step force today’s intransigent parties into the cold.”

The needed transformation, Rockström explains in his TED talk, “changes, fundamentally our government and management paradigm, from our current linear, command-and-control thinking, looking at efficiencies and optimization, towards a much more flexible, a much more adaptive approach, where we recognize that redundancy, both in social and in environmental systems is key to be able to deal with the turbulent era of global change.”

Especially in the United States, both conservative Republicans and neo-liberal Democrats look at redundancy and see “inefficiency” and “waste.” But that’s precisely why brittle systems fail—just as our financial system did in 2008. Indeed, our basic economic ideas, forged in the pre-industrial 18th Century, are in need of a major overhaul, Bankrupting Nature argues.

“We have to invest in persistence, in the ability of social systems and ecological systems,” Rockström continued in his talk. “We have to invest in that transformation capability moving from crisis into innovation and the ability to rise after crisis. And, of course, to adapt in the case of unavoidable change.”

As a scientist, Rockström looks out at the world, and sees a 10,000-year period of remarkable stability. The Holocene period, in which humans, after nearly 200,000 years on the planet, suddenly developed civilization in various different corners of the globe, is an example. That very stability, the precondition of human civilization, is what we’re imperilling by crossing the planetary boundaries.

However, Rockström also looks inward, at how science organizes itself.

“[T]he way we have structured research and organized universities is not consistent with how reality works,” Rockström writes in his solo chapter, “Science’s Role and Responsibility.”

Climate science, research into ecosystem services and human development studies cannot be understood in isolation, he argues.

“My belief is that interdisciplinary science emerges quite naturally from a focus on problem solving,” Rockström argues. “The problems we face are so complex that they require collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.”

While the challenges we face are enormous, Bankrupting Nature argues that plenty of solutions are either already available or else clearly implementable.

For example, the chapter on energy cites the 2009 study Wind, Water, and Solar Power for the World, which “made the assessment that renewable energy, with emphasis on wind, solar and hydro-power could completely replace fossil power within 20 years.

This would entail building nearly 4 million wind turbines with 5 megawatts average output each—clearly a major undertaking, the authors acknowledge, “but we must not forget that more than 70 million cars are produced annually in the world. So technically it would not be difficult to build 4 million wind turbines in 20 years.”

Similarly, in the field of agriculture, the authors note that the keys to dramatic improvements in the past—intensive use of chemical fertilizers and widespread conversion of natural systems to agricultural production—cannot be relied on in the future, as they now threaten to undermine our entire civilization. In addition, according to one projection, climate change could reduce Africa’s harvests by 20 percent as soon as 2020.

There are relatively untapped potentials in new approaches, such as much more efficient use of “green water,” which “consists of the rain that infiltrates soils and forms soil moisture and then flows back to the atmosphere … water that sustains all rain-fed agriculture in the world, practiced on approximately 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land.”

Rockström himself participated in earlier research showing that, “For many farming systems in the world, less than 50 percent of total available green water is used productively.”

Multiple different strategies need to be integrated together, the authors argue, but the potential exists to substantially increase food production, substantially reducing hunger even as world population continues to rise through 2050, though more slowly than it has in the past.

These are only a few examples of the many ideas, drawn from many different sources, woven throughout Bankrupting Nature. It’s not beach reading. It’s reading about how to save the beach—and all the land and sea beyond. For those who see this as part of their life’s work, it is a valuable book to return to again and again.  The pieces are all there. It’s putting them all together that’s the real challenge we face.

In his comments, Tom Politeo said, “Thomas Jefferson argued that our right to use natural resources was a usufructuary one—we can eat the fruit, but the orchard belongs to the future generations. This constraint needs to be recognized and specifically called out and dealt with.” In the end, that’s exactly what Bankrupting Nature provides guidance for doing.

Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries
Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström
Routledge; 206 pages; $44.95

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