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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2012

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Books of Note

Johann Rockstrom and Mattias Klum, The Human Quest: Prospering within Planetary Boundaries

Langenskiolds, Stockholm, 2012

ISBN 978-91-87007-14-9

This is a superbly illustrated and beautifully written “coffee table” book that should not be allowed to languish unread. The authors are the core team of the Stockholm-based Resilience Alliance, which championed the science and the publicity surrounding planetary boundaries in the run up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and the more recent Rio de Janeiro Rio+20 Conference.

Their message is stark, hopeful, and controversial. The authors seek to show that we have moved from 10,000 years of benign and stable planetary conditions called the Holocene to 250 years of increasingly unstable and unpredictable planetary conditions now referred to as the Anthropocene. The planet was apparently pleasantly welcoming to the emergence of Homo Sapiens. With the aid of superbly aesthetic but also harrowingly frightening photographs from all over the world, plus dozens of cleverly illustrated maps and graphics, they chart the course of the rapidly changing Earth.

They concentrate on three planetary-scale convulsions, climate change, ocean acidification, and ozone depletion, as the basis for global-scale tipping points that could alter the habitability of the human home within a few generations. They provide plausible evidence for the onset and the warning signs of these three destabilizing processes, though the science is neither conclusive nor of sufficient time line to be more than cautionary. Nevertheless the growing evidence, which is amply illustrated in the book, is compelling and calls for prudence and early action.

Three regional-scale boundaries apply to biodiversity loss, water and land use stresses, and the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Here the evidence is patchy, and subject to much more regional variation and scope for human adaptation. This group of “boundaries” is the more contested by economists and business as well as politicians, as the stakes are very high to turn these around and the action points are much more diverse over geographical and poverty space. For example, telling the poor farmers of Africa that they have reached their fertilizer limits locally for what is an uncertain global cycle “hit” would not go down very well.

The third group of boundaries are the unknown long-term effects of atmospheric aerosols of dust and polluting chemicals that are ubiquitous, even afflicting the polar regions. Finally there are the unknown persistent organic based products of the synthetic chemical age, which just might affect the future reproduction of humans and animals alike.

Rockstrom and Klum wave no magic wand. They genuinely believe that human beings have the technological capabilities and ingenuity to turn around from these boundaries. But their prescriptions have been pleaded for over the 20 years since the first Rio Conference on Environment and Development, during which time all of the trends have gained in treacherous spiral of decadence. They ask for world leadership (not evident in Rio+20), better institutions of global environmental and developmental governance (also lamentably sidestepped in Rio+20), improved family planning (still argued over politically and religiously), more investment in agricultural technology and plant genetics (by no means agreed upon in the corridors of sustainability science), a new contract between science and community action at all scales (the ethos of this magazine), and the replacement of the terms “global commons” and “externalities” with stewardship and beauty and ensuring habitability for the very long term for all life on Earth.

This is a powerful book. It is one of the most comprehensive of the crop of texts and scientific papers that have emerged in the run up to Rio+20. There is no doubt that the scientific community is pulling out all the stops to warn us of not only the dangers ahead for our grandchildren to face, but also the very real opportunities to turn our ways of thinking and acting around if we seriously create a social contract with science. Tragically, the signs are that all of this is just too big for distracted political elites to swallow, mired as they are in economic gloom and austerity. The ultimate tragedy is that there is an eco-socio-economy (originally the very meaning of oikos) out there that is both sustainable and sustaining. It is called Planet Earth, to which humans owe their existence, their talents, and their extraordinariness.

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