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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2012

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Editorial - Extending Planetary Boundaries

We at Environment have been anticipating the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (popularly referred to as Rio+20) for years. Unfortunately, the overwhelming reaction to this troubled meeting was that it was long on rhetoric and woefully weak on effective implementation. This is more than a shame; it demeans the hard work of many who sought to make this conference move forward. It holds back any shift to sustainability just when the collapsing world of conventional economics takes frightening form.

Yet Rio+20 was not a complete failure. It brought widespread attention to the concept of planetary boundaries. (see June 16, 2012, issue of The Economist, pages 83–84, for a fine summary). It began the process of establishing global sustainable development goals applicable to every nation. It also introduced the notion of human well-being in a resilient nature as a basis for defining such goals. Finally, it focused attention on the merits of an economy that improves nature and people in equal measure.

Who knows: If the current economic malaise spawns recession and social strife from the right and left of political ideology, it may well force communities to seek their own local and empowering livelihoods on a fresh-start basis. It is not fanciful to suggest that by the end of this decade the purpose and spatial structure of the exploratory application of overall wellbeing will have transformed the current economic and political landscapes. The sakes of both political credibility and democratic viability are at stake here.

Paradoxically, it is also possible that more serious attention may be given to the kinds of “soft geo-engineering” projects introduced by Robert Olson in this issue. What Olson is assessing are ways for extending planetary boundaries to give expanding and reforming human endeavor more room to breathe. On the face of it, there should be no place for soft geo-engineering in sustainability science. Such schemes appear fanciful and remain untried. Moreover, they may well result in an overall greater “footprint” than the greenhouse gases they suffocate or sequester. But there is a scientific head of steam building around them as they do offer the mirage of maneuverability. And for any transforming world, having even a little more ecological space is critically important.

Soft geo-engineering just may have its place, if early trials are promising in terms of cost-effectiveness and benign repercussions. Normally, a sustainability scientist would give them a very wide berth. But should they prove their ecological spurs, and should they also encourage genuine commitment to societal well-being, then at least honest trials could begin.

The danger here lies in the failure of Rio+20 to offer confidence in seeking a societal well-being, and in ensuring that the remaining planetary operating space is reserved for those most in need, while those less in need are supposed to reconfigure their economies and lifestyles. It is this undermining of confidence that weakens the case for the well-monitored introduction of soft geo-engineering innovations, not the technology itself. If soft geo-engineering is to advance, it must do so on a front of social and economic transformation to greater equity and genuine sustainability. Otherwise, it will only reinforce a disturbing sequence of repercussive tipping points.

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