It is now clear that our lives are increasingly at risk as we continue to compromise the “planetary boundaries” – the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate.
This cannot go on. We are already experiencing global devastation because we have overstepped four of these boundaries, and more will follow if we do not change our ways. On Earth Day this year – 22 April – we must remind ourselves that humanity’s future depends on us finding ways to live within these limits.
The nine planetary boundaries, listed in 2009 by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University, are: climate change, biodiversity loss and extinctions, the Earth’s nitrogen cycle and phosphorus reserves, ocean acidification, land-system change (such as deforestation), freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, the release into the air of microscopic particles that affect living organisms and the climate, and the introduction of “novel entities” (things we have not yet thought of).
Already, we have crossed four of them: climate change, biodiversity loss, land-system change and biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).
We urgently need to change our behaviour, at a systemic level, as well as at an individual level. As the recent Cambridge Sustainability Commission report Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis emphasises, the key challenge is to ensure that the changes we make at systematic and individual levels reinforce one another. We need to rethink how our political economy functions, as much as we need to reimagine our individual behaviour, from what we eat to how long the working week is.
Importantly, the Cambridge report highlights a key challenge – we must ensure that the political and economic behavioural changes that we make, along with the behavioural change we ask of individuals, protect the needs of the poorest members of society.
Ahead of Earth Day this year, the United Nations (UN) has called for greater ecosystem protection, making the vital point that restoring Earth’s damaged ecosystems will help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent mass extinction.
With the Covid-19 pandemic having entered its second year, the UN has reiterated that zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 are linked to humanity’s increasing encroachment on natural ecosystems.
The virus has already disrupted our lifestyles and livelihoods, emphasising our collective vulnerability. It has also precipitated some self-reflection, which can only be welcomed. However, it is often apparent that we are not taking our extremely vulnerable situation seriously enough. We need to start now.