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Pushing Earth's ‘Planetary Boundaries’

A new report published in Science gauges the breaking points in the natural world. Researchers contend that we have already crossed four of the nine “planetary boundaries”: the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.

In 2009, the researchers published a paper focusing on nine separate planetary boundaries. These boundaries set theoretical limits on changes to the environment. They included ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms. Beyond each planetary boundary is a “zone of uncertainty.” This zone acknowledges the inherent uncertainties in the calculations, so decision-makers can take action before it’s too late to make a difference. Beyond that zone of uncertainty is the unknown resulting in planetary conditions that are unfamiliar to us - much like the extreme weather we are now experiencing.

Will Steffen, lead author of the new paper states, four of the nine “planetary boundaries” may have already reached the zone of uncertainty. “What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption – are destabilizing the global environment.” These are not problems off in the distant future. They exist now. Steffen says the economic boom since the 1950s and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. While no one knows when the tipping point will be reached, but Steffen maintains the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

In light of the uncertainties that may befall our planet, the scientists cite the precautionary principle: We know that human civilization has risen and flourished in the past 10,000 years — an epoch known as the Holocene — under relatively stable environmental conditions. But no one knows what will happen to civilization if planetary conditions continue to change. But the authors of the Science paper write that the planet “is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies.”