By Joern Fischer
At the Resilience 2014 conference, Dennis Meadows kicked off today’s plenary session by highlighting that the conference we’re at is called “Resilience AND Development” – but alternatively, it could be called “Resilience OR Development”, if we believe that humanity has already surpassed planetary boundaries. This very pertinent question was then reflected on (and later debated) by Melissa Leach and Johan Rockström, two of the big thinkers on these issues of our times.
Johan first gave a short presentation, in which he highlighted that the Holocene had actually been a climatically very stable period – enabling humanity, among other things, to develop agriculture. Leaving the Holocene behind, however, we have now entered the Anthropocene, which is characterized by rapid and exponential growth in a wide range of biophysical variables; driven by exponential growth in social and economic variables.
What makes the changes taking place in the Anthropocene particularly interesting (and difficult to deal with) is that many of them are non-linear, with sudden, unexpected changes taking place in a wide range of systems around the world (see http://www.regimeshifts.org). Such sudden changes, in turn, raise the question whether the planet as a whole may be at risk of planetary boundaries being surpassed. Importantly, Johan highlighted, that only in the next few decades are we likely to see many of the developments that may be particularly problematic for planet Earth, such as a rapidly rising global middle class with the same kind of purchasing power as the average European. With those aspects explained, Johan continued to give a preview of “planetary boundaries v2.0”, which is currently work in progress.
Towards the end, Johan reflected what the implications of planetary boundaries might mean for global governance. Indeed, Johan confirmed that improved global governance was necessary to improve living within our planetary boundaries. However, perhaps more importantly, Johan emphasized that we’d need a mixture of polycentric governance and global governance. The real challenge thus is in connecting scales, rather than just thinking of the Anthropocene as providing challenges for top-down governance.
The biggest challenge, perhaps, was to recognize the ceiling provided by the planetary boundaries, while also meeting minimum social standards for all of humanity – something termed a safe and just operating space for humanity. So … can we have ongoing economic progress and also live within planetary boundaries?
Melissa Leach from the STEPS Centre picked up the argument very nicely, just where Johan had left it – emphasizing the need to recognize the vital need for minimum social standards, including justice, education, health, and so on. Her particular emphasis thus went to these kinds of social indicators, arguing we needed to identify development pathways that met the dual requirements of planetary boundaries as well as social boundaries. Navigating this, in turn, requires to stay away from unjust pathways, as well as unsafe pathways.
Melissa went on to argue that so far, the political and power relationships associated with alternative pathways had not received adequate attention. The notion of planetary boundaries as such, she argued, was in fact a “discourse” – “a particular ‘regime of truth’ co-constructed through power, knowledge and institutions”. The discourse associated with planetary boundaries thus is more than just scientific truth; it is a political storyline that conveys a sense of urgency that human action is required.
Importantly though, discourses tend to highlight some things, while silencing others. And this is where Melissa highlighted the planetary boundaries discourse was perhaps too narrow, and needed to be broadened. One of the questions that the planetary boundaries discourse can’t say much on is the question of “sustainability of what and for whom?”. For the global food system, for example, there are many different development pathways that would stay within planetary boundaries – but not all of these would benefit all people equally. Multiple actors involved in any complex systems thus receive different meanings, benefits and risks from ecosystems, and Melissa implied that such considerations would need to be more prominently included in current discourses.
Melissa ended on a rather critical (and I would argue very important!) note, suggesting that the notion of planetary boundaries could easily justify planetary power grabs justifying potentially unjust institutions such as supra-national governments or notions of “planetary management”. In a nutshell, Melissa was concerned that much of “planetary boundary” type thinking was associated with top-down thinking, and often implicitly supported top-down decision making. In this context, she mentioned the land sparing/land sharing discourse as one example, as well as techno-scientific fixes, green economy thinking and payments for ecosystem services.
Are alternatives available? Melissa argued that yes, things didn’t have to be top-down to stay within planetary boundaries. Instead, she believed there was room for collective mobilization, and for bottom-up movements – including examples such as transition towns or movements such as La Via Campesina. In short: more balance is required between emphasis of global constraints and issues of power and justice that play out at more local scales.
Personally, I found Melissa’s critique one of the most insightful, critical views of modern, global-scale “sustainability” thinking that I have heard in a long time.