Humans have taken over the “planetary driving seat,” according to The Human Quest: Prospering within Planetary Boundaries. Through the “language of art and science,” writer Johan Rockström and photographer Mattias Klum work to steer the world’s “drivers” down a different road. Without a serious change, they argue, we are doomed to a future in which the “world drives at an ever faster pace toward the escarpment, along our unsustainable and undesirable development highway.”
Both Rockström and Klum were contacted during the reporting of this story, but are attending the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress and were unavailable for an interview.
The book, currently only available in the United States as an e-book, describes nine thresholds that form a boundary for human growth. Should we surpass all of these thresholds, Rockström and Klum tell us, society is in for disastrous events. According to The Human Quest, the world requires a large-scale paradigm shift of industrial revolution proportions, especially considering that Rockström and Klum’s analysis indicates that one of the “Big Three Boundaries” — climate change — has already been surpassed.
Rockström and Klum have defined a planetary boundary for the human combustion of fossil fuels. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere needs to stay within that boundary to maintain safe human societies and avoid catastrophic events. They set this level between 350 parts per million (ppm) and 550 ppm. Currently, we are on a path that will bring us to 560 ppm, Rockström and Klum argue.
Many, like 350 Science, a project that gets its name from the 350 ppm boundary, agree that this is a scientifically supported number, and that the world has reached a level of 392 ppm. According to their website, this number is increasing by 2 ppm per year. Others, however, disagree with the weight that 350 Science and the authors of The Human Quest place on this statistic.
“In general I think the idea of a tipping point is a pop cultural concept,” says Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The term can be applied in certain areas and can be used correctly, but because of Malcolm Gladwell, it’s applied mistakenly.”
Ebell continues, “If you go back, you will find long periods where the Earth was much warmer, and carbon dioxide levels were in the thousands parts per million, not hundreds like we are now.”
According to Rockström and Klum, the scientific evidence indicates that the climate change boundary is the first, and thus far, only boundary that the Earth has transgressed. They attribute this conclusion to factors such as the retreat of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the shrinking of mountain glaciers and accelerated melting of ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.
Other trends that they point to include an increased rate of sea level rising, bleaching and mortality rates in coral reefs, increasing numbers of massive floods, and emissions of methane from thawing permafrost on the Siberian peninsula.
The fact that such environmental factors have spilled over into the socioeconomic sphere is cold evidence pointing to a clear boundary transgression, Klum and Rockström argue. Events like the outbreak of mountain pine beetles, the effects of which are certainly seen in Colorado, are not only evidence of climate change, but also show how such change can affect human industries, like forestry, as well as human livelihood, according to the pair.
Here, the catastrophic effects that Rockström and Klum warn of come into play. Crossing into this “danger zone” could lead to extreme weather and conditions that modern societies are not prepared to deal with, they say. The extreme weather patterns that have been manifesting themselves in recent years could become the “new normal.”
Though the information offered by the pair is plentiful and the outlook appears to be bleak, Rockström and Klum aim to inspire, not scare.
“Our deep, scientifically founded concerns for the future are coupled by an equal share of hope, based on the vast treasure of opportunities and the good chances of succeeding in a global transition to a world within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries,” Rockström writes in the conclusion of The Human Quest.
The successful turnaround of another of the “Big Three Boundaries,” stratospheric ozone depletion, is a beacon for Rockström and Klum as to the possibility of success.
“Fortunately, international efforts to protect the ozone layer are somewhat of a success story, and we now appear to be on a path that is projected to prevent transgression of this planetary boundary,” Rockström writes.
Though Klum and Rockström say worldwide efforts could have a halting effect on climate change, others, like Ebell, say otherwise.
“I think most lifestyle changes that people undertake may have very beneficial effects for them personally in terms of their self-esteem. But what allows mankind to address and deal with global issues is technological progress, and that depends on the creativity of the society,” Ebell says.
As Klum describes Mafia Island, a place he calls a “sliver of paradise,” he summarizes the message of their joint venture: “We are now a species with the power to alter Earth. This is the mind shift. To wake up each morning without any reason to put in doubt our common course of action.”