Global Collapse, Human Survival & the Planet’s Boundaries

A new study by nearly 30 of the world’s best scientists concludes that we have crossed three of the world’s nine thresholds. It is not only about climate change.

Global Environmental Collapse

Scientists from the US, Europe, and Australia identified nine planetary thresholds that, if crossed, could mean the world will crash. This is more than your computer crashing, though. This is about total environmental collapse.


The lead author, Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, says: “Human pressure on the Earth system has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired’ thresholds in Earth’s environment, and respect the nature of planet’s climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes.”

If we do not respect the Earth’s limits, the authors say that we will bring about environmental changes comparable or greater than the greatest natural forces in the world.

The Anthropocene Age

Scientists have already named this the “Anthropocene” age, the time since the industrial revolution when humans have become the main actors influencing global environmental change.

The environment is not a thing out in the wild that we can visit. The environment is something we live in and use. We drink water, we eat the Earth’s food, we breathe its air, to live. We are a part of the environment. We are changing it to such a degree now, however, it is likely to look completely different in the future, perhaps not even livable for us if we do not change in new ways.

The Planet’s Limits

The scientists identified nine planetary boundaries — concerning climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

The three boundaries believed to have been crossed already are climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere.

Co-author, Diana Liverman, professor of environmental science and senior fellow of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and professor of geography and development at the University of Arizona, says: “Three of the boundaries we identify – 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, biodiversity extinction rates more than 10 times the background rate, and no more than 35 million tons of nitrogen pollution per year – have already been exceeded with fossil fuel use, land use change, and agricultural pollution, driving us to unsustainable levels that are producing real risks to our survival.”

Species Loss

In the case of biological diversity (or species loss), the scientists found that the global limit is 10 extinctions per million species per year and the rate today is more than 100 extinctions per million species per year. Before the industrial revolution, the value was between 0.1 and 1 extinction per million species per year. This is a great change, and not something that we can undo.

The situation in the other areas can be comparable if we do not act in a more sustainable way today and in the future.


The world lives on hope. The authors say that we are not doomed yet. Rockström states: “Transgressing planetary boundaries may be devastating for humanity, but if we respect them we have a bright future for centuries ahead.”

Co-author Sander van der Leeuw, director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, says: “On a finite planet, at some point, we will tip the vital resources we rely upon into irreversible decline if our consumption is not balanced with regenerative and sustainable activity.” We must find a sustainable balance in everything. We must change our systems to produce what we take. Otherwise, the planet has its limits.

Will we listen to the call of these leading world scientists? Can we use hope and human intelligence to “pave” a brighter future for us all? This is the question we all must ask ourselves, as we all must be actors in this change.

This study is published in the journal Nature and is titled “A safe operating space for humanity.”

via EurekAlert!

More on Extinct and Endangered Animals:
1) 11 Extinct Animals That Have Been Photographed Alive
2) Human Interaction with Nature: Endangered Animal Species
3) 10 Animals on the Brink of Extinction

Image Credit 1: Stephan Schobloch via flickr under a Creative Commons license

Image Credit 2: TaylorMiles via flickr under a Creative Commons license

Image Credit 3: ucumari via flickr under a Creative Commons license