Earth is crossing multiple points of no return

The world is certainly at a point where action, rather than more studies telling us what we should already know, is necessary. But if you do need another warning of looming environmental collapse, a new research paper concludes that four of nine “planetary boundaries” have already been crossed.

Crossing any one of these nine boundaries risks driving the Earth “into a much less hospitable state,” according to the paper’s lead author, Will Steffen of the Australian National University in Canberra. Crossing four of these boundaries — specifically, climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biochemical cycles — is all the more alarming.

Eighteen scientists, representing universities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Kenya, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and the United States, prepared the report, “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” under the auspices of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden. The goal of the paper, and the center itself, is to signal that a tipping point is approaching so that humanity has some time to change course. These warning points are determined in this way:

“[T]he proposed planetary boundary is not placed at the position of the biophysical threshold but rather up-stream of it, i.e., well before reaching the threshold. This buffer between the boundary (the end of the safe operating space—the green zone in [the graphic below]) and the threshold accounts not only for uncertainty in the precise position of the threshold … but also allows society time to react to early warning signs that it may be approaching a threshold and consequent abrupt or risky change.”

The nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

The nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Of the four boundaries that have already been crossed, two of them (climate change and biosphere integrity) have the potential on their own “to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.” The paper sets the “zone of uncertainty” for atmospheric carbon dioxide content at 350 to 450 parts per million (we are currently at the midpoint of that zone) and calculates that the “energy imbalance” — the “forcing” of atmospheric change through continued introduction of global-warming chemicals — is approximately double the safe limit. In other words, carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere much faster than it is removed.

To calculate “biosphere integrity,” the paper’s authors use the rate of species extinction and the populations of species, using pre-industrial rates as benchmarks. Although these are calculated imprecisely and with inadequate knowledge of what rate of extinctions can be tolerated, the current rate of extinctions is estimated to be at least 10 times higher than the proposed range of acceptability, although that proposed range in turn is far greater the authors’ “aspirational goal” of holding extinctions to the rate of “well-studied organisms over the past several million years.”

Thus this scientific paper is actually conservative in its benchmarks and nonetheless finds the Earth is in a whole lot of trouble.

Telling business titans to stop doing what benefits them

Many of you reading this may be thinking, “We already know we’re in trouble! We don’t need another paper telling us what we already know, and those in denial won’t be swayed by science and fact.” Quite so, but can there be a tipping point in research that finally sparks some real action? Perhaps the Stockholm Resilience Center believes there can be, releasing the paper just in time to present it to the World Economic Forum.

At least for public consumption, World Economic Forum attendees say they are taking the paper’s sober analysis seriously. Those attendees, the world’s titans of industry and finance, and the political office holders who are beholden to them, in their actual practice have shown little inclination to change course, to put it mildly.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Johan Rockström, posted an article on the Forum’s web site saying that, even if carbon dioxide concentration is held to the range of 350 to 450 parts per million, that is still an unacceptable risk. Drawing a vivid analogy, he wrote:

“But it is important to recognise that 450 ppm also holds a less likely, but significant 1.6% probability … of resulting in 6ºC warming, which is beyond any doubt a catastrophic outcome for humanity. … Is this an acceptable risk level? The answer is clearly no. It is the equivalent of accepting that 1,500 aircrafts crash, each day. … This is a risk level we simply would never accept for other sectors in society.”

The probability of runaway global warming at 450 parts per million would be set at much higher than 1.6 percent by many environmental scientists and activists, but Professor Rockström’s analogy is scary enough. Nonetheless, “business as usual” appears to be the outcome. A commentary in the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times lamented that “leaders are failing to lead but are giving in to populist pressures,” in the wake of continuing economic weakness. A rather ideological formulation, considering that the world’s governments continue to impose brutal austerity on their populations on behalf of their society’s wealthiest while ignoring popular discontent.

The same Straits Times commentary claimed that “Business leaders at the forum voiced a willingness to take steps to address this issue,” and quoted the head of a financial-services company as saying, “What I am taking from this meeting is a huge sense of urgency, especially from the business community.”

Moreover, the climate program director at World Resources Institute, Jennifer Morgan, wrote:

“First of all, there was no climate denial to be heard in Davos. … Second, there are a tremendous number of companies—whether bankers, soft drink manufacturers, sporting companies, or furniture makers—that are already taking action to make their businesses more climate-resilient and competitive in a low-carbon economy. These businesses and others are becoming leaders in climate action.”

Huh? Business leaders have profited enormously by moving production to all corners of the world, wherever the cheapest labor, harshest working conditions and fewest regulations are to be found, necessitating the shipping of components, raw materials and finished products around the world, adding significantly to global warming through all the transportation necessary to make that work. Making these long supply chains “more efficient,” as Ms. Morgan exalts, hardly is the road to climate stability.

That something so oblivious could be said becomes less of a mystery when we see that the World Resources Institute is a non-governmental organization with a board full of corporate executives. We have no more cause for optimism from the Planetary Boundaries paper itself, which offers no guidance on what to do. Critiquing the global economic system is outside the scope of such a paper, and reasonably so, but it is fair game to note the weak-tea ideas it does offer: A “stronger focus on green chemistry” and “learning from earlier mistakes.”

Infinite expansion on a finite planet

So here we are again: The chimera of “green capitalism.” The same world economic system that requires endless expansion on a finite planet, in which all incentives are for ever more frenzied extraction of natural resources and corporate externalization of the costs of pollution and global warming, which remorselessly and ceaselessly elevates private profit above all other human considerations, is magically going to save us.

The maximization of profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Moreover, putting an immediate halt to polluting industries would cause economic disruption and throw huge numbers of people out of work in a system that will not have new jobs waiting for them, a factor that is leveraged to buttress global-warming denialism.

Even reducing consumption is difficult because between 60 and 70 percent of the economies of the world’s advanced capitalist countries are accounted for by household buying; a capitalist economy that is not growing causes pain as capitalists scramble to maintain their profits by any means necessary.

“Green” consumption is still consumption, and not environmentally healthy, either. All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, puts this in sobering perspective:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need, that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. The scientists who prepared the Planetary Boundaries paper no doubt have the highest sincerity, but they have much company in being unable to imagine a world without capitalism. Until we do live in such a world, we will continue to hurtle toward catastrophe regardless of good intentions and well-designed research reports.


23 comments on “Earth is crossing multiple points of no return

  1. Nancy Kogel says:

    As usual, well researched, clearly written and reaching a forceful and accurate conclusion. We need an economic, social and political revolution to stop and reverse the effects of human made earth devastation. i urge people to go to to see how a plant based vegan diet is also mandatory if we are to have any hope of survival. In addition, see the movie COWspiracy, (shown April 10 @ Bluestockings). Thank you Systemic Disorder for raising awareness on this topic of utmost importance!

    • You are welcome, Nancy. Those of us concerned about the Earth’s future can debate the precise contributions of different factors toward global warming, but that there are multiple factors and that we need to address the problem in multiple ways can not be in doubt. The widespread cutting down of forests, temperate and tropical, to create ranches for meat production, to cite only one example, is a significant contributor.

      • Nancy Kogel says:

        I appreciate your response. I note however that the cutting down of rain forests is not only to build ranches (“for meat production” as you stated); and not only to create clear space for pastures upon which to graze cattle and other non human animals; but also to grow crops to feed millions of these animals an unnatural diet of grains, soy, corn (to fatten them up for slaughter), the carcasses of which are then fed to only a relatively small number of humans in the “developed countries” thus causing mass starvation.

        Not only is this cutting down of forests (which transform carbon dioxide to oxygen – the reverse lungs of our planet) causing an increase in greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) but the methane and nitrous oxide gases from the animals themselves (the breeding and raising of them for food) is cited by many scientists as an even greater contributor to catastrophic climate change than carbon dioxide. Further, more than half of all the water used by industry in general is used by the meat, dairy and egg industries, further contributing to drought and the deterioration of our planet’s ability to sustain us.

        Now that the eye-opening and graphic (with graphs etc) movie COWspiracy – the Sustainability Secret has come out, there can be little dispute about what is the MAIN contributor to the devastation of our planet, from catastrophic climate change to deforestation, soil erosion, pollution and misuse of resources including of land, water and petroleum.

        Besides the movie, i refer you to:

        1) Yale physicist Noam Mohr’s article: A New Global Warming Strategy: How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes.
        2) A study by geophysicist Gidon Eshel and ass’t professor of geophysics at University of Chicago Pamela A. Martin “Diet, Energy, and Global Warming”
        3) UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”
        4) Mark Bittman’s NY Times article “The Meat Guzzler,” etc etc.
        5) The book “Beyond Beef – the Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture” by Jeremy Rifkin (in particular part 5 ch 27-32).
        etc etc

        The facts and truths from these articles and studies (etc) do not negate your basic premise with which i agree — that it is the system of Big Business, Capitalism, Profit-Above-All-Else which sustains the industries which are most responsible for the destruction of our planet. For the sake of truth, we must disclose the largest industry on the planet — the meat dairy and egg industries – and their primary role in making the planetary more and more unsustainable. The system of capitalism wants to keep us in the dark about this industry which dominates all others in scope and degree in its trajectory of destroying life on this planet.

        “We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet for the sake of hamburgers” Peter Singer “Animal Liberation” (1975).

        • I think it is premature to conclude that “there can be little dispute” about the main cause of planetary devastation, although I agree that animal agriculture is a major factor and that it is widely under-played and under-reported, even by environmental and global-warming activists. I would note, in reading the “facts” page on the COWspiracy web site that various researches say animal agriculture contributes 13, 18 or at least 51 percent of global warming.

          I previously discussed the findings of the two authors who believe that animal agriculture accounts for “at least 51 percent” of global warming; readers can find it at this link. The two authors, environmental scientists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, build their case well and do so in terms of carbon dioxide, which overall remains the largest greenhouse gas because there is hundreds of times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than methane.

          One issue I had, however, was that the two scientists did not offer an explanation for what greenhouse-gas sources were over-reported. I point this out because, if their calculations are correct, then animal agriculture has been under-counted as a contributor. Since the amount of gases in the atmosphere is known with precision, the difference has to be made up somewhere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, sets the figure at 13 percent and although by no means the final word, it is comprehensive in assigning specific contributions to numerous categories and sub-categories of sources within the United States. The ratio of contributions obviously is different from country to country, but the EPA statistics do give us a reasonable starting point.

          If the actual contribution of animal contribution is, to pick a figure randomly, about halfway between, at around 30 percent or so, that still constitutes a major source that must be addressed. And your second explanation, about growing crops for unnatural animal consumption, is duly noted; my example of forest destruction for cattle grazing was not exhaustive. Animal-rights, vegan and other activists who are bringing animal agriculture into the debate are doing everybody a service, and will bring us closer to a fuller understanding.

          • oncejolly says:

            “The two authors, environmental scientists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, build their case well and do so in terms of carbon dioxide, which overall remains the largest greenhouse gas because there is hundreds of times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than methane.”

            They really don’t though…they quietly fail to mention that the FAO estimated respiration from livestock, and proceed to mis-using Calverd’s back-of-the-envelope estimate from a one page editorial to come up with a estimate almost three times as large. Then they ignore IPCC guidelines on GHG inventories, double-counting inflated estimates of respiration, applying 20-year GWPs for methane only to such emissions from livestock, and conflating estimates of live animals at a point in time with estimates of annual numbers of animals slaughtered.

            • There is a difference between “make a good case” and “I agree.” I actually have skepticism about the research findings of Drs. Goodland and Anhang, but I found their interesting and worth studying. It is true that they calculate methane global-warming as more potent than standard calculations, but their overall conclusions are based on carbon dioxide production, not methane. That is why I found their work interesting — advocates for animal agriculture as the primary source of greenhouse gases ordinarily hang their perspective on methane being the primary actor, which isn’t true.

              This was the first time I came across something that made this advocacy but stressed carbon dioxide emissions, rather than methane. Again, that their paper does not speculate on what industrial activity has been over-counted to compensate for the theorized under-counting of animal agriculture is a weakness. But there is uncertainty in what the contribution is, and thus my position is that more discussion and debate on the topic is necessary. That of course does not mean we can’t make critiques, such as yours.

              Incidentally, they are critical of the FAO report. Among other issues, the FAO report calls for more intensified factory farming! Not what the vegan and animal-rights who advocate for the FAO report have in mind.

            • Sunny Monde says:

              Oh yes CH4 is at least 9 x times more powerful than CO2 as a GHG, furthermore CH4 has a longer lasting harmful impact on the atmosphere and is less degradable than CO2. There are numbers showing that there is only 13% CO2 contribution of all global transportation, compared to intensive farming of animals which is set to 18% of CO2. That I stress if we speak only about CO2, but there are other refractive elements issued from anthropo-activities like N,F,P-bearing complexes to list a few, that are 20 x times or 100 x more dangerous than CO2 and CH4 taken together and that can cause immediate lethal outcomes to life as a whole. So when people stress that a plant-based diet is less harmful or at least is a more regenerative choice for the environment, flesheaters and governments should switch without much debate and limit their nutrition plan to a more basic and more conscious intake of energy-filled aliments. Mother Earth has the capacity to regenerate just like our bodies it needs some quality time for it;-)

          • oncejolly says:

            There didn’t seem to be an option to reply to your response, so I’m replying to the original. You note:

            “their overall conclusions are based on carbon dioxide production, not methane.”

            Not really…of the 22 billion tons of CO2e, they add, roughly 6 billion are from methane (they add about 5 billion tons by switching to the 20 year GWP, which they then increase by 12 percent for increases in livestock product tonnage that happens nine years after the reference year (their initial emission figure of 41,755 is for 2000) and another 10 percent for alleged undercounting of livestock (I use the word “alleged” because they never actually report the numbers they use). So over a quarter of their adjustment is indeed methane.

            In a followup to the original article, Robert Goodland writes (see reference below): “If respired GHGs are counted as a proxy for foregone carbon absorption, then most of the 22 billion tons of emissions that we claim were previously not counted can be understood as a potential carbon sink rather than an actual carbon source.” So by their own admission, they are not talking about production, and have no business referring to their number as emissions.

            pg. 8 of article at:

            • Actually, their estimating methane at less than one-third of what they add still differentiates them significantly from other advocates of their position; ordinarily, vegan and animal-rights activists assign an outright majority of global-warming forcing to methane. Nonetheless, I would agree with you that what they are attributing to methane appears to be over-estimated. Even using their 20-year time frame for methane rather than the standard 100 years it could be argued they are over-estimating methane contribution. Nonetheless, their time frame assumption should be seen as controversial since it goes against scientific consensus.

              Your point about their counting a “potential carbon sink” is taken. Reducing livestock production, allowing deforested lands to again be forested, would remove carbon dioxide from the air and the resulting reduction in the livestock population would allow, eventually, a decline in atmospheric methane. So there would be an effect. But a potential sink is the not the same thing as current production and that insertion into their calculations sidesteps what, as I have previously noted, is a critical point: That the amount of gases are known quantities and if there is more of one source, there has to be less of another source. When we get to the bottom line, I share your skepticism. But I did find the article worthy of discussion because I do believe animal agriculture has to be considered as a factor in global warming.

              The work of Drs. Goodland and Anhang stimulated a discussion I believe activists need to have. Doing so should not distract from the heavy contribution of industrial activity nor the systemic issues that drive global warming. The steady increase in land being used for livestock is as much a function of capitalist expansion as industrial activity, and shares the same incentives to offload the costs onto others under capitalism.

  2. […] Source: Earth is crossing multiple points of no return […]

  3. I have a strong feeling the issue of global warming will only be resolved in the streets.

    • I agree completely. If there are some businesses out there making an attempt to be more environmentally conscious, it only because a strong movement has forced them to react. People acting together in large movements is the only thing that brings about real change.

  4. cherneybooks says:

    Well researched, timely and well written overview of the severity of the problems facing our world today.

  5. Brian Orr says:

    SD I agree with everything you say except I think you understate the seriousness of the position civilisation has reached. In particular we are now already in a state of runaway planetary collapse through the levels of CO2 we’ve reached. These levels will take us “inexorably” towards temperatures of at least 4˚C by the end of the century unless we can bring them down substantially with the variety of carbon capture techniques at our disposal – in particular using soil to do much of the hard work.

    But we would be on a hiding to nothing if we thought such an approach could cope with a gently falling rate of CO2 production. Only a ‘nose-dive’ in this would give us a chance along with carbon capture.

    This would test the world’s social structure to its very limits.

    Only the “streets” can determine where this lies and only the “streets” can force the change of direction for mankind’s future.

    • Brian, you may well be correct that we have already passed the tipping point; if we haven’t we are at the very brink.

      The 300,000 who took the streets of New York City last September was an outstanding showing, but it will take many more in the streets, in many more places, and then doing the hard work of organizing that follows demonstrations. It also means we in the global North will have to significantly reduce our consumption and I don’t yet see that the collective will is yet there.

  6. Brian Orr says:

    With apologies, SD, I think you’re last line is a pretty extreme understatement, in my view.

    “It also means we in the global North will have to significantly reduce our consumption and I don’t yet see that the collective will is yet there. ”

    Hints of the extreme levels of anger needed are presented in the recent clashes between blacks and the police in America.

  7. xraymike79 says:

    I don’t know if you’ve been following what has been going on with São Paulo and its water management company Sabesp, but their water crisis offers a good case study of how capitalism, privatization, and corruption will lead us all down the road to disaster.

    • I had read elsewhere recently about the terrible drought in São Paulo and that region of Brazil; the report said the most likely culprit was the deforestization of the Amazon, which is already having significant effects on climate. In your link, you wrote:

      40% of the Amazon has already been clear-cut or degraded to some degree, putting Brazil’s rainmaker well within the tipping point for irreversible die-off.

      That is really scary! Insane. Suicidal. Unfortunately, the Workers Party has not touched capitalist economic relations, does not challenge the ranching industry. No better, and very likely worse, can be expected from other parties. No good can come from cutting out our lungs.

  8. Earthian Guy says:

    Hi Pete,

    I like your article and the study to which it refers.

    I wrote a review myself of that study along with three others, here:

    The one thing we need to think about is the kinds of power that can cause change. What power can change our national and global economic system?

    I’d say it is political power. Politics can change economics. That is, political systems in nations which are modern, democratic systems, not plutocratic, militaristic tyrannies like the system in the United States, which is my country.

    I can’t see the US leading the way towards a sustainable economy in the nation and the Earth without a political revolution which changes the structure and dynamics of our constitutional system.

    Therefore, we need a political revolution, one that is like those in the 1930s in Sweden; the 1960s in Germany; the 1990s in New Zealand—revolutions which were peaceful and which brought about powerful legislatures which are forms of proportional representation (PR) such as the German and New Zealand Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.

    Where do you believe the power lies to change the way we live to become sustainable IN TIME to avert global ecocide? I think it lies in political revolution, nothing less?

    Your thoughts?


    • Thanks for sharing, Kelly. In your discussion, you wrote:

      [I]t is critical to engage in political activities to leverage our nation to change the global institutions so they can rise up and build a sustainable civilization IN TIME to prevent global ecocide.

      In principle, I agree with that. Global institutions are failing humanity. But those institutions manage the world capitalist system, and the all exploitation inherent in it. I personally would much prefer a multi-party parliamentary system over the winner-take-all system of the U.S.; that would be more democratic. But all the capitalist countries you point to as better are heavy contributors to global warming and at best are making attempts to somewhat ameliorate the impact their citizens have on global warming and the environment.

      The only possible salvation for humanity is a massive change in the way the world is organized, and that means an end to capitalism. As I have written before, “green capitalism” is an illusion. If you want to read more on this topic, I highly recommend a paper published on Real-World Economics Review by Richard Smith, at this link. I also reviewed this paper at this link.

      Our global institutions are part of the global system of repression, inequality and imperialism. They can not act as anything else nor in any other way. If we want a better world, we have to create it through massive, organized struggle linked across the borders, and do away with the capitalist system before it does away with us. That is what a revolution is and must be; anything less is re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

      We’ll achieve this in the streets, not at the ballot box. Massive social movements bring about change; nothing else ever has or ever will.

  9. johnnyrutherford2 says:

    Hi there,

    I will be frank and brief. I am getting increasingly grumpy when I read socialist articles about our environmental crisis. They outline the gravity and scale of the situation. The grotesque overshoot, despite the fact that small proportion of the global population enjoys rich world affluence. And they, correctly, point out that the problem can’t be solved without overcoming the capitalist treadmill of growth. But then there is just this huge, inexcusable, contradiction. They never confront the OBVIOUS fact that unsustainable capitalist CONSUMPTION is the flip side of capitalist production! They join the familiar denunciations of capitalist ‘austerity’ and call for continued wage/welfare increases for the working class. Very rarely do they face up to the clear implication of their analysis: that the ecological crisis requires a planned contraction of the economy and that this will result in a cut to workers ‘living standard’s. Of course, such a contraction (unlike today’s austerity) would have to be egalitarian, with a large portion of the burden carried by the upper-middle classes. But there is no escaping cuts. Indeed the required cuts of sustainability will make today’s austerity seem like a cake walk.

    The good news for socialist is that they have never had a better argument. You can’t solve this crisis within a capitalist-growth framework. It requires a socialist framework with planning and social ownership of most major means of production. But lets stop playing the populist game. Lets tell the workers the TRUTH. There will need to be cuts; across the board. It will be fair, and there will be job guarantees etc, but there is no escaping industrial contraction and reorganisation.

    I will also say; that all this opens huge and difficult problems about strategy and transition. How you going to build a movement that demands a contraction? A big part of the answer, according to a few of us, is to build the new frugal/self-sufficent settlements that will be needed, to demonstrate that we can live well and happily on less (indeed much less). There is much more on one could say….

    I suggest readers here consult the works of eco-socialist who have had the courageous to face these realities. I have only found two. Richard Smith (U.S) and Saral Sarkar (German/Indian). Also the work of eco-anarchist Ted Trainer, who’s vision of the ‘simpler way’ is basically a frugal kind of ‘socialism’ (although very different from the one that is hegemonic among most socialists today!) I won’t provide links to their works; readers can google them and consult their writings. .



    • You have put it very well, Jonathan. Drastic reduction in consumption is essential; people do have to understand that if they are going to be serious about addressing our growing global crisis. I have linked to a Richard Smith paper in a comment reply above and agree that his work is valuable. To your list I will add the ongoing work found in Monthly Review by authors such as John Bellamy Foster and Robert McCheney. Joel Kovel is also doing valuable work in this area.

      I am not familiar with the work of Saral Sarkar, but a quick search found this blurb in a summary of one of his books: “The author looks, therefore, to a fundamentally different future — one in which our very notion of progress is differently conceived.” It will have to be very different conceived, without a doubt. And it will require, as you said, a social framework because we can’t tell millions of people you’re out of a job with no new employment ready.

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