“It’s easy to say that we as humanity can disrupt the entire earth’s system, but we’re probably the last generation to be able to act on it…”

Johan Rockström, Professor in Environmental Science and Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre is making the case for urgent and deep disruption to return the planet to her natural Eden. Without doing so, we place our entire survival at risk.

Johan’s premise is simple: what is the desired state of the planet, and how can we maintain it? The science shows us that during thousands of years of evolution, there is a significant period known as the Holocene – the time when major ecosystems, from rainforests to ice-sheets, settled into sustainable and consistent patterns. This circular biodiversity meant that Earth and her inhabitants weren’t just surviving, they were thriving. The Holocene is our natural Eden.

It’s not until many millennia later – the boom and bust years of the 1980s defined by profligacy and capitalism – that we started paying attention to the warning signals that we were moving further and further away from Eden. As Johan puts it, “from 1990 onwards, the earth starts sending invoices back to humanity.”

These are planetary stop signs. We’re just running over them, we’re not taking them seriously

Once upon a time we were a small world on a large planet, but the last 25 years of accelerated growth has turned us into a big world on a small planet. Clearly something has to give.

Johan refers to these moments as the tipping points that will catapult us into dramatic climate change unless we take immediate action. Consider the quickening rate at which our planet is warming, for instance: just a two-degree rise in global temperatures will eradicate our coral reefs and wipe out Greenland. The full magnitude of what we risk losing become sickeningly apparent: “These are planetary stop signs. We’re just running over them, we’re not taking them seriously.”

But there is hope, yet. Johan presents a new paradigm for world development – he calls it Planetary Boundaries. By becoming stewards of nine fundamental systems, pulling them back from the brink of irreversible depletion, we can return our planet to a sustainable state comparable with the Holocene, and keep her there. “If we take charge, we can create a good and prosperous environment.” This is his kind way of telling us all to roll our sleeves up if we give a damn about our future survival.

If we take charge, we can create a good and prosperous environment

Through this new paradigm, we must create sustainable goals for people and planet that are rooted in all nine planetary boundaries. It presents a new definition for nation states, giving them roles as stewards of our global life-support systems – but it also gives us individual accountability for our collective actions.

Knowing what, exactly, we must do as planetary stewards may still need defining as we go, but Johan is unfazed. He says he sees this as a positive story, with surges in innovation and social activism taking us to new and optimistic places: “There is a new paradigm for a human future in a safe operating space. Once we have that ‘why’ answered, then the ‘what’ will probably come quite easily.”

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