Resilience 2014: Limits revisited? Planetary boundaries, justice and power

By Melissa Leach, IDS Director

In 1972 Meadows et al’s Limits to Growth made scientific Melissa Leachand policy waves, as its ‘World3’ model predicted the end of growth and prosperity as rising, consuming populations ran up against resource limits. In critique, SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research) at the University of Sussex offered alternative models predicting that human ingenuity and innovation would overcome scarcities. Meanwhile an alternative Latin American World Model from Fundacion Bariloche in Argentina argued that a desirable social future ‘based on equality and full participation of all its members ….intrinsically compatible with its environment’ could be achieved using proven human creativity, but also requiring transformation in social and institutional organisation, and relations of power.

Today, the idea of ‘green limits’ to development is resurfacing in the concept of‘Planetary boundaries’. And again, debate about power is heating up fast. In a plenary dialogue at the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier this week I went head-to-head with Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), key proponent of the planetary boundaries concept, to debate its implications for sustainability and social justice, presenting ideas from the STEPS Centre. The Limits to Growth genealogy couldn’t have been clearer as our chair was Dennis Meadows himself. (Presentation here)

Planetary boundaries – science and policy

Earth system scientists propose that we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities have become the dominant drivers of climate, bio-geochemical cycles, ecosystems and biodiversity. A series of nine planetary boundaries has been identified, referring to the biophysical processes in the Earth’s system on which human life depends (Rockström et al. 2009). Together, these serve to keep the planet within Holocene-like conditions, defining a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity. As human actions rapidly approach or transgress key global thresholds, so, it is argued, our societies are entering zones of great uncertainty and turbulence which deeply threaten continued development.

While scientists debate the ongoing uncertainties in assessing impending ecological thresholds, tipping points and their implications, versions of planetary boundaries thinking have rushed headlong into policy and public spheres. For many, this is science providing authoritative evidence and justification for urgent action to safeguard human futures on our planet. Yet as Roger Pielke argued in a much-cited blog it can also be seen as a dangerous cry of impending catastrophe and disaster to uphold top-down power grabs, undermining democracy and social justice.

Integrating power and politics

Building on these somewhat polarised positions, as well as collaboration with SRC colleagues (pdf) the Resilience 2014 dialogue was a great opportunity to debate our commonalities and differences. We agree that business-as-usual development on a constrained planet is producing unprecedented threats. We do urgently need to find pathways that connect much more fully with the biosphere and ecological processes, but that also keep people above ‘social boundaries’ of rights, wellbeing and voice; as Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ highlights that keep societies within a safe and just space (Leach, Raworth and Rockström in World Social Science report (pdf)).

However, I suggest that we can only meet these challenges if we recognise them as fundamentally political. The concept of planetary boundaries can be seen as a discourse that enables some things while marginalizing and excluding others. And the ‘we’ so often invoked in ‘the anthropocene’ is not really so unified; many diverse people, places, identities, interests, goals, imaginations and desires are at stake.

We therefore need to be asking further questions:

About boundaries

  • Who defines them and how?
  • In relation to what and whose notions of safety and control?

About goals

  • Where are pathways going?
  • Towards whose visions of the future?
  • Sustainability and resilience of what for whom, where?

About pathway choices

  • How are these made, and by whom?

And about the politics of distribution

  • Who gains and who loses from particular interventions and patterns of change?
Planetary boundaries discourse aligns all too neatly with top-down approaches that ignore these politics, and instead seek regulatory, planning, technical or market ‘fixes’. The non-negotiability, urgency and control in planetary boundaries ideas leads all too easily to new forms of environmental authoritarianism. These can undermine people’s rights and livelihoods, contributing to injustice in resource access, wellbeing and voice.

Missed opportunities – multiple, diverse pathways

The discourse of planetary boundaries can also downplay the need for more fundamental social and economic transformations. It can prioritise single solutions over the diverse pathways needed to suit diverse people and places, and build resilience. It marginalises the significance of knowledge and values from ‘below’, as local people live with and experience social and ecological dynamics on a daily basis. And it obscures valuable pathways based on citizen innovation, action and collective mobilisation, as seen so vividly in recent movements around sustainable cities and food sovereignty.

Recognising the operation of power is an opening to challenge it. We need, I suggest, inclusive deliberation around goals, futures and pathways to get there. In this way, planetary boundaries – and other ‘green limits’ ideas – become not an end, but a means to a democratic politics which should surely be central to futures that are socially just as well as safe.

Let’s hope that as the upcoming 2015 Sustainable Development Goals are set and implemented, these values remain centre stage.

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