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Planetary Boundaries

Assuming that the world has entered the ‘Anthropocene’, with humans as the ‘driving force’ on Planet Earth, a key question becomes: where do we want to go? What kind of earth do we want to achieve with the global institutions that are in place? 

In 2009, a group of 29 scholars argued that we can identify a set of ‘planetary boundaries’ that humanity must not cross at the cost of its own peril. This planetary-boundaries framework has been influential in generating academic debate and in shaping research projects and policy recommendations worldwide. Yet it has also come under heavy scrutiny and been fiercely criticized. What is today’s overall significance and impact of the notion of ‘planetary boundaries’ for earth system science and earth system governance? 

In a recent paper, Rakhyun E. Kim and I have reviewed the development of the concept and addressed several lines of criticism, from earth system science, development studies and science and technology studies. We also examined some applications of the framework, discussed broader governance implications, and reflected on actual policy relevance. 

In the end, for me the planetary boundaries concept and the more recent earth system targets cannot shed their conceptual links to the earlier discourses of ‘limits’, and all that comes with this discourse in terms of political critique and contestations. It still is a debate about who decides over the societal ‘operating space’ in the Anthropocene. Therefore, the global targets that our societies will need to adopt must be defined in political processes where all political stakeholders − especially from the Global South − are fairly represented. Only when the planetary boundaries approach manages to distance itself from Platonian technocracy and a ‘global limits’ discourse that is seen in the South as unfair given past colonialism and current Northern overconsumption, will the justified debate on the risks of planetary tipping points gain the global political support that it needs.

I am currently expanding this line of work to place it in the larger context of the ‘normative space’ in the Anthropocene, bringing in also treaty-based targets, nonbinding mechanisms such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and related initiatives such as ‘Doughnut Economics’. My research interest is here, as in much of my writing, on the global relations of power and in particular on the role of the Global South in a world that is much influenced by ‘Northern science’. 


See the full article here (open access):

The boundaries of the Planetary Boundary framework: A critical appraisal of approaches to define a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity

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