top of page

Earth is Beyond Six of Nine Planetary Boundaries

ECL Member, Chuck Francis, serves on the Education/Outreach Committee for the Wachiska Audubon Society. He wrote this article which appears in the January 2024 Issue of their newsletter, The Babbling Brook. The message is profound:  We are continuing to foul our nest in ways that threaten our existence. Our challenge is to better understand these changes and to do something about them.  

For those who are keeping score, we should recognize that we are beyond on six of nine critical boundaries that define limits for keeping our planet sustainable. In Science Advances, September 2023 an article from prominent scientist Katherine Richardson and colleagues state that “Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity”, and that “human appropriation of net primary production is proposed as a control variable for functional biosphere integrity”. In other words, we have pushed the global ecosystem to limits beyond which recovery is in question. This impacts the birds and the bees, as well as all human life. Please access the document on the web, or read on for a brief summary.

Specialists describes how ‘environmental forcing’ by humans continues in spite of broad awareness of climate challenges. The authors list nine indicators of ‘disequilbrium’ that are apparent in important system components, and how these are out of step with what is needed for our changing environment. We are aware of the conditions, yet we fail to act on most of them. First the good news on three of the boundaries where action has been successful, and then major challenges we face with six boundaries already exceeded.

Stratospheric ozone depletion has been measurably slowed due to reduced carbon emissions, recognizing how these are caused, switching to electric vehicles, altering farming practices and reducing rates of deforestation. Much still needs to be done, but widespread knowledge and concern in societies around the globe are pushing for further improvement. Exceptions are U.S. and China which are highly resistant to change due to expected economic losses if strict rules are enforced

Atmospheric aerosol loading is still within tolerance limits, probably due to interactions with the sheer volume of water in oceans and resilience this has on buffering changes in water quality. Yet this too has limits, and both general warming of oceans and threats to processes such as the Gulf Stream that warms England and Norway could drastically change global climates.

Ocean acidification along with rising water temperatures are linked with loss of coral reefs through bleaching, a major indicator being substantial losses of the Great Barrier Reef near Australia. Although current acidification is within limits of tolerance at a global level, the tendencies toward increase are still happening and will become even more critical in the future.

Freshwater changes are indicators of the first of six boundaries that exceed tolerance levels, with rising temperatures harming fish spawning habitat and agricultural and industrial pollution with excess nutrients causing changes which will be difficult to reverse.

Land system changes are obvious as we convert more arable regions of the world to intensive agriculture, and continue to decimate rain forests in tropical countries that function as ‘lungs for the Earth’ and help sustain the human population.

Climate change is a phenomenon widely publicized, with increase in temperature linked to atmospheric ozone depletion. Although CO2 emissions receive most attention, several other ‘greenhouse gasses’ have a substantially greater impact on global warming.

Biogeochemical flows, especially of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, have been greatly altered by human manipulation of these key elements for plant growth. Massive applications of chemical fertilizers play a large role in changing these flows from baseline levels of pre-Anthropocene.

Novel entities describe interactive factors on which life on Earth depends, and which incorporate a number of the above changes caused by more than one factor, are more difficult to measure, and thus prove more elusive when we seek to counter the changes.

Biosphere integrity is the largest and probably most important factor of all, incorporating many of other changes well beyond the level needed for a safe and habitable Earth. This includes losses of ‘functional integrity’ of biological and physical systems that work to provide us with air, water, food, and a livable planet, and more frightening are losses of ‘genetic integrity’ or species loss. Thus we lose fundamental bases for evolution of all species, the loss of which endangers future evolution essential in a changing global environment.

Bottom line is that we are continuing to ‘foul our nest’ in a number of ways that can be measured, studied, and interpreted, and we are facing critical changes that are threatening to our existence. These can be understood through science as well as what we observe in our daily experiences. To ignore these changes is to keep our heads in the sand, and to continue on the same self-destructive path we currently pursue. Will the consequences be apparent in our lifetimes? Most of the indicators show that Planet Earth is becoming less habitable. Our challenge is to better understand these changes and to do something about them.

What can each of us do to reverse these trends? Many changes re due to sheer numbers of humans on Earth. We can encourage funding for education that has proven successful to reduce human population and impact. Limiting fossil-fuel based transportation to what is absolutely needed and not just for convenience and pleasure will help reduce emissions and global warming. Bicycles are a great alternative. Likewise we can turn down thermostats and put on sweaters in winter, and limit air conditioning in summer. Reducing food waste and consuming fewer fast foods can both lower our ‘ecological footprint’, and buying locally-grown foods helps our nearby economy. Food choices such as lowering beef consumption and opting for more vegetable protein will help. Limiting purchases by appreciating the difference between needs and wants would reduce material consumption. We are all familiar with these and other personal choices, and the question is what can we do to improve the situation, model this behavior, and convince others to do the same?

Submitted by Chuck Francis, Education and Environment Committee

Edited by Barb Francis and Marilyn McNabb

bottom of page