Planetary boundaries research can move resilience into the policy mainstream

Contributor: Will Bugler

Ideas abound, but only a few gather the momentum to really change how we live. Anyone familiar with the TV show Dragon’s Den knows just how many people have brainwaves that they think can change the world. The script runs from week to week as reliably and predictably as the tides: Person enters ‘The Den’ sweating profusely. A table is wheeled on stage left, on which sits a veiled object. The stammering begins, “This product is revolutionary… nothing like it on the market… will make millions…invested my life savings… I give you *lifts veil* The POCKET CUP”. Queue the smashing of dreams by sneering millionaires. Put the kettle on.

Occasionally, however, one of the millionaires feels sorry for someone and lobs 75 grand at them in exchange for 49.9% of their company. Whether or not an idea is ‘successful’ in the Den is not necessarily down to how good the idea is in the first place. So long as there is some potential the applicant has a fighting chance of attracting investment. The two factors that can prevent the Dragons from uttering the dreaded phrase “I’m out!” are often; 1) Good presentation and 2) A head for figures. The point is that a good idea alone is not always enough to affect change.

Think back over some ideas that have had a big impact on policy and you get two distinct groups. Firstly there are ideas that capture the political imagination. The rise of ‘sustainability’ in environmental policy circles was positively meteoric after the 1992 Rio ‘earth summit’ for example. Part of the reason why these ideas are so successful is that they can be moulded to suit the needs of politicians who are struggling to sound convincing in interviews. Unless they are tightly defined they become ‘motherhood and apple pie’; no one disagrees with sustainability and it means different things to different people. “The Big Society”, “The Squeezed Middle“, “Alarm Clock Britain“. Prime political stodge.

The second group of ideas is composed of those that are tightly defined and quantifiable. Two particularly influential books in recent years have been David Mackay’s “Sustainability without the Hot Air” and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Spirit Level”. Mackay’s book was widely praised in the corridors of the Department for Energy and Climate Change and is the main reason why its author is now its chief scientific advisor. The Spirit Levelfamously made it on to the holiday reading list of party leaders and continues to be widely referred to in Whitehall. These books were successful with policymakers because they were rigorously defensible and quantifiable.

In policy circles, the concept of ‘Resilience’ currently shares many more characteristics with the opaque idea of ‘Sustainability’. At the moment this is not necessarily a bad thing as it has worked to raise the profile of resilience thinking, putting it firmly on the radar of organisations from the UN to Oxfam to the Cabinet Office. However, the term ‘resilience’ risks becoming what ‘sustainability’ is now; a word with so much veiled meaning that it becomes unhelpful. Everyone from oil companies to mega-mining companies to arms manufacturers claims to be actively partaking in ‘sustainable development’.

Resilience has the potential to transform the way we think about our relationship with natural systems and can greatly improve the security and quality of our lives. But from a policy perspective, the idea of resilience remains elusive. Understanding the nuts and bolts of the concept is not difficult; there has been a great deal of research that shows the sorts of things that have successfully increased resilience in the past. But resilience remains frustratingly unquantifiable. The reality of policymaking in the UK and in many other countries is that action is taken when there is demonstrable evidence of the need for it. The problem is that it is extremely hard to quantify the resilience of a system at any one time beyond a general assessment.

This is now beginning to change thanks to recent research on defining ‘planetary boundaries’ and ‘social boundaries’. Underpinning resilience thinking is the idea that there are certain thresholds that, when crossed, can cause ecosystems or indeed social systems, to change from one state to another. Researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute have done groundbreaking work defining nine environmental boundaries for the planet. The central thrust is that the earth’s ability to provide for humanity is being challenged by our activities. Humans have become a force of geologically significant proportions thrusting us into a new era: The Anthropocene.

Because humanity as a whole is now exerting such significant forces on the planet it has become necessary to establish a ‘safe operating space’ where humans can live sustainably and not threaten the systems that support our own existence. The nine tangible boundaries that humanity must learn to operate within are thought to be; climate change, biodiversity loss, excess nitrogen and phosphorus production, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global consumption of freshwater, change in land use for agriculture, air pollution, and chemical pollution.

Science suggests that we have already crossed three of these boundaries (climate change, biodiversity loss and nitrogen production) all of which require urgent action to bring us back into safe limits. The research has important implications as it begins to bring resilience and indeed sustainability, into the policy sphere. The table below shows each of the nine planetary boundaries and where humanity currently stands in relation to them.

Understanding environmental limits will be crucial if we are to increase the resilience of our communities and of our businesses. Formulating what can be complex, transient and intangible concepts is vital if they are to be accepted by the people with the most power to enact change. Policymakers and business leaders aspire to make decisions based on defensible, measurable evidence. Kate Raworth is a senior researcher at Oxfam, and creator of the ‘doughnut’ depiction of 11 societal goals within the framework of the 9 planetary boundaries (see diagram below).

Talking to the journal Nature Climate Change, Raworth spoke of the reasons for depicting environmental and social limits in this way. “The powerful thing that the planetary-boundary team did was to try to quantify the concept, which allows it to move into policy space. Likewise, I tried to push what can be said about social boundaries.” adding “I think we are actually further ahead in agreeing on social boundaries than we are planetary ones”.

Resilience sits at the point where the planetary and social boundaries interact and so efforts to establish measurable goals in this area will be vital to bring resilience thinking into policy making as a concrete strategy rather than simply a loosely defined, normative, goal.

Kate Hudson believes that the doughnut has other advantages from a policy perspective too.

[The planetary and social boundaries concept] is useful because it brings specialists in many sectors – from agriculture, water, and climate change to health, energy and equity – to the same diagram and we can start understanding each other’s concerns. Many of the social and planetary boundaries interact with each other… the doughnut does not tell us all the answers, but it may help us to ask better questions and to look at the relevant parameters when trying to understand the implications of policies.” She said.

In the short term, the planetary and social boundaries concepts suggest some important governance challenges that need to be addressed. One such challenge is to develop effective early-warning systems to warn us when we are approaching important environmental or social thresholds. We must also design a policy framework that is flexible enough to deal with uncertainties and that can respond dynamically to new information as and when it is discovered. Multi-level governance systems that can interact effectively across national, regional, and local scales will be vital to ensure this is possible.

Resilience thinking can offer solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems; the work being done to define it is the first step to making it real.

Watch this wonderful TED lecture from Johan Rockstrom where he explains the concept of planetary boundaries in more detail:

Further Reading:

1) Rockström, J et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).

2) Rockström, J et al. (2009) Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society [online] 14, 32.

Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.

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