Friday, June 29, 2012

Who do you trust: Mother Nature or Mr. Wizard?

Why we should respect planetary boundaries?

Just when you thought weird weather and dying oceans might get us all thinking about how to reduce human impact on this little planet we call home, along comes Breakthrough Institute to propose a “solution” worthy of the Army Corps of Engineers:

“We screwed it up, so we should take charge of it.”

Here’s the idea in a nutshell. Most geoscientists now agree that human activity is overwhelming natural systems. Whereas civilization developed under planetary conditions that have prevailed since the last Ice Age, a period known as the Holocene epoch, we humans appear to be propelling Earth into a “new normal” through soaring carbon emissions, deforestation, ocean acidification, and a laundry list of other assorted global impacts. Geoscientists have pretty much agreed to call this new period the “Anthropocene,” to reflect the fact that planetary systems are now being shaped substantially by human activity.

This being the case, what are we to do? Shrink away from our new role as world-redevelopers, or embrace it? Conserve or geo-engineer?

The geo-engineering approach makes sense to enough people that it has become codified into a school of thought known as neo-environmentalism. And that’s where Breakthrough Institute comes in. Its new report, “The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence,” pushes back against a conceptual framework (based on broadly accepted environmental principles) that’s recently been adopted by United Nations bodies and leading nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam and WWF. This framework, which Breakthrough calls a “hypothesis,” identifies limits for nine key variables—climate change, land-use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, and ozone depletion—that define a “safe operating space for humanity.” More