Climate Change, Social Change
April 20, 2011
Climate change is often called the greatest environment threat facing humanity.
The threat is very real. Unless we cut carbon pollution fast, runaway climate change will worsen existing environmental and social problems, and create new ones of its own.
But it’s no longer enough to simply refer to the climate crisis. Climate change is one part of a broader ecological disaster, brought about by an economic system that relies on constant growth, endless accumulation and ever-deepening human alienation.
A 2010 study published in Nature revealed some of the extent of this ecological crisis.
The study, which was led by Sweden’s Johan Rockstrom and included US climate scientist James Hansen, identified nine “planetary boundaries” that are critical for human life on the planet.
Along with climate change, these boundaries are: global freshwater use, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, land use change, biodiversity (the extinction rate), ozone levels in the stratosphere, aerosol (or small particle) levels in the atmosphere and the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles that regulate soil fertility (and hence food production).
The study said three of these critical planetary boundaries — climate, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss — had already been crossed.
A further four — land use change, the phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification and freshwater use — are emerging problems. The scientists said these boundaries had not yet been breached, but could be soon if nothing is done.
The state of the ozone layer, which regulates the ultraviolet radiation from the sun hitting the Earth, was the only good news. A global treaty to phase out ozone depleting gasses, such as chlorofluorocarbons, seems to have made a difference.
The study’s authors said they didn’t yet know enough to measure the planetary boundaries for chemical pollution and aerosol levels.
In their 2010 book, The Ecological Rift, US Marxists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York remark on this study: “The mapping out of planetary boundaries in this way gives us a better sense of the real threat to the Earth system.
“Although in recent years the environmental threat has come to be seen by many as simply a question of climate change, protecting the planet requires that we attend to all of these planetary boundaries, and others not yet determined.
“The essential problem is the unavoidable fact that an expanding economic system is placing additional burdens on a fixed earth system to the point of planetary overload … Business as usual projections point to a state in which the ecological footprint of humanity will be equivalent to the regenerative capacity of two planets by 2030.”
Capitalism, a grow-or-die system, must ignore the planet’s boundaries. But we cannot afford to: not if we are to secure a safe planet that can sustain human civilization.
As Foster, Clark and York conclude: “No solution to the world’s ecological problem can be arrived at that does not take the surmounting of capitalism, as an imperialist world system, as its object.
“It is time to take the planet back for sustainable human development.”