Planetary Boundaries, Moral Action, and the
Transcript Planetary Boundaries, Moral Action, and the
PLANETARY BOUNDARIES, MORAL ACTION, AND
THE TRANSITION TO A SUSTAINABLE WORLD
A Presentation to the Cerritos College Philosophy Club
by Ted Stolze
Today I will be making the following assumptions about
• Climate change is human-caused and is the result of
releasing excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the
• Continuing “business as usual” would threaten the survival
of humanity and other species.
• What is required, then, is urgent individual and collective
As a result, my focus today will be on the exercise of
“practical wisdom” involved in identifying and assessing
reasons that can be given to act or not to act in response to
the moral problem of climate change.
According to new scientific research, there exist nine “planetary
boundaries,” which are interlinked Earth-system processes and
biophysical constraints: climate change, rate of biodiversity loss,
interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric
ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, change in
land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. (*)
Crossing even one of these boundaries would risk triggering abrupt or
irreversible environmental changes that would be very damaging or
even catastrophic for society. Furthermore, if any of these boundaries
were crossed, then there would be a serious risk of crossing the others.
However, as long as these boundaries are not crossed, “humanity has
the freedom to pursue long-term social and economic development.”
See Johan Rockström et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” in Nature
461, September 23, 2009, pp. 472-475.
The Nine Planetary Boundaries
A Working Definition
Let us define a sustainable society as “one that satisfies
basic human needs without exceeding any of the nine
planetary boundaries and so without diminishing the
prospects for future generations to satisfy their basic needs
The Moral Problem
One should urgently act to halt any grave threat posing serious harm to
Crossing any of the nine planetary boundaries would be a grave threat posing
serious harm to human beings.
Therefore, humanity should urgently act to avoid crossing these boundaries,
or, if already crossed, to reverse course and resume social and economic
development within them.
Dangerous climate change (>2˚C) will result from crossing one of the nine
But dangerous climate change is caused by releasing excessive greenhouse
gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere (>350 ppm CO2).
Therefore, humanity should urgently act to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions into the earth’s atmosphere to a safe target (<350 ppm CO2).
Two Levels of Action
Educate yourself and others
Create music and art to raise awareness
Practice mindful, frugal, and sustainable consumption
Calculate, and try to reduce, your carbon footprint
Reuse and recycle products
Buy local and organic
Reduce meat intake in diet
Walk, bicycle, carpool, or take mass transit
Conserve, use alternative energy sources, and insulate
Two Forms of Collective Action
From above: states and global treaties
From below: social movements pressuring
Immediately halt the construction of all new coal-fired
power plants and begin to phase out the use of coal as an
energy source, except when the CO2 is captured and
Stop deforestation and soil-depleting agribusiness
Create incentives for businesses and households to
replace unsustainable technologies and to adopt
Move beyond the 1997 Kyoto Protocol by adopting
stringent and enforceable targets
Establish a World Environment Organization
Social Movement Actions
Write letters, make phone calls, or send email to
Vote for environmentally accountable candidates
Join existing or start new organizations and parties
Demand sustainable workplaces
Engage in direct action (e.g., marches, sit-downs, and strikes)
Transform the socio-economic system from one based on
limitless growth to one based on sustainable development
(green capitalism vs. ecological socialism)
Reasons for Doing Nothing (1)
Ignorance of the problem
Skepticism about who caused the problem or how
serious it is
Willful ignorance or stupidity (“I’m happy not to know
Cynicism (“I know very well, but whatever.”)
Apathy (“I don’t care.”)
Nihilism (“Nothing matters, anyway.”)
Reasons for Doing Nothing (2)
Denial (“I know enough that I don’t want to know more-it’s too painful”)
Despair (“It’s too late, there’s nothing that can be done.”)
Greed (“I can still make money off this.”)
Someone else will do it for me (“Brad Pitt, Angelina
God wants humans to dominate nature
God will take care of everything
Reasons for Doing Nothing (3)
Search for a quick technological fix (“Let’s put giant mirrors in
Theoretical or practical ineptitude (“It’s too complex; we can’t
pull this off.”)
Reject the possibility of a collective solution (“I’ll just fend for
The Real Obstacle: Our Brains?
Greg Craven has proposed that the real psychological obstacle is that
human brains have evolved to deal most effectively with threats that are:
– Intentional and personal
– Violate our moral sensibilities
– A clear and present danger
– Involve quick changes rather than gradual changes
Unfortunately, as Craven notes, “global warming has none of these
properties. It is impersonal, morally neutral, in the future, and gradual,
and we’re just not wired to watch out for stuff like that” (pp. 72-3).
(*) See his new outstanding new book What’s the Worst that Could Happen? A
Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate (NY: Penguin, 2009).
Reasons for Doing Something
Rational self-interest and risk avoidance
Precautionary principle = if an action or policy might cause
severe or irreversible harm to the public or the environment, in
the absence of a social consensus that harm would not ensue,
the burden of proof falls on those who would still advocate
taking the action
Solidarity with the “wretched of the earth”
Concern for future generations
God wants humans to be good stewards of nature
Reverence for life
Three Kinds of Scenario:
Possible Paths that Ecologically Unsustainable
Societies Might Take (*)
• Conventional Worlds
• Great Transitions
(*) Taken from John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making
Peace with the Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
Two “Barbarization” Scenarios
• Breakdown = social and environmental collapse
• Fortress World = “a planetary apartheid world, gated and
maintained by force, in which the gap between global
rich and global poor constantly widens and the
differential access to environmental resources and
amenities increases sharply” (Bellamy Foster, p.260).
Two “Conventional World” Scenarios
• Market Forces = “an unfettered capitalist world order
geared to the accumulation of capital and rapid economic
growth without regard to social or ecological costs”
(Bellamy Foster, p. 257).
• Policy Reform = “an expansion of the welfare state, now
conceived as an environmental welfare state, to the entire
world” (Bellamy Foster, p. 259).
Two “Great Transition” Scenarios
• New Sustainability = “a radical ecological transformation
that goes against unbridled ‘capitalist hegemony’ but stops
short of full social revolution….to be carried out primarily
through changes in values and lifestyles rather than the
transformation of social structures” (Bellamy Foster, p.
• Eco-communalism = “the creation of sustainable
communities geared to the development of human needs
and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to
accumulate wealth (capital)” (Bellamy Foster, p. 264).
Communal vs. Market Exchange
John Bellamy Foster observes that the new Bolivarian
Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) emphasizes communal
exchange = “the exchange of activities rather than exchange
values. Instead of allowing the market to establish the priorities
of the entire economy, planning is being introduced to
redistribute resources and capacities to those most in need and
to the majority of the populace. The goal here is to address the
most pressing individual and collective requirements of the
society related in particular to physiological needs and hence
raising directly the question of the human relation to nature. This
is the absolute precondition of the creation of a sustainable
society” (Bellamy Foster, p. 275).
James Hansen on
“Never-Give-Up Fighting Spirit”
“How refreshing, on cold, windy Thanksgiving Plus One Day, which we spend with our
children and grandchildren, when I went outside to shoot baskets with 5-year-old
Connor. Connor is very bright, but needs work on his hand-to-eye coordination. I set the
basket at a convenient height for him, but his first several shots banged off the
backboard off-target. Then he said, very brightly and bravely, “I don’t quit, because I
have never-give-up fighting spirit.” It seems his karate lessons are paying off.
Some adults need Connor’s help….
The most foolish no-fighting-spirit statement, made by scores of people, is this: “we have
already passed the tipping point, it is too late.” They act as if a commitment to a meter of
sea level rise is no different than a commitment to several tens of meters. Or, if a million
species become committed to extinction, should we throw in the towel on the other nine
million? What would the plan be then – escape to Mars? As I make clear in “Storms of
My Grandchildren”, anybody who thinks we can transplant even one butterfly species to
another planet has some loose screws. We must take care of the planet we have –
easily the most remarkable one in the known universe….
Are we going to stand up and give global politicians a hard slap in the face, to make
them face the truth? It will take a lot of us – probably in the streets. Or are we going to let
them continue to kid themselves and us, and cheat our children and grandchildren?
Intergenerational inequity is a moral issue. Just as when Abraham Lincoln faced slavery
and when Winston Churchill faced Nazism, the time for compromises and half-measures
Can we find a leader who understands the core issue, and will lead?
(Excerpted from <http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2009/20091130_FightingSpirit.pdf>.)