Reconciling the Future: Planetary Boundaries, Sustainable Development and Participatory Democracy

An End to Poverty

In the opening decades of the 21st century, humanity faces perhaps the greatest challenge of our long history. As economist and director of the Columbia University Earth Institute Dr. Jeffry Sachs points out, we live in an age of great promise and yet terrifying peril.

On the one hand, Sachs asserts that we can “end poverty in our lifetime.” Since the turn of the century, many of the poorest countries in the world, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, have witnessed increased economic growth.

As the colonial age of the 19th and much of the 20th century recedes into history, these countries are better able to begin the development process and overcome the particular conditions that have gripped them in sustained poverty. To be sure, many billions of people endure daily privation, but the path to economic growth for the developing world, seen most spectacularly in countries like China and India, is well on its way to closing the gap with the developed world.

Each country or region has particular problems, and the tendency to address them with oversimplified solutions can impede progress. Like a physician uses a differential diagnosis to assess the needs of each individual patient, economists, policymakers, and political leaders can use the same technique to apply specific solutions to solve the particular situation holding a country in poverty. The path isn’t easy, but Sachs believes that the “problems of extreme poverty in Africa and elsewhere can be solved.”

“The tools for such solutions are more powerful than ever,” Sachs writes in his text What is Sustainable Development?  “In education, health care, agriculture, power, transport, finance, and many other areas. There are proven methods of public policy to scale up these solutions.

A Seat at the Table, a Game of Musical Chairs?

On the other hand, as developing countries grow at an accelerating rate, rushing to catch up with rich countries to take their rightful place in the modern world, troubling signs indicate that as standards of living across the world continue to converge, business-as-usual is not sustainable, let alone adding billions more to the world population in the coming decades, all seeking a life free of poverty.

Achieving sustainable development, Sachs notes, requires these countries to meet three simultaneous objectives:

  • economic growth
  • social equality and inclusion
  • environmental sustainability

For developing country incomes to catch up to the average $41,000 per capita of wealthy nations, there will be roughly a 3.4-fold increase in global economic output, from $87 trillion today to at least $290 trillion by mid-century given our current trajectory (and even more than that as the population grows.)

“If the Earth’s natural resource base were infinite,” writes Sachs, “catching up by developing countries, continued growth in high-income countries, and further global population growth would all be relatively straightforward.”

But, of course, Earth’s resources aren’t infinite. There are limits, and even at today’s level of development and consumption, our path is not sustainable. Even as poorer countries begin to find their way out of poverty, economic development challenges become more difficult as humanity pushes up against planetary boundaries.

Planetary Boundaries

The concept of planetary boundaries was developed in 2009 by a group of environmental scientists led by  Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University. The boundaries help define a “safe operating space” for humanity.  Rockström and Steffen specified nine boundaries, each addressing one form of limits on Earth systems:

  1. The safe level of non-renewable resource depletion (fossil energy and groundwater)
  2. The sustainable level of living biosphere exploitation, including the protection of biosphere protection.
  3. Safe boundaries of the Earth’s capacity to absorb and dissipate  human waste flows, including nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon and toxic chemicals

Earth's 9 planetary boundaries

We are at a crossroads. The confluence of “unmet humans aspirations” and accelerating economic growth combined  with looming planetary boundaries – some of which are already crossed – demands a new pattern of development, a means of sustainable development that allows all humanity to prosper within planetary limits.

Sachs proposes that a “sustainable development trajectory” is possible and must be a central global objective in the post-2015 world. The alternatives, according to Sachs, are threefold:

  • simply “kicking away the ladder” to poorer nations, preventing them from enjoying full economic development and leaving an unjust world of strife and conflict;
  • a sharp reduction in the standard of living of rich nations, equally undesirable and unlikely;
  • or simply business-as-usual, which is unsustainable.

Thus a sustainable development trajectory encompasses  six major “structural transformations” to set the world on an equitable and sustainable course:

  1. Energy
  2. Food security
  3. Urban sustainability
  4. Population stabilization
  5. Biodiversity management
  6. Private and public governance

The Messy Business of Participatory Democracy

The 2013 edition of the annual Worldwatch State of the World asked the question “is sustainability still possible?”

Managing global crises requires a flexible means of governance that brings to bear the full deliberative resources of the populace to come to grips with global crises. Of all the limitations on our ability to transform our path of human development, our ability to manage and govern crises and change may is paramount.

Political theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson call for the creation of “deliberative institutions” that enable “free citizens” to “justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable… with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present to all citizens but open to challenge in the future.”

“Paradoxically, one of the weaknesses of liberal democracy may not be that it asks too much of its citizens but that it asks too little. Having mostly handed off all responsibility for assessing issues and setting policy to elected politicians, voters are free to indulge themselves in narrow and virulently asserted positions rather than having to come together, work to perceive the common good, and plot a course toward it.”

With all the formidable challenges that confront us in the coming decades, perhaps none is more daunting than that of active participation in a solution. Moving outside the daily echo chamber of self-confirmation, suspicion of the “other,” and a willingness to consider views and beliefs outside our own may be difficult, but it is vital to transformative positive change.

Whether we like it or not, the manner in which we respond to the global challenges we all face will determine the fate of human civilization – right here, right now. Business as usual is not an option.

We’ll look deeper into possible solutions in upcoming posts.

Image by true2source, courtesy Flickr

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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