Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: 'Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries' by Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum

Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries

By Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum

Review by David Wineberg

Look at it this way, the authors say: “We (humans) constitute a geological-size force, one even more extensive in magnitude and pace than volcanic eruptions, plate tectonics, or erosion.” All of the wealth in the world comes from the Earth, but we are killing the planetary goose that lays the golden eggs.

It has taken the Earth 4.5 billion years to reach this state of equilibrium known as the Holocene era. Balancing the sun’s vicious heat on a wobbling, 70% water covered sphere has led it from the tropical to the frozen and back again, countless times. In just the last century, man has thrown a wrench into it. The Earth, showing great resilience, has absorbed far more of the pollutants than thought possible, extending our ability to pollute at will. But it is now at the end of its ability to counter the madness. Wild climate swings are returning, Habitable and agricultural land will shrink as waters rise. The virtuous balance will become a vicious circle of flooding, drought, heatwaves, hurricanes, and dead zones on both land and sea.

This book is a highly organized, clearheaded look at the science. It calculates worldwide production in exajoules, and projects the effects of managing it. Exceptionally clear, bold and colorful charts light the way. The authors show the resilience of the Earth, which constantly ties to return to a balanced position, to hold onto the Holocene environment that has allowed life to thrive. They explain the theory of boundaries, in which the Earth has reached its saturation point for a number of abuses, and can no longer help us continue as we have. This is not some superstorm we have to survive to get to the calm on the other side. The imbalances will play out as massive shifts in climate and storm activity for at least hundreds of thousands of years. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Big World Small Planet suffers from a conflict, a suspension of disbelief. On the one hand, it clearly demonstrates how we have gone too far, and unless we act yesterday, we will have damaged the ecological balance forever. At the same time, it tries to be optimistic and prescriptive, believing we can right the wrongs. Their prescription – cut polluting processes 50% immediately – only allows us to hold the line. And this is after explaining throughout the book that we’ve crossed the boundaries, that the boundaries were already too generous, and that this must be implemented today, not in 2050 or even 2020 . It is not very hopeful or realistic with the planet divided into 200 selfish fiefdoms, not to mention individual rights advocates who hold to no restrictions on their activities.

The authors say the expected 2.5 billion additional population will result in massive runs on resources, as two thirds of the cities to house the increase by 2030 have not yet even been built. How do they reconcile an immediate 50% reduction in resource production, extraction, consumption and waste with this sort of demand?

They give examples of isolated systems implemented by local governments all over the world: a transportation system here, recycling there, no-tillage agriculture elsewhere. But nothing is being done worldwide. The oceans are still acidifying from all the extra CO2 they’ve been asked to absorb. Carbon in the air is the highest in 800 000 years, well over the authors’ prescribed boundary. We have whole countries, notably Australia and Canada, two of the biggest resource dealers, led by climate change deniers. The majority leader of the US Senate has a 50 year record beating back any criticism of coal, the worst of the worst. Special interests are invading the climate conferences, along with the military, who rightly expect wars to break out when we run out of land.

What we really need is political will. And it’s nowhere to be seen. The problem is, as Carl Sagan put it, no one speaks for Planet Earth. Although he meant it in an interstellar sense, it applies to the very survival of our species here. Once again, I end with the quote from Geoff Mulgan, who said Communism failed because it didn’t let prices tell the economic truth, and capitalism will fail because it doesn’t let prices tell the ecological truth.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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