Posted on: March 15, 2019 Posted by: admin Comments: 0

Today I would like to talk to you about planetary boundaries. We are already familiar with each individual’s ecological footprint and there have been a few other notions flying around to express planetary constraints such as “tipping point” or “carrying capacity” (Rockström & Al. 2013:3). While circular economy inspires better practices, planetary boundaries offer a normative cap on decision-making. How can we determine what is “reasonable” to take and impose on the earth?


1- Planetary Boundaries

Knowing there is only one, how about letting the planet dictate its own boundaries? Introduced by Johan Rockström and a group of other 28 renowned environmental scientists in 2009 this model does its best to be a voice for the planet (“Planetary boundaries – Stockholm Resilience Centre”, 2019). Despite persisting uncertainties fortunately we now have enough data to assess rather accurately what our behaviour should be in order not to be toxic towards the earth. It provides rules for a healthy relationship and a “safe operating space”: they are not guidelines or suggestions but deal breakers that, if crossed, will put us at great risk triggering abrupt and non linear change (Rockström & Al. 2013:2). As well as being firm, this tool is freeing because establishing clear boundaries opens a safe space for experimentation.


Since human activity has altered the regular functioning of the planet system we have entered the Anthropocene, a new geologic era where for the first time, the planet no longer holds the reign to its functioning. Instead, we play a major role in influencing a force we know very little about. Assessing risk has thus become a necessary measure as the natural cycles do not occur as usual.

In a world where neoliberalism rules as hegemon and population grows, middle and low income countries strive to reach the GDP of high income countries. Yet, a changed context has to be reckoned with: primary resources have been utilised, the ecosystems heavily relied upon (Rockström & Al. 2013:2). Albeit unfair, in present times for human development to occur it has to happen in a sustainable way. To combine these two goals, sustainable development and the ending of poverty we need new, global tools to monitor our behaviour.

Now; there are nine planetary boundaries (PB) that fall under three categories (Rockström & Al. 2013:4):

1- Levels of non-renewable resources

2- Levels of using the living biosphere

3- Capacity to “absorb and dissipate human waste flows”

The names of each boundary is not always self explanatory, they consist of: “climate change, biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, land-system change, ocean acidification, freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, novel entities and atmospheric aerosol loading” (Lucas and Wilting, 2018:6) . If you would like a more detailed definition of each you can consult this page (“The nine planetary boundaries – Stockholm Resilience Centre”, 2019).

Each boundary is a quantitative measure: the limit of acceptability being between green and yellow, beyond is a danger zone. To this day, four out of the nine PB have been transgressed : climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change and biogeochemical flows (Lucas and Wilting, 2018:6).

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2- Linking PB to Human Needs Through Economics

The PB were intended to advance Earth-system research from a very scientific, geologic angle. However they entered the mainstream and a more political discussion thanks to Kate Raworth and her Doughnut Economics. She applied the framework to sustainable development by combining Planetary and Social Boundaries, noting that even if planetary boundaries were respected there could still be extreme inequalities. As such, the doughnut highlights a zone that is both safe and just for humanity to thrive (Raworth, 2012, 2017). Outside the green circle are resources overshoot for the earth, inside is shortage for human life. See figure below.


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She sets a threshold for “unacceptable human deprivation” and the inside of the circle now represents the danger zone for a human individual. Just as for the planet we may look at freshwater use or land conservation, for the human we have education, food, water or gender equality for instance. These social boundaries are based on the universal declaration of human rights and naturally, just like the declaration itself, one could point out that compared to the earth’s they are subjective or perhaps individualistic. However Raworth supplies backing evidence to the relevance of these key points: they are the eleven most salient issues brought up by government in the run up to the Rio +20 conference for sustainable development (Raworth, 2012:4).

Raworth’s findings discredit the excuse that there isn’t enough for everyone: “Meeting the calorie needs of everyone living in hunger would take just 1% of the world’s current food supply” saying “It’s wealth, not poverty that is putting this planet under pressure” – Raworth, 2012

So doughnut economics states that we need to change the paradigm and work towards solutions that are practically attainable. Yet it goes further than normative recommendations, Raworth’s book “7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist” provides a blueprint for operationalisation of the concept. It starts with “changing the goal”; stating that chasing GDP growth is what led to ecological disaster and the social imbalances shown in red (Doughnut Economics, 2019). So, rather than chasing GDP we should live within the boundaries of the earth but what does that entail? And how do we shift gears?

Raworth, playing on an theatrical allegory, denounces the economic script of neo-liberalism: “they described each economic actor with a set of such powerful traits that the rest of the script almost wrote itself “(Doughnut Economics, 2017). The plot? That “the market is efficient so give it free reign, that the state is incompetent so don’t let it meddle, the trade is win-win so open your borders, that the commons are tragic so sell them off, that society -well there is no such thing: so ignore it, that the household is domestic so leave it to the women”(Doughnut Economics, 2017). Calling onto the financial crash as a tipping point that called everything into question, she advocates for the writing of a new script now that the illusion has shattered.


This script entails first of all a new self-portrait: from the rational economic man to one that nurtures human nature. I strongly side with Raworth when she pinpoints the importance of one’s self representation and the common beliefs we share about our nature. Indeed, she even explains that studies have been made that demonstrate a correlation between the study of economics and actually becoming more self interested like the rational economic man, showing the mimicking effect of this theory on human behaviour (Doughnut Economics, 2017). 

Who does economics tell us we are?

So what is our self portrait now, what does it take to be a good fit? Well “rational economic man […] stands alone, with money in his hand, a calculator in his head, ego in his heart and nature at his feet. He hates work, loves luxury has insatiable wants and knows the price of everything” versus “one which recognises that our brains are wired for empathy, cooperation and mutual aid. that instead of being fixed our wants change as and when our values do. And far from being dominant over nature we are deeply dependent upon her” (Doughnut Economics, 2017). Personally, I relate to this one much more. However the other one strikes a chord: it seems to echo a lot of societal pressure to be rich and successful. I would be curious to know what your reactions are to each?




The new script also entails a remodelling of economics through a systems lens rather than forced equilibrium, ditching the ‘physics envy’ economists would be more alike gardeners than engineers (Doughnut Economics, 2017). In this setup, we would rectify assumptions made under the equilibrium era such as the failure of trickle down economics.

The new design of economies would be distributive not only of income but of wealth too, including “The wealth that comes from controlling land, controlling money creation, controlling business, technology and ideas” that is “If we choose to make it happen.” – Raworth, 2012

In this design, the economy harnesses business into circular models and away from the take, use, toss paradigm without waiting for GDP growth to ‘clean things up’ (Doughnut Economics, 2017). A thriving economy is dissociated from growth and rather with fluctuation: even for the richest countries to this day, growth is the main goal even if it is green or inclusive (Doughnut Economics, 2017). Thinking like a 21st century economist according to Raworth is taking the meaning of economics from a historical perspective (originating from the management of one house, to a city, to a nation state) to the next step, the planetary household (Doughnut Economics, 2017).

© Justin Hofman / Greenpeace
A Greenpeace diver holds a banner reading “Coca-Cola is this yours?” and a Coca-Cola bottle found adrift in the garbage patch. The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise voyage into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch document plastics and other marine debris. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a soupy mix of plastics and microplastics, now twice the size of Texas, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.

Raworth brings a lot to the table: quantifiable social boundaries, an integrated model of human and planetary needs. tangible data to support its implementation. On its seven steps blueprint however I find it over-simplifies some things. Indeed it narrates “…in April 1947 in a little Swiss village a small band of economists met with plans to rewrite the global economic story…” (Doughnut Economics, 2017) then gives the new actors and script to be followed but it is not as if we could again just gather a small group of economists and rewrite the script? The first script may have emerged from three men around a typewriter, but can we just publish the second volume? Historical conditions gave way for the first one, how could we guarantee with lack of a global sovereign entity that it would be applied? The questions is not so much about writing a good script: albeit essential the heart of the challenge lies in actually implementing it.

In regards to implementation therefore I think one point we can utilise right away is the idea that change starts with a new self portrait, because that puts change into each individual’s hands. It takes a lot of guts to stand up to the rational man, it is like taking the side of your emotions in the face of “the way things are” and we have been told often that to fit in we need to adopt this harsher reflection. Recognising the man in the mirror also means respecting the potential of these emotions and recognising them in others.


The other points, here succinctly listed and put under the condition of “if we choose to make it happen’ are interlinked within a complex system (Doughnut Economics, 2017). It demystifies the ubiquity of business as usual and allows for reasonable questioning of current economic practices. This in itself shifts the power dynamic between what is and what could be. The fact that they are normative guidelines does not take anything away from the model, yet it does mean it needs to be supplanted by more practical, broken-down into smaller goals with regular feedback cycles and monitoring and at different levels of governance if it is to be implemented.

As she says human nature is dependent on the earth and as our values change there is a willingness to channel our desires in a sustainable way. However we are not all knowing of the repercussions of our behaviour even when we wish to act well, this is when data becomes very useful in informing our actions. The revised boundaries, now in doughnut form provide normative guidelines essential to guide progress: sustainable development entails a lot of experimenting and lacks common structures or universal standards and could really use such a compass. Moreover, Raworth’s summarised ideas rely on metaphors that make them easy to understand and provide vivid imagery, which are good communication devices to share this vision with many others, widening links of empathy beyond the home and the nation towards the planetary household.

3 – Translating Boundaries Into Actions

The doughnut is a tool, a global compass which first and foremost puts a practical stop to nihilism in the face of a better future (Raworth, 2012:15). It is possible: there needs to be a change in the paradigm but the planet can safely provide for all.

Raworth’s paper with Oxfam aims at quantifying each boundary and comes to a conclusion that there is an inter-linkage between respecting planetary and social boundaries and that “interactions are complex and multi-layered” (Raworth, 2012:16).


Take for example ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is due to increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This increase can be linked to the burning of fossil fuels such as coil oil or gas (“How are humans causing ocean acidification? | Climate Interpreter”, 2018). On another hand, deforestation because plantlife absorbs emissions, thus this boundary is also linked to biosphere integrity (check list to confirm).

This shows how planetary boundaries can be hard to operationalise as a concept directly informing regulations. Working bottom-up, they are more of an overarching guideline one can test their idea against, asking first ‘does this respect planetary boundaries’ and second ‘does this contribute to the retreat of trespassed boundaries?’. Perhaps it would be a good idea to create an online tool that calculates whether or not your regulation or business is respecting the earth’s boundaries.

Otherwise taking a top-down approach one needs to branch out each implication and find how it branches out into multiple factors. To go back to the example of ocean acidification, one would look into the factors underlying CO2 emissions and the factors underlying the decline of the planet’s ability to absorb them. We would find regulation on forests, innovation in transport, urban development, real estate regulation, energy savings, etc. It transpires from this that there is a need for “translating planetary boundaries” into targets and identifying at which level of governance they can be enacted (Lucas and Wilting, 2018:10).

In this aim the SDGs are extremely helpful here for their clustering of traceable goals that take in account the interconnection of human and planet safety as Raworth did. See figure below.

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The SDGs might not cluster around the earth’s resources but they address them through different pathways. Continuing on the top down approach regarding ocean acidification we could use:  SDG14 “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” SDG7 “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy” SDG11 “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” or SDG12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”. Amongst these goals we find targets such as:

  • By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution
  • By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans
  • Minimise and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels
  • By 2020, effectively regulate harvesting and end over fishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans, in order to restore fish stocks in the shortest time feasible, at least to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield as determined by their biological characteristics
  • Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning
  • By 2020, conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on the best available scientific information
  • By 2030, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • By 2030, achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources
  • Rationalise inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions, in accordance with national circumstances, including by restructuring taxation and phasing out those harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries and minimising the possible adverse impacts on their development in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities
  • Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalised communities
  • 11.6 By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management
  • By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries
  • By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
  • By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse

From a quick overlook, the SDGs do not provide traceable targets that identify at which level of governance the issue can best the addressed, they are for the most part quotas and target points. There needs to be more work at the national level for instance, to actively translate these goals into practical action. There are a number of entities here to support this work such as knowledge base platforms and expert agencies in each field who can make recommendation and provide additional data. Nonetheless, they provide a good starting point into operationalising the doughnut from a top-down approach.


I often think that to entertain a healthy relationship with the planet you need to know how to foster relationships with fellow humans. Consent, respect, listening, these are all things that need to be at the centre of both relationships. Before being able to link these considerations you need to feel connected to the earth as you may with yourself and your peers and that may take some work. Raworth’s self portrait idea provides a starting point, active research into the effect of our individual and group actions are another. Reflecting on planetary boundaries is to understand what the planet needs and in turn being able to provide better for it.

A core goal of the science of sustainable development is to understand these risks and most importantly to determine what we can do so that we stay within the safe operating limits of humanity, we honor and respect these planetary boundaries, as we continue to improve our well being. – Jeffrey Sachs

Finding universal tools, to orient us through this experimentation is crucial, actively using them and impacting change at whatever level we are able to is just at important. Translating these concepts into practical action can be difficult but we are gathering more and more data as well as initiatives such as the SDGs that make it possible. Change is relative and slow: sometimes the influx of information leaves many disheartened, left gardening over nothing but a growing debelief in humanity’s ability to do good,  economics’ iron fist over human vulnerability, a harsh world that feels unfit for our desire of empathy. Please don’t despair and don’t buy into the “rational man portrait”: we are legion and love is all around you.


Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé found to be worst plastic polluters worldwide in global cleanups and brand audits – Greenpeace International. (2018). Retrieved from
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