The fifth planetary boundary, the Donut Economy and Good Living

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A story of how a group of our best scientists developed a framework for innovative thinking. And how it is changing the economy, cities, and ultimately the world.

Yet it is also a terrifying story. The story of a species that has achieved so much power that it is approaching the point where it could self-destruct and leave the planet relatively inert, barren, for millennia. With great power always comes great responsibility. And, perhaps our appetite for superhero stories is a clue to something obvious: we are not yet a mature humanity.

In reality it is also the story of an epic battle. Between the ideas that keep us moving in the right direction - even though in some cases it may be backwards - and those that keep us heading towards unknown, but unflattering, places. If you were heading towards a cliff at full speed, what would be the only thing you could do?

Pull the emergency brake.

In 2009, a group of 28 scientists, led by some of the most respected scientists on the planet, such as the Australian chemist Will Steffen, or the then director of the prestigious Stockholm Environment Institute, the Swede Johan Rockström, launched a proposal that determined that there were 9 key categories for the sustainability of humanity in a safe zone. The categories were as follows: Climate change, biodiversity loss, land use changes, freshwater use, biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen), ocean acidification and ozone hole. In those 7 categories, their status was successfully determined. There were therefore two missing categories for which there was still insufficient data, atmospheric aerosol pollution and chemical pollution from new substances.

In quantifying the status of the limits for each of these 7 categories, they concluded that 3 safety zones had already been crossed - two of them the most dangerous: climate change and biodiversity loss, together with the nitrogen cycle - and that the risk multiplied as the different categories were exceeded because they influence each other, but that there was still time to fix the situation.

As knowledge progressed, bad news followed: in the review carried out in 2015, both the missing half of the geochemical cycles (that of phosphorus) and the fourth limit - changes in land use - were exceeded.

Until a few days ago.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology has just made official the crossing of the symbolic fifth limit. We have already exceeded more than half of it, and in this case, by a lot. The safe limit for chemical contamination by new substances has now been largely exceeded. This classification includes contamination by plastics and also by 350,000 other synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, antibiotics and other industrial compounds.

Because of their permanence, even in the Arctic or Antarctica we can find these by-products of "progress". But the most shocking thing is undoubtedly that microplastics have been found even in the placenta of a majority of pregnant women subjected to a study carried out in a hospital in Rome. The team from the University of Ancona found microplastics in 4 of the 6 women in the study.

At least the reaction is coming. Slowly, late, but it is coming. This is where the positive part of this story begins: as the limits became quantified, two ideas have started to emerge or gain traction that are here to stay, and to help us manage a transition to a more sustainable model. The Doughnut Economy and Degrowth or Buenvivir.

The same visual model of planetary boundaries shaped a theory that is on the rise, the Doughnut Economy. In this proposal, the doughnut serves as a framework to mark the limits of the particular ecosystem to be analyzed (top/outside of the doughnut) and the minimum quality of life of the people who inhabit that particular habitat (bottom/inner part of the doughnut). You have to stay inside the boundaries of the donut to provide quality of life within the boundaries of the ecosystem, it is as simple as that.

This proposal is already being applied in several cities such as Amsterdam or Barcelona, and seems to have a bright future because of its visual capacity for dissemination and quantification. It is closely related to the circular economy and to the other proposal I have anticipated.

What in the West is called degrowth, in Latin America is called "buenvivir" (good living). And the explanation for the difference in names is obvious. In the rich world we must degrow or we will end up turning other (more) parts of the world into sacrifice zones in order to maintain our standard of living intact. In Latin America, where they suffer part of the consequences of our resource-intensive model based on extractivism, they do not need to shrink. What they need is to live well. A proposal that includes such wise recipes as Working fewer hours per day -decreasing in that sounds pretty good-, reducing the use of materials, recycling more, reusing, etc...

But all these proposals can only be achieved outside the framework of capitalism, because capitalism needs to grow like a human breathing, and we have reached the limits of the doughnut.

Our planet is crying out for someone to pull the emergency brake.

On Netflix we can watch the documentary Breaking Boundaries, which analyzes the points of no return in planetary boundaries in a graphic and visual way. And it helps us to understand that The time has come to assume that less is more.. That reducing can mean increasing the quality of life. That decreasing in economic and material aspects may be the only way to truly grow, as humanity, in time to face the challenge of our era.

It's time to look up, as the movie of the moment says. Understand that it is as if we were climbing a ladder and we see that it ends, which leaves us two options: to continue climbing until we fall from the top, or to assume that the ladder is finite and that it is our turn to descend it. The descent can even be fun if we plan and organize it well. The alternative is not.

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

January 26, 2022 — Juan Bordera



Agus said:

Muy interesante!!
Me recuerda a lo que dijo Ray Dalio (experto en ciclos económicos), “vamos a un sistema en el que seremos felices sin nada”.
Veo una conexión directa con el decrecimiento que se comenta en este post y lo que viene a decir este tipo, sumando las tendencias digitales (crytpo, metaversos, nft, moda virtual), todo parece que el camino es ese, esquilmar menos el planeta pero seguir una cultura del consumo masivo.

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