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Analyzing the Concept of Planetary Boundaries from a Strategic Sustainability Perspective: How Does Humanity Avoid Tipping the Planet?

Karl-Henrik Robčrt, Blekinge Institute of Technology; The Natural Step
Göran I Broman, Blekinge Institute of Technology
George Basile, Arizona State University


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Recently, an approach for global sustainability, the planetary-boundary approach (PBA), has been proposed, which combines the concept of tipping points with global-scale sustainability indicators. The PBA could represent a significant step forward in monitoring and managing known and suspected global sustainability criteria. However, as the authors of the PBA describe, the approach faces numerous and fundamental challenges that must be addressed, including successful identification of key global sustainability metrics and their tipping points, as well as the coordination of systemic individual and institutional actions that are required to address the sustainability challenges highlighted. We apply a previously published framework for systematic and strategic development toward a robust basic definition of sustainability, i.e., the framework for strategic sustainable development (FSSD), to improve and inform the PBA. The FSSD includes basic principles for sustainability, and logical guidelines for how to approach their fulfillment. It is aimed at preventing unsustainable behavior at both the micro, e.g., individual firm, and macro, i.e., global, levels, even when specific global sustainability symptoms and metrics are not yet well understood or even known. Whereas the PBA seeks to estimate how far the biosphere can be driven away from a “normal” or “natural” state before tipping points are reached, because of ongoing violations of basic sustainability principles, the FSSD allows for individual planners to move systematically toward sustainability before all impacts from not doing so, or their respective tipping points, are known. Critical weaknesses in the PBA can, thus, be overcome by a combined approach, significantly increasing both the applicability and efficacy of the PBA, as well as informing strategies developed in line with the FSSD, e.g., by providing a “global warning system” to help prioritize strategic actions highlighted by the FSSD. Thus, although ongoing monitoring of known and suspected global sustainability metrics and their possible tipping points is a critical part of the evolving sustainability landscape, effective and timely utilization of planetary-boundary information on multiple scales requires coupling to a strategic approach that makes the underlying sustainability principles explicit and includes strategic guidelines to approach them. Outside of such a rigorous and systems-based context, the PBA, even given its global scale, risks leading individual organizations or planners to (i) focus on “shares” of, e.g., pollution within the PBs and negotiations to get as high proportion of such as possible, and/or (ii) awaiting data on PBs when such do not yet exist before they act, and/or (iii) find it difficult to manage uncertainties of the data once such have arrived. If global sustainability problems are to be solved, it is important that each actor recognizes the benefits, not the least self-benefits, of designing and executing strategies toward a principled and scientifically robust definition of sustainability. This claim is not only based on theoretical reasoning. A growing number of sectors, businesses, and municipalities/cities around the world are already doing it, i.e., not estimating “allowed” shares of, say fossil CO2 emissions, but gradually moving away from unsustainable use of fossil fuels and other unsustainable practices altogether.

Key words

framework for strategic sustainable development; planetary boundaries; planning; strategy; sustainability; tipping points

Copyright © 2013 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087