Ever since the industrial revolution, human civilization has experienced tectonic shifts in both production and productivity, which has been underpinned by manipulation of the natural world that has allowed for the perpetual economic growth in the last hundred years. But the price of unfettered development and urbanization does not come without a steep price, as a growing human population and the rising economic ambition of emerging economies is set to further exhaust the already severely strained carrying capacity of the planet. Currently, human beings consume 40% more resources than the environment can support - we require 1.4 earths to support our lifestyles.
The need to recalibrate human development to a path that is more sustainable thus has never been so dire. But in order to do so, we need to understand the precise ways in which human activity interacts with the Earth system, a model that “comprises many physical, chemical and biological processes that are dynamically integrated to better predict their behaviour over scales from local to global and periods of minutes to millennia”.
Although complex, understanding the nature of our interaction with the Earth system is critical to defining the planetary boundaries for sustainable development. Fortunately there are a number of avenues by which audiences of all background can educate themselves.
The open online course recently launched by The Stockholm Resilience Centre (and Sustainable Development Solutions Network titled Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities is one such tool. The course is free and open to all, and features video lectures from globally renowned sustainability scientist Johan Rockström, who along with a number of leading academics first proposed the framework for planetary boundary that established the ‘safe operating space for humanity’.
Although the course material has been carefully crafted to stand on its own, the materials are complemented greatly by the active participation of those enrolled. To date, there are over 3,700 participants from over 50 different countries registered.
Sustainable Development is a constantly changing paradigm, both in theory and in application. It is a discipline that draws both fierce proponents and critics. But despite the associated politics, one things is certain - sustainable development is the only way forward. And the first step towards its universal implementation is discussion and wide recognition of this alternative paradigm. Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities is one such platform for this critical shift.
Written with contributions from former The Starfish Canada writer Ashley Perl.