A Systems Approach for the Planet

October 1, 2009
  • Linda Hwang

    Former Manager, Research, BSR

Last week, the journal Nature presented the ongoing research being conducted at the Stockholm Resilience Centre on Planetary Boundaries, a new approach to sustainable development that attempts to identify and quantify a set of nine planetary boundaries. 

The researchers contend that if we move beyond any of the boundaries, we will be unable to avoid "unacceptable global environmental change." While this work is laudable, I agree with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s director, who proposed that "a boundary that estimates the likelihood of families disappearing over time" might be a more accurate measure of our future here on Earth

Some may consider this a dramatic statement, but I appreciate the underlying sentiment: As humans, our very survival is dependent on complex ecological systems that provide us with many things we take for granted, like productive soil, clean water, and the natural resources that go into all of our consumer products. Once those disappear, well, it’s possible we will, too. One of the real strengths of the planetary boundaries science is that it forces us to think about much larger, much more complex systems that we might otherwise be unaware of.

I also appreciate that we’re moving away from thinking about specific events like climate change, biodiversity loss, or water scarcity in a disparate manner, and instead beginning to see overall structures, patterns, and cycles. This is systems thinking writ large.

It’s also a theme we’ll be taking up at the BSR Conference later this month, in a session on global land-use policies. As the demands of our food and industrial systems place increasing stress on natural resources around the world, companies relying on these systems face pressure to find solutions to both the supply and the demand sides of the challenges. We'll explore various approaches companies in different industries are taking to address these challenges, and I suspect the solutions we’ll discuss will take into account the long view: What unintended consequences might occur? What will be the trade-offs among the stocks and flows of natural resources, given business activities? How will business leaders incorporate this information into their decision-making processes? If the planetary boundaries science is sound, what will that mean for business?

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