by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 2, 2017
In 2009 group of environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen proposed the idea of planetary boundaries. They defined nine indicators to monitor Earth’s environmental stability. In 2009 we had not crossed any of the nine boundaries, but by 2017 we had crossed four. Everyone knows about boundary number one – climate change – but do you know the other eight? I may have heard of planetary boundaries before in the popular science books I read, but it feels like I just discovered this concept when I read Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman. So, it took me eight years to encounter this concept since it was first created. That’s not too bad. How long will it take this idea to spread to everyone? Have you heard of planetary boundaries?
Johan Rockström came out with a textbook, Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries in 2012, but I rarely buy textbooks (the Kindle edition is $45!), but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find them readable because of my knowledge level. Rockström did come out with a popular science level book, Big World, Small Planet in 2015, which I do wish I had discovered. How often do we buy new books with new ideas when they first come out? (I ordered it today, even though I’m two years late.)
The first laser was built in 1960. I read about it in Popular Science sometime in the mid-60s. I got to see one in 1967 at a science museum in Miami. In the 1980s I finally got to own one when I bought my first CD player. So it took about a quarter century to spread laser technology to the masses.
On the other hand, it took algebra thousands of years to finally get to me in 1963. In fact, most of what I know is pretty damn old. I finally learn about calculus in the early 1970s, when its concepts were only as old as Newton and Leibnitz. I guess astronomy is the science I’m most up-to-date with, and I’m sure I’m years behind and only know its discoveries in the most rudimentary of ways.
The concept of climate change has taken decades to spread through society and it’s often rejected. How long will it take other planetary boundaries to become universally known and affect political action? Even with the speed of the internet we just don’t seem to learn new ideas quickly enough. Most people are stuck on religious ideas proposed thousands of years ago which have been completely invalidated by later knowledge.
And, we forget so much knowledge! My awareness of mathematical concepts has de-evolved to a time before the classical Greeks. To make matters worse, Republicans seem hellbent on rejecting science. Even if knowledge flows freely and fast around the internet there are barriers to absorbing it.
The concept of planetary boundaries is essential to our survival. And I bet there are way more the nine boundaries – that’s just the number scientists are working with now. (Of course, there might already be a new number and I won’t acquire it for a few more years.)
I’m looking for the best popular science books on the nine boundaries. Read about them at Wikipedia but here’s the table they use to define them. (Hope it’s okay to copy.) If you’ve read good popular science books on each that you’d highly recommend, let me know. I consider This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein to be the best book for boundary #1, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for boundary #2. But I’m having trouble finding bestsellers that focus on boundaries 3-9.