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Bankrupting nature: Denying our planetary boundaries

Bankrupting nature

By Anders Wijkman & Johan Rockstrom
Published by Routledge
Website: www.routledge.com
2012, 206pp, ISBN 978 0 415 53969 (Hb) PRICE £24.99

Living within boundaries is something that most people learn to do from an early age, recognizing and avoiding physical, health, social and financial risks. Bankrupting nature describes nine planetary boundaries that we should be aware of if we are to live in harmony on Earth. The authors also examine why society persists in lifestyles that imminently risk very great harm to civilization. One of the co-authors, Johan Rockstrom, is Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre where he and his colleagues have studied the planetary boundaries, including several of particular significance to agriculture.

Agriculture affects and is affected by almost all the biophysical processes that comprise these boundaries: land systems, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, chemical pollution, freshwater use, biodiversity loss and climate change among them. Indeed, in the face of rapidly rising demand for food, agronomists and policymakers must resolve the paradox "that agriculture is the sector of the economy that contributes most to climate change: around a third of greenhouse gas emissions originate from agriculture and are therefore directly related to what we eat. At the same time agriculture is the first sector to be hit by climate change." However, effecting change in practices is difficult as: "humanity faces a host of problems, not least our ingrained habitual patterns, narrow economic interests and - both in terms of climate and ecosystems - the fact that we do not thoroughly comprehend what is at stake."

Politicians, economists and the media are criticised by the authors for their failure to alert the public to the unsustainability of current economic paradigms and lifestyles and for deliberately obscuring and confusing their likely causes and effects. Anders Wijkman, eight years a member of the Swedish parliament and ten years a Member of the European Parliament, was clearly disillusioned by his experience and questions "whether today's political system is at all prepared to take on the long-term challenges posed by globalisation, population growth, climate change and the over-consumption of both finite and renewable resources." As for economists and the media, the authors write, "Our society has long been built on the myth of endless growth," and they decry the focus on growth and the use of GDP as measures of economic and social wellbeing. "The degradation of important ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity and an increasingly unstable climate are at least as serious a mortgage on the future as financial debt. But few commentators bring up this dimension." And, "Few decision-makers seem to care that we are eating into the future by degrading natural capital and ecosystem services and destabilizing the climate system."

Modern industrial agriculture is the biggest user of freshwater and is totally dependent on oil (cultivation, transport, irrigation and agrochemicals), and natural gas (nitrogen fertilizer). The doubling of cereal yields achieved by the Green Revolution was possible because of ample supplies and modest costs of these inputs; with much increased demand, rising costs and diminishing supplies, new approaches are necessary if the extra billions are to be fed in the next decades.

The authors' opening statement in Bankrupting nature is, "Our ambition is to….critically examine the relationship between human beings and nature and the threats we pose to the complex natural systems on Earth that are the preconditions of life." Their conclusions deserve to be discussed and incorporated into new policies and practices.

Date published: July 2013


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