Guest post: Planetary boundaries & business sustainability

Brendan May offers some thoughts on the meaning of the book “The God Species” for business sustainability.

One of the best things about a holiday is the opportunity it provides to tackle that pile of books that has been building up menacingly since the last one.

What more appropriate place to read Mark Lynas’s latest book, The God Species, than in the Maldives, given the author’s part time role advising the President of that threatened country on climate change and sustainability.

Given the amount of technical information crammed into the book, it’s an easy read, if slightly uncomfortable in that it pulls no punches in challenging some of the sacred cows of large parts of the green movement.

I think it’s the most important thing I’ve read for some time, although I can hear the knives of some colleagues being sharpened when I say that by and large, I find the basic assumptions of the book compelling and its recommendations for the green movement and beyond it equally so.

Lynas didn’t endear himself to many environmentalists when he participated in a Channel 4 documentary, What the Green Movement Got Wrong, just over a year ago. Indeed, it was a pretty poor programme, followed by an even poorer studio debate.

I don’t intend to get detailed for long by the most polarizing elements of The God Species here; the arguments for and against nuclear power and, similarly, GM technology have been well rehearsed by people more qualified than me. Suffice to say I am not dogmatically for or against either, and I don’t think the planet can afford to rule out anything given its perilous state.

That peril is brilliantly articulated in The God Species, making the relatively inaccessible research and views of highly respected scientists readable for those of us unlucky enough not to have been born with scientific brains. It’s high time environmentalists thought like engineers and scientists, not policy campaigners, says Lynas. Reading the numbers, it’s hard to disagree.

Lynas is the first to acknowledge the concept of planetary boundaries is not his own, but he views himself as the transmitter of its tenets. He uses his journalistic flair to do so, to great effect.

Reading his polemical prose it struck me as odd that in the discourse about business sustainability, the planetary boundary concept has yet to achieve much traction. Laid out as it is by Lynas, it seems so blindingly obvious.

For those unfamiliar with the approach, it essentially identifies nine key planetary boundaries the world cannot afford to breach. These cover climate change, nitrogen flow, land use, biodiversity, aerosols, ocean acidification, toxics, ozone depletion and freshwater. For each, the Planetary Boundaries Group of scientists has identified the acceptable limit.

For climate change, 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, an extinction rate of 10 per million species per year, and so on. The calibre of the scientists involved (led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and including NASA’s James Hansen) suggests one would either need to be supremely confident or utterly foolhardy to challenge their assumptions too much.

As each problem is laid out, Lynas exposes the idealistic wishful thinking that makes progress in limiting our collective footprint seem like a pipe dream. He freely admits to changing his mind on both GMO and nuclear, and it is soon easy to see why. Indeed, one of his strongest detractors in the Channel 4 debate was George Monbiot, who has of course since changed his mind on nuclear too.

There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind and increasingly history may judge those who refuse to more harshly than than those who have. If it is true that opposition to nuclear power is responsible for a billion extra tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, then hardline greens certainly seem to have a lot to answer for.

My interest in the planetary boundaries approach is not in revisiting these old debates, but in what business can do to adopt this commonsense approach when thinking about its own impacts, at both single business and wider sector level.

If we accept that the planet can only tolerate so much of a particular destabilizing activity (such as disruption to the nitrogen cycle, black carbon or methane release from the seabed), then it follows that businesses, not just governments, must think in these terms when considering their own activities.

The tired old waste and carbon reduction measures won’t really cut the mustard given the challenges we now face. The God Species is one of the best accounts of those challenges produced in recent years.

Lynas is brutal about the blanket orthodoxies on carbon offsetting, nuclear and GMOs that have in his view made the green movement unfit for purpose. He scorns initiatives such as Earth Hour, and sees little hope for mass consumption reductions in the form of ‘behaviour change’.

Here I find myself nodding vigorously. And I share Lynas’s view that hoping that developing world nations will somehow develop their aspirations and wellbeing differently to how we did so is naïve and bordering on the idiotic. As Lynas points out, saying we need two more planets to live as we do now is rather a waste of time, as we aren’t going to find them.

The question is how to use technology, policy and, of course, business behavior to make existence on this planet both profitable and sustainable. Lynas is no pessimist – he believes we can still turn the corner (only three of the nine boundaries have so far been breached).

For a business wishing to adopt this way of thinking, there could be rich pickings.

Although traditional life cycle assessment is a useful tool in identifying where the big wins are in tackling the footprint of a particular product or behavior, the planetary boundaries concept, applied globally, may offer a great deal more.

It’s something I plan to explore in more detail. If we can adapt the scientific wisdom of the Planetary Boundaries Group to commercial thinking, get the environment movement to drop some of its potentially counterproductive stances, and build a framework for companies based on what we can and can’t sustain, we may yet find a diversion from the catastrophic course upon which we are currently embarked. It’s well worth a try.

Naturally, the planetary boundaries framework remains to be universally accepted. And its implications in terms of ‘techno fixes’ will divide politicians, businesses and the green movement for years to come. But it can’t be ignored.

I strongly suggest you read The God Species and draw your own conclusions.

Brendan May is Founder, The Robertsbridge Group, Board member, Rainforest Alliance and a Contributing Editor to Ethical Corporation. Originally published here.

1 Comment

  1. oExcellent post Toby. I totally agree with you. I was wondering myself how we could all use the Planetary Boundaries for both opportunity and risk discussions. For me the articulation of some of these Boundaries, particularly the Toxics one for example, was hugely helpful and I found the book as compelling and motivating as you did.

    I am getting rather frustrated with the sniping about Mark who I didn't know of until I read the book, so find all the chippyness very unhelpful, and petty, given the issues at stake.

    I am minded also of the Future Generations work going on. Not only will future generations be castigating us for ruining their world, might they also be saying to us, 'so you could use some of these innovative technologies and you chose not to? Why was that again? At our Steering Group meeting at the end of the month we are considering how MATTER can engage constructively in these debates without being unthinkingly pro-technology. A tricky balance, but essential.

    Talking of God, last night's Horizon on Synthetic Biology was another scary/exciting/worrying development that people might want to know more about.

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