Water in the Anthropocene

Irish writer James Joyce’s gibberish masterpiece Finnegans Wake is a tale of the night. It begins with an allusion to the global water cycle.

The tale is told as a stream of consciousness that takes the reader through a restless, endlessly shifting dreamscape, drifting from one half-finished thought to the next.

The main character is an oddly-named Dublin publican Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or HCE. Versions of this abbreviation crop up throughout, and assume different meanings. In places HCE is a reference to Here Comes Everybody: the publican stands for every man.

This gives a sense for what Joyce was aiming to create: a book that captures humanity in its full state. Finnegans Wake is about people, all people, everywhere.

The first reference to HCE appears in the incredible, dumbfounding opening sentence. Even the first word discombobulates: “riverrun”, in lowercase. The book starts midsentence with a word that doesn’t even exist.

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay. Eve and Adam’s is a church on the river Liffey. Joyce is describing the flow of the water cycle and using it as a metaphor for life, and in particular humanity. The opening sentence begins as the last line of the book. The book is a cycle; it is perfectly self contained.

Yesterday, data visualizer Felix Pharand Deschenes and I released a new short film – Water in the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Global Water Systems Project for an international conference taking place in Bonn this week. It opens with a description of the water cycle based on Finnegans Wake’s opening lines, and goes on to chart how humans are altering the global water cycle.

Water availability has largely determined where human civilisations have flourished. Indeed, civilisation emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.

But recently we have begun to change the water cycle, not just locally or regionally, but on a truly global scale. We have build 48,000 large dams in less than two centuries and another 1600 are in development. We have drained half the world’s wetlands. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa for our livestock.

Through climate change, we are further altering the global water cycle. Wet areas are likely to become wetter, dry areas drier. And in many areas we are using groundwater faster than it can be recharged.

We wanted to create something unique and powerful. The film takes the viewer on a journey across our planet, first in its natural state, then as humans change the water cycle.

Felix built a perfect aural accompaniment using a mix of ambient music from Earlyguard and sound recordings by Norwegian artist Jana Winderen of cracking ice, rainfall and water flow.

Sarah Sherborne does another fantastic job narrating the film. This became a more difficult job than the first film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, because it was particularly important for the narration to match precisely to the visuals as datasets sweep in and out.

So as it begins to appear on blogs and tweets we can only hope this is as successful as the first. It was a joy to work on this project with a truly world-class team.

UPDATE (26 May, 2013):

The film has appeared on many blogs and news sites in the last few days, but not everyone is a fan of Joyce. Tasha Eichenseher at Discover says “If you can get past the melodramatic narration, there is a pretty stellar data visualization..that illustrates how the human footprint has changed the global water cycle.” Ouch! Well, you can’t please everyone.

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them,” Albert Einstein.

This week, a bunch of us published an article in the international journal Nature entitled Sustainable development goals for people and planet.

We argued that if nations are to set sustainable development goals they need to take a systems approach otherwise the goals will be a patchwork of good causes that ultimately fail on long-term global sustainability. We proposed six goals. But on the way we ended up questioning some of the key tenets of sustainable development.

Our article picked up a bit of media coverage.

  • Nations urged to combine environmental and development goals. The Guardian (John Vidal)
  • Ending Poverty Requires Tougher Environmental Goals, Scientists Argue. Huffington Post (Alister Doyle)
  • Scientists Propose a New Architecture for Sustainable Development. New York Times (Andrew C. Revkin)

Skip to the sub-heading “six goals for people and planet” if you just want the interesting bit.

New “universal” goals

The idea for a set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs) came about at last years UN Rio+20 summit. Columbia and Guatemala jointly proposed that nations adopt a set of goals to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. This gained rapid momentum.

In any sane world SDGs would begin in 2015 when the highly influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) run out. This is far from certain. Not least because in 2010 the UN created a political process called the MDG post 2015 development agenda that kind of does but kind of doesn’t link to SDGs. Are you still awake? Stay with me. I promise this gets better.

The MDGs have had some considerable successes. Three goals were met before the deadline. The target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reached five years ahead of schedule. So too was the the target of halving the proportion of people lacking reliable access to drinking water. Conditions have improved for more than 200 million people living in slums — double the 2020 target (2012 UN report). But the goals were not universal, they applied directly to developing nations.

Given the power of the MDGs to channel money and political will, interest in SDGs is growing. Last week, the UN held a meeting in New York involving 30 nations to discuss goals. This was followed by a meeting of experts and scientists to brainstorm ideas . Four of our team joined this discussion. Lead author Dave Griggs gave the keynote talk (UN video here).

The SDGs are important because they have the potential to help reshape the global social and economic playing field to allow a population — set to stabilise at between nine and ten billion – to thrive and prosper without it costing the Earth.

Systems thinking

So, how do you devise such a set of goals that genuinely add up to global sustainability rather than just pulling together a bundle of big issues and hope for the best.

This calls for rethinking sustainable development for the Anthropocene.

First, we looked at how to formulate new goals from a complex systems perspective. We began to realise that the entire sustainable development paradigm needed re-evaluation from this viewpoint.

Bye, bye three pillars

For many years the overarching paradigm has been the three pillars of sustainable development – economy, society, environment. This has led to disconnected, fragmented political efforts often in conflict with one another. Besides, while the economy can expand and contract, we only have one planet: the environment cannot grow. This paradigm is obsolete.

We argued that in the Anthropocene – where humanity is the prime driver of change on a global scale – it makes more sense to conceptualise sustainable development as the economy within society within Earth’s life support system – the atmosphere and ice sheets, oceans and waterways, forests, deserts and rich diversity of life that combine to provide a place for us to thrive. We have reached a point at which future development is at risk if we fail to account for our pressure on the Earth system.

So ending poverty and improving human wellbeing may remain the number one priority, but this must be achieved with awareness of our significant impact on Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes and cycles.

In the Anthropocene, an appropriate conceptualisation for sustainable development places the economy and society within Earth’s life support system. Griggs et al 2013.

In the Anthropocene, an appropriate conceptualisation for sustainable development places the economy and society within Earth’s life support system. Griggs et al 2013.

We were not the first to propose this idea, but we are arguing that now is the time to adopt it and say adios to the pillars.

A new definition

Looked through this lens, the definition of sustainable development put forward by the Brundtland commission in 1987 also needs updating. The commission defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is good. But given very real risks to Earth-system stability, a more appropriate definition may be:

“development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.”

From this foundation we identified a set of planetary “must haves” for a global population to thrive and prosper: climatic stability, biodiversity, ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle, effective use of nitrogen and phosphorus, clean air, and sustainable resource use. We called these “must haves” the global sustainability objectives.

Add to this updated and expanded MDGs based on ending poverty and hunger, better education, health, equality, and higher quality of life and you have the foundation of a set of cross-cutting targets for the SDGs.

The next challenge was identifying goals that do not end up with a false opposition between improving lives and planetary protection. Invoking the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Declaration, the essentials for human wellbeing can be boiled down to: thriving lives and livelihoods, access to sustainable food, water and energy and living within a thriving, healthy ecosystem. All this requires effective governance to change the playing field we are operating within.

6 goals for people and planet – the “wheel of fortune”

So the goals become:

The Wheel of Fortune. Six universal Sustainable Development Goals cutting across economic, social and environmental domains. Griggs et al 2013.

The Wheel of Fortune. Six universal Sustainable Development Goals cutting across economic, social and environmental domains. Griggs et al 2013.

Within Goal 1 for example – lives and livelihoods – we include targets for ending poverty, improving the lives of those living in slums, health, equality and gainful employment, all linked to sustainable consumption and production patterns and sustainable cities.

Within goal 2, food security would also consider greenhouse gas emissions and excess fertilizer use, for example.

Basically, the trick is to create a suite of measurable targets within each goal that reach economic, social and environmental objectives. We made a provisional stab at some of these targets – mainly within the Earth-system domain. But this will require more work with a much broader group of experts. What we wanted to do was show that it was possible to take a systems approach and that the result is viable, on paper at least.

A unified framework

Taken together, we end up with a unified framework for sustainable development goals that bring together two priorities: poverty eradication and Earth-system stability.

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene. Figure: Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene. Figure: Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a

A further mapping of the new goals (below) against updated and expanded MDGs and our planetary “must haves” shows how this set of goals ticks all the boxes – well most of them – and helps avoid conflicts between targets.

Six Sustainable Development Goals for integrated delivery of MDGs and Global Sustainability Objectives whilst minimising conflicts between objectives. Targets set within each SDG directly address social, economic and environmental dimensions. These goals, and the targets beneath, may be operationalized through a policy framework across levels from international to local, some of it already extant.

Six Sustainable Development Goals for integrated delivery of MDGs and Global Sustainability Objectives whilst minimising conflicts between objectives. Targets set within each SDG directly address social, economic and environmental dimensions. These goals, and the targets beneath, may be operationalized through a policy framework across levels from international to local, some of it already extant.

Goals for all

In the figure above we also show that the goals lead naturally to a policy framework. Much of our proposal is already covered by existing agreements or conventions internationally. But the key is to create something that has buy in at all levels. For SDGs to work in a globally networked society they must be adopted by international organizations, nations, states, cities and towns. More than that, businesses, schools, families and individuals must say “this is the world I want to live in”.

Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. Science, though, has a role in ensuring the goals are achievable.

Counting angels on pinheads

Medieval scholars were sometimes accused of expending intellectual effort debating issues of no practical significance such as estimating the number of angels that could dance on a pinhead. I had a lengthy discussion with an editor at Nature towards the end of the process to publication of our paper. She questioned whether our work could be considered in the same way. Is it not all hot air of interest only to international policy wonks?

Whatever way you look at it the MDGs had a major impact. So much so that many nations and people like Bill Gates are reluctant to tamper too much with them. They successfully diverted a lot of financial resources and political will towards specific priority areas, often to the detriment of other worthy causes.

This is why the stakes for SDGs are so high. Like MDGs, no global legal agreement was necessary to implement them. Nations made commitments and chose themselves how to meet them. This has a much bigger chance of success in the short-run than a single binding international agreement that would take decades to negotiate.

A prerequisite for future development will be a life-support system able to sustain a global civilization. Our life-support system is changing rapidly and in an uncontrolled way. Further interference risks overturning development gains in the last two decades. Last week’s UN 2013 Human Development Report outlined environmental disaster scenarios that could lead to three billion more people living in extreme poverty by 2050.

We have some opportunities to avoid this fate. It is all in our hands. This is the new reality. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Authors: David Griggs, Mark Stafford-Smith, Owen Gaffney, Johan Rockström, Marcus C. Öhman Priya Shyamsundar, Will Steffen, Gisbert Glaser, Norichika Kanie, Ian Noble

NASA releases stunning new “Black Marble”


On Wednesday 5 December 2012, NASA released a composite image of the Earth at Night – the “Black Marble” – showing the extent of human activity in unprecedented detail. The accompanying video (link below) takes the viewer on a remarkable journey through the night – from gas flares in Saudi Arabia to fishing fleets worldwide and bush fires across Australia.

This new global view and animation of Earth’s city lights is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data was acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

NASA Earth at night

“State of the planet” film opens Rio summit

On the eve of Rio+20 – the UN’s largest summit to date – I got a call from the UN. They wanted the “state of the planet” film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, which I had produced with Félix Pharand-Deschênes, to kick off the show. The audience: 188 heads of state and ministers. I have only known Felix for a year but the film is a culmination of our lives’ work. Here is my distorted version of events.

It is 2010. I am sitting opposite filmmaker Johan Soderberg in an über chic bar in Stockholm. He is explaining to me how to make a film about the state of the planet go viral. An epiphany strikes him.

“Justin Timberlake stares at the camera and screams: ‘We’re all fucked!’ Then his head explodes,” says Johan. I nod, thoughtfully I hope.

Johan directs videos for Madonna and U2. He is a master of mass communication. Johan advises that for a viral hit it is essential to use a star. Someone everyone knows.

I consider the mental image Johan has presented to me. An exploding Timberlake head is problematic. I remember the English director Richard Curtis’s ill-considered blood-drenched outing into communication of climate change. The director of Love Actually’s internet advertisement for environmental organization 10:10 was roundly attacked and withdrawn 24 hours after launch.

Photograph of famous person Justin Timberlake taken during the making of the Anthropocene – the epoch, not the film.

Photograph of famous person Justin Timberlake taken during the making of the Anthropocene – the epoch, not the film.

I was meeting Johan to brainstorm ideas for a short film I wanted to make for the UN’s Rio+20 Summit in June 2012. The Rio+20 summit is essentially Plan A for Planet Earth. My organization, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and others were organizing a science conference, Planet Under Pressure, in advance of Rio+20 so the film could be launched there. That was the vague plan at least.

I wanted less shock and more awe. Besides I work for a scientific organization. We don’t do shock tactics and exploding heads. We don’t do swearing, not publicly at least. We don’t do advocacy.

What we do is global-change research. In my mind I had an idea about doing something on a scale not achieved before. I wanted to create a short film that crystalized the science showing the vast scale of human civilization, the explosion in our impact since the 1950s, and the implications and risks for humanity and the planet’s life support system. I reckoned I had two or three minutes max before humanity lost interest. Johan said I had less than a minute.

The central feature had to be the Anthropocene: the concept that humanity has propelled the planet out of its previous epoch, the Holocene, and into whole new territory. This notion has gained traction among scientists since Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and others proposed the concept in 2000.

With its data visualization expertise Google was the obvious partners for such a project. I tried to connect but hit dead end after dead end.

A breakthrough came in the summer of 2011. I contracted a data visualizer Félix Pharand-Deschênes to do some graphics for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. I’d been an admirer of Félix’s work for some time. He is a French Canadian anthropologist with a global perspective and a love of data visualization. For several years he’d produced some novel visualizations of global human impact. More recently he’d moved into animations of the global human footprint. Soon we were talking about building the first educational website on the Anthropocene and I started thinking again about the short film again.

By this stage we’d roped in Simon Torok from Australian research agency CSIRO and Sturle Hauge Simonsen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre for the project. We put the money in place for the Anthropocene website and started work. But I felt opportunity was calling. What if I could incorporate the short film into the website? The budget had no room for any extras We barely had enough for the site and were calling in many favors. But I argued it would be useful as a promotional tool for the site and so we agreed to make the film.

By February 2012 we had the basic narrative of the data visualization then started work on layering up the complex animated graphs and completing the voiceover. The challenge was to condense 250 years of history plus a monumental heap of data into three minutes.

But it was more complex than that. People respond to narratives not streams of facts. It was important we told a story. The story of how one species changed a planet. And, coming from research organizations we had to narrate a story without recourse to hyperbole or exaggeration. It had to remain independent, impartial and objective. Yet the film had to resonate with audiences everywhere. It had to engage. We needed a convincing narrative that went further than anything to date to capture the immense scale of the human enterprise.

While the film articulates the scale of change, and the very real concern about the state of the planet, we did not want to dwell on catastrophe, we wanted to capture the great change for good too: the green revolution, poverty alleviation, eradication of several diseases, the power of global interconnections and communication technology, the improved wellbeing for many. The bottom line is: we now control the global narrative. We have shaped our past. We are shaping our present. We can shape our future. There is a message of hope.

Working impossible hours we completed the film for the Planet Under Pressure conference in London in March this year. In 345 words and with jaw-dropping visualizations from Félix and UK film company Capture, the film takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride from the explosive beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the north of England to the incredible global interconnected society that rules our daily lives. Félix animated and composited hundreds of datasets with millions of data points – cities, roads, railways, shipping lanes, cables and pipelines, to arrive at the final landscape of the Anthropocene. The post-production company Capture layered up the Great Acceleration graphs. When I saw the first rushes I knew we were creating something completely unique. “Welcome to the Anthropocene” was born.


After the launch we had a slow start before the film reached a tipping point online spreading like a virus. We appeared in Time magazine, the New York Times, BBC, Daily Telegraph, the Age, the Atlantic.

To date, we’ve had 700,000 hits on the Vimeo video sites hosting variations of the movie and countless blogs and websites have reposted it.

We had a minor hit on our hands. From the outset we had billed the film as 250 years of history to the Rio+20 summit. The ultimate aim was for it to be shown at the summit. After the Planet Under Pressure conference I contacted the UN and the Brazilian government to ask if they would consider showing the film during the summit. As the weeks rolled by we roped in more people and organizations to call for the film to be screened.

In the week before the conference we appeared on the UN’s radar. One day before the opening ceremony of the UN’s largest gathering in its history, I got a call saying Welcome to the Anthropocene would open the summit.

“What do you mean ‘Open the summit’?” I asked.

“UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will arrive on stage, make some opening remarks and then show the state of the planet film,” the UN responded. “How would you like the Secretary General to introduce the film?”

After the UN hung up my mind entered a state of discombobulation.

A large smile spread over the face of my colleague Reed Evans who had overheard the conversation. “What was all that about?” She enquired but she had already guessed the answer.

The summit is a once-in-a-generation event that brought together 188 heads of state and ministers along with 50,000 people. For months we had worried that science was absent from the agenda. We agonized over how to reach world leaders and opinion formers. How do we get them to hear about let alone care about the state of the planet and the implications inherent in the concept of the Anthropocene? And here we were, centre state at a historic moment in international politics. We could not ask for a better platform.

But perhaps it was not too surprising. The Anthropocene demands we accept a new responsibility, a responsibility for the Earth’s life support system.

The Anthropocene is the greatest story ever told. As a species we move more rock and sediment than all natural processes. We are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean. We are changing the global water cycle, nitrogen cycle and carbon cycle.


Two thirds of the world’s most important deltas are sinking due to mining and extraction. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops. We use an area the size of Africa to graze our animals. Never have so many had so much. Entire countries go on holidays to other countries. But one billion remain malnourished. And we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction – the first caused by one species. We have the impact of an ice age or meteorite impact.

This is new. We have never been here before. When our grandparents were growing up they lived in a different world. A world we can never go back to. This is an enormous communications challenge.

In an interview somewhere online Félix says this project is the culmination of his life’s work. I know how he feels. My professional interest in humanity’s colossal impact on our planet’s life support systems began when I was a teenager.

At around the age of 13 or 14 a poster I’d ordered from NASA arrived in the mail. It was a composite satellite image of the Earth at night. In that pre-internet era I spent weeks poring over the poster. Tracing the cities along the trans-Siberian railway. Spotting the lights from Japanese fishing fleets coaxing fish to the surface. Circling the flare stacks atop oil rigs across the Arabian desert.

Later on, I almost became an anthropologist. Instead, I studied astronautic and aeronautic engineering. My interest moved to the planet as a whole and humanity as a whole. Plus, I wanted to go to space.

Back then I remember reading accounts of the astronauts’ amazement and wonder at the world they’d left behind. How inconsequential humanity seemed from those dizzy heights, they said. The only sign of our passing, they said, was the Great Wall of China and wakes of ocean-going ships passing between continents. But I knew that was only half the story. My job is to tell the other half.

Rio+20: Salvation is here

Will Sustainable Development Goals save Rio+20? Maybe. But everyone must buy into them.


Salvation for the UN Rio+20 Summit may come in the form of universal Sustainable Development Goals. Without them the summit risks becoming a flop.

But what are the Sustainable Development Goals? To date, little has been written about them and few people, it seems, have an idea what goals to choose, who will choose them or how they will operate.

Columbia and Guatemala were the first to propose the idea of a new set of goals and it has quickly gained momentum. Recently, several hard-hitting reports have backed the idea including Ban Ki-moon’s Global Sustainability Panel report and the State of the Planet Declaration published by the scientific community published at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference. Civil society organizations have also got in on the act. Indeed it is the civil society organizations who have gone further than any others to identify new goals.

Any new set of goals will probably work much like the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) but be broader, potentially encompassing all aspects of global sustainability. 193 nations and 23 international organizations voluntarily signed up to MDGs, which are due to finish in 2015.


A significant difference this time round is that goals for sustainable development must be universal – they must apply to all nations. This might be an ask too far for the United States. But to achieve genuine sustainable development rich nations must change their habits.

There are several ideas for Sustainable Development Goals on the table but let’s start with the orignal MDGs:

  1. Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

The Columbian government has proposed a new set of eight goals:

  1. Combating poverty
  2. Changing consumption patterns
  3. Promoting sustainable human settlement development
  4. Biodiversity and forests
  5. Oceans
  6. Water resources
  7. Advancing food security
  8. Energy, including from renewable sources
In September 2011 a UN conference for civil society organizations (lines435-625) identified 17 goals:
  1. Sustainable consumption and production
  2. Sustainable livelihoods, youth and education
  3. Climate sustainability
  4. Clean energy
  5. Biodiversity
  6. Water
  7. Healthy seas and oceans
  8. Healthy forests
  9. Sustainable agriculture
  10. Green cities
  11. Subsidies and investment
  12. New indicators of progress
  13. Access to information
  14. Public participation
  15. Access to redress and remedy
  16. Environmental justice for the poor and marginalized
  17. Basic health

Surprisingly, these goals fail to explicitly mention the number one priority for many nations: poverty eradication. Gender issues and equality are strangely missing too. The report’s goal for sustainable agriculture is woefully off target: “By 2030, global agricultural production is transformed from industrial to sustainable.” If we are to feed 9 billion, food production will be industrial.

It is clear a more thorough analysis is needed.

Planetary boundaries and sustainable development goals

In 2009, a group of researchers suggested if we respect nine “planetary boundaries” we will go a long way to creating a safe operating space for humanity.

While some Earth-system scientists are critical, others have latched on to it as a useful foundation for international policy, even suggesting the boundaries concept could form the basis of Sustainable Development Goals. Oxfam has taken the boundaries concept one step farther and developed a set of social boundaries based, it says, on human rights. Taken together, Kate Raworth, a senior researcher at Oxfam, suggests this could be the starting point for discussions on new goals.


What could happen at Rio?

One potential outcome could be:

  • Initiate Sustainable Development Goals
  • Create a Sustainable Development Council or other such body to oversee goals.
  • Develop a Sustainable Development Assessment or Outlook report to monitor progress and provide early warnings of new global and regional challenges.

Roadmap to Sustainable Development Goals

The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan has suggested a potential timeline for action on Sustainable Development Goals:

  1. At Rio+20 agree to develop Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. UN Secretary General establishes a mechanism to define goals.
  3. Select some overarching themes such as food security and energy and set up a few test-drive groups of countries with different circumstances or capabilities to trial some of these targets, take measurements, then share the experiences.
  4. Develop measurements or indicators beyond GDP, taking into account the result of these test-drives.
  5. Adopt SDGs at the 68th UN General Assembly in 2013.
  6. Integrate SDGs into a post-2015 development agenda.

Where to next?

The large London Planet Under Pressure conference in March organized a World Cafe-type session to kickstart a fresh dialogue between the scientific community and policymakers on a new set of goals, indicators and targets. The aim was not to come up with a set of goals but to start doing a lot more thinking on the whole idea. This could form the nucleus of a mechanism to define goals.

What the scientists say:

We need a lengthy dialogue will all concerned to develop a comprehensive suite of goals that takes into account all the interconnections and trade-offs between goals. In addition we need a universally accepted definition of sustainable development and a full suite of metrics and indicators to measure progress. In short, goals need to be quantitative to reduce the risk of failure.

What the rest of the world may say:

Let’s dash off a list that looks like it covers all the bases.

Bottom line

As everyone who has tried to lose weight or give up smoking knows, setting goals does not always work, particularly if it requires changing habits of a lifetime. The wording of new goals is critical If it means altering people’s core values and beliefs.

Finally, it would be a mistake to impose goals on people. Everyone needs to buy into the idea. This should be the biggest outreach project of all time.

Further reading

RIO + 20: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): A Proposal from the Governments of Colombia and Guatemala

Issues Brief 6 – Current Ideas on Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators, UN-DESA

IGES: What are Sustainable Development Goals?

Planetary and social boundaries: A starting point for designing Sustainable Development Goals?

Oxfam: Sustainable Development Goals: easy win or slippery slope?

Oxfam: Sustainable development goals: Earth scientists respond to the doughnut

First “State of the Planet” declaration published

On 29 March, 2012, the Planet Under Pressure conference published the first State of the Planet declaration to “our global interconnected society”.

State of the Planet Declaration

Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions

1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.

3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

5. The Global Environmental Change Programmes[1] with the International Council for Science convened the Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions conference to assess the state of the planet and explore solutions to impending global crises. The conference brought together nearly 3000 leading experts and decision-makers to discuss global challenges and offer new solutions. And at least 3000 people across the world participated in the conference online.


6. Humanity has taken a huge leap and become a planetary-scale force. Significant changes have occurred since the 1950s, and the rate of change is accelerating. Researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilisation.

7. The past decade has seen the emergence of important areas of new scientific understanding by which to define what we are witnessing:

A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.

A2. The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are themselves highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation. But they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.

A3. Assessments of current mechanisms for governing global environmental change show why existing international arrangements are not dealing quickly enough with current global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. There is growing evidence that diverse partnerships amongst local, national and regional governments as well as business and civil society provide essential safety nets should singular global policies fail – a polycentric approach for planetary stewardship.

8. These insights from recent research demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountabilities of nation states to support planetary stewardship. This requires goals aimed at global sustainability in order to achieve universal sustainable development. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of well-being and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.


9. Interconnected issues require interconnected solutions. Rapid scientific and technological progress can provide potential solutions – if adopted in timely manner – to reduce the risk of deleterious consequences for societies everywhere. But technological innovation alone will not be enough. We can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.

10. Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions. This contract needs to encompass three elements:

B1. Integrated goals for global sustainability based on scientific evidence are needed to provide essential targets for societies. In support of this, the international scientific community calls for a framework for regular global sustainability analyses that link existing assessments that build on the foundations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and other ongoing efforts. Such analyses can be designed to bring coherence to the science-policy interface.

B2. The challenges facing a planet under pressure demand a new approach to research that is more integrative, international and solutions-oriented. We need to link high-quality focused scientific research to new policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability. This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems, across the North and South, and must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector. As part of this new collaboration, at this conference the global-environmental-change programmes support a major research initiative, Future Earth: research for global sustainability.

B3. New mechanisms to facilitate an interactive dialogue on global sustainability among the various stakeholders and the policy-making community at different scales. Such interactions should be designed to bring societal relevance and trust to science-policy interfaces, and more effectively inform decision-making to keep pace with rapid global change.

11. To these ends, the initiatives above must be supported by:

  • A greater commitment to fund and support capacity-building in science and education globally, and particularly in developing countries.
  • A strong commitment to both applied and pure research and increased efforts to bring together disciplines, across all research domains.
  • Strengthened support for observing systems, particularly in developing countries, including the new observations needed to support decision-making for global sustainability. New approaches should fully integrate global observing systems for environmental and social issues.
  • Continued exploration of new areas of knowledge, such as theoretical and applied research in behavioural science and economics addressing ecological and social tipping points and irreversibility at multiple levels.


12. The United Nations Rio+20 Conference is an opportunity the world must seize at this crucial juncture. The UN Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, provides a strong strategic framework for a sustainable future while calling for a marked strengthening of the interface between science and policy. The findings of the Planet Under Pressure conference support the key recommendations including:

C1. Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars. Current understanding supports the creation of a Sustainable Development Council within the UN system to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level. There is also strong support for strengthening global governance by including civil society, business and industry in decision-making at all levels.

C2. A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production. The research community should be involved in the development of goals, targets and indicators, recognising interconnected issues and building on existing measures of well-being. They should apply to all levels of governance.

C3. Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.


13. Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The Planet Under Pressure conference has taken advantage of this potential to explore new pathways. It has marked a new direction for global change research. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.

14. Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action. We must show leadership at all levels. We must all play our parts. A strong contribution from all stakeholders should make the UN’s Rio+20 conference a defining moment that sparks global innovation to move us towards a sustainable future. We urge the world to grasp this moment and make history.

London, 29th March 2012

[1] DIVERSITAS, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change and World Climate Research Programme.

Good news for glaziers in Belfast

We need more James Hansens

Growing up outside Belfast in the eighties, daily news bulletins brought a relentless barrage of atrocities into our home: bomb blasts, kneecappings, executions, plastic bullets, riots, Molotov cocktails.

A campaign developed to bring more positive news to the screens. The crusade died when one cynical journalist remarked: “Good news for glaziers in Belfast this evening. A 1000-pound car bomb has exploded in the city centre.”

There is a time and a place for news spin and positive messaging, but sometimes we must face the grim reality. Some news stories are too important.

As we approach the Rio+20 Summit (essentially Plan A for Planet Earth), some argue the “urgency” message is not working and should be abandoned. Politicians are numb to doom and gloom, so instead science must put a positive spin on things: less negativity, let’s focus on solutions.

Well great, but this is a mistake. Science has a responsibility to tell the story straight. The message is too important to pull punches. Besides, if you said to Obama he had to deal with three crises: global financial meltdown, Syria, and global sustainability, but the last one is not quite so urgent, what would happen? Go figure.

The sarcastic Belfast journalist’s remarks came back to me this week as TED published NASA scientist James Hansen’s recent talk Why I must speak out about climate change.

Hansen must be applauded for steadfastly refusing to dilute the message. The TED lecture is a great example of focusing relentlessly on hard facts, no matter how unsettling.

Sure, he offers solutions (market based with minimal government intervention! It is an election year after all) but he is unflinching in his message that humanity is sleepwalking towards a colossal global catastrophe: not for life on Earth, but for societies everywhere. We need more like Hansen.

See: Is civilization really at risk of collapse?

Global temperature 1880 to 2011

Recently, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a time series of global temperatures from 1880 to 2011. The data shows how Earth continues to experience higher temperatures than several decades ago. The average temperature around the globe in 2011 was 0.51 C higher than the mid-20th century baseline.The global average surface temperature in 2011 was the ninth warmest since 1880.The finding sustains a trend that has seen the 21st century experience nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record.


NASA 2011 Global Temperatures, 9th warmest year since 1880

Earth operating in “no analogue” state, say scientists, again

In 2001, over 1000 experts issued the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change. The declaration gave an unequivocal warning about the risks humanity is taking with the Earth system. But how many people know about this statement?

Google “Amsterdam Declaration” and you will be spoilt for choice of conference statements.

At the top of the list is the 2002 International Humanist and Ethical Union Amsterdam Declaration. The statement outlines the fundamental principles of modern humanists.

This is followed closely by the 2010 World Congress of Information Technology’s Amsterdam Declaration which “calls on stakeholders to deliver the ambitious goals of enhancing economic growth and …consumer confidence”. And who could forget the Amsterdam Declaration on Migrant Friendly Hospitals.

In 2001, over 1000 Earth-system scientists gathered in Amsterdam for the Challenges of a Changing Earth: Global Change Open Science Conference. At the end of the conference the organizers issued, you guessed it, another Amsterdam Declaration.

It is a curious statement. The title gives nothing away. Bland and bureaucratic at first, it builds to say something quite staggeringly profound and urgent about the risk of destabilizing the Earth system and the need for a planetary management approach the authors call planetary stewardship.

Halfway through we discover the declaration is ultimately for the “people of the world”.

The declaration peters out towards the end, “Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed.”

The 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference is the largest gathering of global change scientists since 2001. As we gear up for it, here is the full text of the 2001 declaration.

The Amsterdam Declaration

The scientific communities of four international global change research programmes – the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the international biodiversity programme DIVERSITAS – recognise that, in addition to the threat of significant climate change, there is growing concern over the ever-increasing human modification of other aspects of the global environment and the consequent implications for human well-being. Basic goods and services supplied by the planetary life support system, such as food, water, clean air and an environment conducive to human health, are being affected increasingly by global change.

Research carried out over the past decade under the auspices of the four programmes to address these concerns has shown that:

  • The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability. The understanding of the natural dynamics of the Earth System has advanced greatly in recent years and provides a sound basis for evaluating the effects and consequences of human-driven change.
  • Human activities are significantly influencing Earth’s environment in many ways in addition to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Anthropogenic changes to Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere and to biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles are clearly identifiable beyond natural variability. They are equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact. Many are accelerating. Global change is real and is happening now.
  • Global change cannot be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm. Human-driven changes cause multiple effects that cascade through the Earth System in complex ways. These effects interact with each other and with local- and regional-scale changes in multidimensional patterns that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to predict. Surprises abound.
  • Earth System dynamics are characterised by critical thresholds and abrupt changes. Human activities could inadvertently trigger such changes with severe consequences for Earth’s environment and inhabitants. The Earth System has operated in different states over the last half million years, with abrupt transitions (a decade or less) sometimes occurring between them. Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life. The probability of a human-driven abrupt change in Earth’s environment has yet to be quantified but is not negligible.
  • In terms of some key environmental parameters, the Earth System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state.

On this basis the international global change programmes urge governments, public and private institutions and people of the world to agree that:

  • An ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System management are urgently needed. The accelerating human transformation of the Earth’s environment is not sustainable. Therefore, the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth System is not an option. It has to be replaced – as soon as possible – by deliberate strategies of good management that sustain the Earth’s environment while meeting social and economic development objectives.
  • A new system of global environmental science is required. This is beginning to evolve from complementary approaches of the international global change research programmes and needs strengthening and further development. It will draw strongly on the existing and expanding disciplinary base of global change science; integrate across disciplines, environment and development issues and the natural and social sciences; collaborate across national boundaries on the basis of shared and secure infrastructure; intensify efforts to enable the full involvement of developing country scientists; and employ the complementary strengths of nations and regions to build an efficient international system of global environmental science.

The global change programmes are committed to working closely with other sectors of society and across all nations and cultures to meet the challenge of a changing Earth. New partnerships are forming among university, industrial and governmental research institutions. Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed. The common goal must be to develop the essential knowledge base needed to respond effectively and quickly to the great challenge of global change.

Berrien Moore III Arild Underdal Peter Lemke Michel Loreau

Chair, IGBP Chair, IHDP Chair, WCRP Co-Chair DIVERSITAS

Amsterdam, The Netherlands 13 July 2001