16 September 2018    

Johan Rockström – It is overdue to present a planetary confession.

Author : Johan Rockström

Our human “balance sheet” for the past 50 years is everything else than positive, and that should make us humble. Above all, it emphasizes Albert Einstein’s wisdom that we cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. 

The industrial period started in Britain towards the end of the 18th century when James Watt invented the coal-driven steam engine. Industrialization spreads quickly across the world, with increasing local environmental problems. However, it took until the 1960’s before contamination and environmental disasters cause action on a broad level. Cars cause smog levels higher than today’s problems in Beijing. Philadelphia is classified as a disaster zone. Even in Stockholm, smog is a common phenomenon.

Lakes in the USA are so oil-contaminated that they start to burn. It is impossible to eat fish. Huge oil spills from tankers occur. Finally, the world reacts. The Republican president Richard Nixon establishes the Environmental Protection Agency EPA in 1970. In that year, millions of Americans demonstrate for clean environment, during the first ever Earth Day. The Swedish Environmental Agency, Naturvårdsverket, is established in 1967. The Stockholm Conference, the world’s first meeting for environment and development, starts the UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program, in 1972. Legislation to tackle environmental problems is initiated. In the USA, major environmental laws are passed which to this day regulate the environmental administration, and these are the very laws which Donald Trump wishes to limit: Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.


Right now, things happen which the regulations intended to prevent. In parallel with our mobilisation to fix environmental problems, the problems accelerate. We switch from linear increase of environmental problems to exponential increase of humanity’s pressure on the planet.

Environmental hockey sticks” appear, from carbon dioxide to loss of biodiversity. Things go fast. In only 50 years, we use up the world’s environmental flexibility, and now we have reached the “saturation point” where the atmosphere, the seas and ecosystems on land no longer can tolerate further unsustainable exploitation. You probably see the drama unfolding. Just at the time when we mobilize to solve global environmental problems, the result is exactly the opposite! Instead of solving problems, environmental problems exacerbate in an exponential manner. What a total failure!

Here we are. In addition to all negative environmental trends, we are undermining our standard of living – because the invoices start coming. For a long time, we could grow both our population and standard of living and “send the bill” to the environment and ecosystems. That is no more. Already today, when global warming has increased the average temperature by 1 degree Celsius, we see the costs in terms of social destabilisation such as in Syria, we see the collapse of 30% of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we see huge costs such as the 350 mio USD bill for the 2017 tornado season in the USA.

One reason for our failure is the belief in the Kuznets graph according to which environmental problems increase at low GNP (read: poor countries) and decrease at high GNP, meaning that environmental problems are solved by economic growth, i.e. by having the resources. The problem is that Kuznets is wrong. The richer we are, the more damage to the planet we cause. Recently, a scientific study showed that rich countries such as Sweden do score great on social indicators regarding standard of living, but they do this by over-consuming regarding the planetary limits. This is depressing. There is not a single country in the world which achieves good social development sustainably, i.e. within planetary limits.

Is there any hope? Yes, most certainly! Firstly, I claim that the right diagnosis of the patient is the precondition for correct treatment. We need to be open and lay all our cards on the table.  We need to confess – on a planetary level. Secondly, there are so many “islands of insight”, sustainable solutions and initiatives of cities and companies. Surely in an “ocean of ignorance”. However, all these islands start to form an ever tighter archipelago which can alter the logic towards a sustainable future for this planet.

Wikipedia on Johan Rockström

Johan Rockström appointed director at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

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