By Our Hands: Cities are perhaps the most impressive mark humankind has left upon the face of planet Earth.
By Our Hands: Cities are perhaps the most impressive mark humankind has left upon the face of planet Earth.Courtesy anaxila

Throughout the ongoing debate about exactly how, to what extent, and the ethical implications, the indisputable fact remains that humankind has altered the planet. Back when the human population was only a few thousand strong and agriculture and cooked food were the latest inventions, it was easy for the Joneses to pick up and move camp when the water ran dry, the soil stopped producing tasty wheat, or the garbage piled too high in the backyard. The same can’t be said for the populations of world cities today.

Advances in public health, industry, and agriculture have blown the human population out of the brush. There will soon be 9 billion people on the face of planet Earth! Coupled with rising affluence, our ballooning population’s resource consumption and waste outputs are wrecking havoc on natural systems. New research (see several links below for more info) suggests that within a fixed amount of space, humankind is in danger of causing our own extinction and the only way out is to discard traditional ideas of industrialization and embrace sustainability.

No, silly...: Not THAT kind of tipping point!
No, silly...: Not THAT kind of tipping point!Courtesy Go Gratitude

The first step to bailing out humankind is to investigate how close to failure the world actually is. This was the point of a recent international collaboration: to calculate safe limits for pivotal environmental processes. The key idea here is that of “tipping points,” which can be thought of as thresholds or breaking points. Think about being pestered by your brother or sister: aren’t you able to put up with the annoyance for even a little while before you get so upset you retaliate? That’s your tipping point – the last straw that put you over the edge.

Led by Stockholm Resilience Center’s Johan Rockstrom, a group of European, Australian, and American scientists – including the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s director, Jonathan Foley – identified nine processes reaching their tipping points. Three (climate change, nutrient cycles, and biodiversity loss) have already been pushed past their tipping points, four (ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater use, and land use) are approaching their tipping points, and two (aerosol loading and chemical pollution) do not yet have identified tipping points because they require more research. The Institute on the Environment recently released a YouTube video addressing the conclusion of this new research:

Blissfully, there are things we can do to stop hurting the planet and begin patching its wounds. According to Foley’s article, we can’t let ourselves get any closer to the tipping points and piecemeal solutions won’t cut it because of the interconnectedness of the issues. Instead, we should focus on switching to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, stopping deforestation, and rethinking our approaches to agriculture.

There's No Place Like Home: It's worth keeping healthy.
There's No Place Like Home: It's worth keeping healthy.Courtesy NASA

The conclusions of this research have been well-accepted, but there has been some criticisms for 1) attempting to establish tipping points at all, and 2) for the appropriateness of the establish tipping points. If you would like more information, including commentaries, please check out the following sources:

Article in Nature: A safe operating space for humanity

Commentaries: Planetary Boundaries

Article in Scientific American: Boundaries for a Health Planet

Article in Ecology and Society: Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity

Two questions to consider as you watch the YouTube video and take a look through the links and articles referenced above are:

1) What are the consequences of being past our tipping points?

2) How do the solutions discussed prevent us from reaching tipping points?

You are encouraged to post your thoughtful answers below!

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

I have been notified that some of the links in this post are not working properly. I will correct them as soon as possible. Sorry for the inconvenience!

posted on Fri, 04/09/2010 - 10:56am
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

Ah-ha! I have won, victory is mine, etc., etc...

All the links should be working properly at this time. Sorry for the delay! (Believe me, it was frustrating to me too.)

posted on Tue, 04/13/2010 - 11:45am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

So what can we do about the 3 areas where we've already passed the tipping point? Is it a lost cause, or can we still have a positive influence on things like biodiversity?

posted on Fri, 04/09/2010 - 2:23pm
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

Great question! (I was hoping someone would ask!)

The thing is, this is a difficult question for scientists to answer because humankind has never experienced anything like the rapid changes we are now. Traditional theory of tipping points says that it is virtually impossible to return to pre-tipped conditions after the threshold is past. However, the researchers who conducted this study, and other scientists considering the same question, seem more hopeful; many of the commentaries focus on actions we can take to have a positive impact.

I encourage you to check out some of the links provided above (and that are finally working correctly) for more information.

posted on Tue, 04/13/2010 - 12:11pm
cyrus's picture
cyrus says:


posted on Fri, 04/09/2010 - 4:48pm
oslo's picture
oslo says:

dont be scared to jump off it.

posted on Fri, 04/09/2010 - 4:49pm
joflo's picture
joflo says:

Perhaps we should stop choosing the term "dinosaur" for something that is unsuccessful. Dinosaurs dominated the Earth for about 165 million years. Compare that to the paltry 200,000 years that Homo Sapiens have walked the globe and we are the true failure among species.

posted on Tue, 04/13/2010 - 9:01am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Dinosaurs were probably pretty unsuccessful at, like, math. Math, and following Lego model instructions.

I wonder if this comment was meant for another post?

posted on Tue, 04/13/2010 - 9:57am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

absolutely wonderful. so glad to see something like this at the science museum. love it. just perfect. mind-boggling, what perfection! how interesting :] definate plus for sure! excellent great, yes, fantastic.

posted on Tue, 04/13/2010 - 4:22pm
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

Fast Company published The Most Likely Climate Disasters on the Horizon earlier this month.

The original study cited ranked tipping points on two scales: risk and likelihood. Fast Company author Ariel Schwartz says,

"Luckily for [humankind], the most likely also happens to be the least risky (what's some flooding in comparison to the collapse of all sea life in the ocean, right?)."

If you're interested in reading more, check out Science Daily's coverage, including the citation for the original study.

posted on Wed, 06/29/2011 - 3:32pm

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