S. Rayner and C. Heyward, 2013 (in press). The Inevitability of Nature as a Rhetorical Resource, Chapter 14 in Kerstin Hastrup (editor), Anthropology and Nature (Routledge, London).This post follows up an earlier discussion of the politics of planetary boundaries on this blog here and a critique and follow on discussion here.
Planetary Boundaries as Millenarian Prophesies
by Steve Rayner
Many subsystems of Earth react in a non-linear, often abrupt, way and are particularly sensitive around the threshold levels of certain key variables. If these variables are crossed then important subsystems, such as a monsoon system, could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences of humans…. Most of these thresholds can be defined by a critical value for one or more control variables, such as carbon dioxide concentrations.The authors go on to identify nine such planetary boundaries, two of which, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss, they claim have already been transgressed with climate change rapidly approaching the point of no return.
Subsequently, 18 past winners of the Blue Planet Prize published a report warning that civilization faces a “perfect storm” of ecological problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption, and environmentally damaging technologies (Bruntland et al 2012). These ideas echo the Malthusian arguments of the Limits-to- Growth, Small-is-Beautiful movements of the 1960s and 70s. The notion of impending cataclysmic events with dystopian outcomes is frequently invoked not only by environmental NGOs but also by policymakers in highly public forums. Examples include the UNFCCC, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the European Parliament, and recently at Planet Under Pressure, a major conference in London designed to feed into the 2012 Rio Plus 20 summit, which opened with one of the Blue Planet prize winners setting the catastrophist tone. “Reality” and “nature” were frequently invoked as the impetus for radical action. In the words of Anne Glover, the Chief Science Advisor to the European Commission, “The facts just are.” All the while, “society” was blamed for failing to respond to the urgent messages of scientists and campaigners, and social scientists chided for failing to market the natural scientists’ warnings effectively.
Indeed, the rhetorics of the Anthropocene, tipping points, and planetary limits have all three characteristic features of traditional millenarianism that I identified in an early study of the credibility of millenarian prophesies among small Marxist splinter groups, long before I turned my attention to environmental issues (Rayner 1982). These are the foreshortening of time (the claim that catastrophe is imminent), the compression of space (the assertion that the earth is a closed system), and an egalitarian concern for the plight of the weak and vulnerable.
In keeping with egalitarian advocacy, a radical redistribution of certain key resources is needed: the dramatic cut in the use of fossil fuels upon which industrialised economies are based. Moreover the advocates’ preferred strategy is presented as the only course of action that will let humanity avoid its fate.
The same report also challenges the idea that the planetary boundaries constitute “non-negotiable thresholds”. The identification of the planetary boundaries is dependent on the normative assumptions made, for example, concerning the value of biodiversity and the desirability of the Holocene. Rather than non-negotiables, humanity faces a system of trade-offs - not only economic, but moral and aesthetic as well. Deciding how to balance these trade-offs is a matter of political contestation (Blomqvist et al, 2012:37). What counts as “unacceptable environmental change” is not a matter of scientific fact, but involves judgments concerning the value of the things to be affected by the potential changes. The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change. Presenting human values as facts of nature is an effective political strategy to shut down debate.