09 April 2013

Planetary Boundaries as Millenarian Prophesies: A Guest Post by Steve Rayner

This is a guest post by Steve Rayner, Oxford University, and is distilled from a forthcoming book chapter that Steve has co-authored with Clare Heyward, also of Oxford University. The full citation is (and please see the original for the broader argument and references):
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

The idea that we are collectively on the brink of overstepping “planetary boundaries” that will render civilization unsustainable has been prominently propounded by a group of scholars around Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In common with other scientific catastrophists, Rockström et al make much of the claim by Nobel prizewinning chemist, Paul Crutzen (2002) that the earth has entered a new geological period, the Anthropocene “in which human actions have become the main driver of global change” that “could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environment state of the Holocene with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” (Rockström et al 2009:472). A few sentences further on they assert that:
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.

The rhetoric employed in the plenary sessions was especially striking in its efforts to establish the present as a uniquely defining moment for the future of humanity requiring urgent action on a global scale which seems slow in coming. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom declared that, “We have never faced a challenge this big.” Johan Rockström drove home the point claiming that “We are the first generation to know we are truly putting the future of civilization at risk.” Apparently, those who lived through the Second World War or the prospect of mutual nuclear annihilation in the 1960s were deluded in their estimation of the challenge they faced or the consequences for civilization, to say nothing of Old Testament prophets who only had the authority of God that destruction was imminent if people did not mend their wicked ways. Lest there be any doubt that behavioural change was the goal, Dutch political scientist Frank Biermann spelled out the imperative that “The Anthropocene requires new thinking” and “The Anthropocene requires new lifestyles.”

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.

At first sight, the contemporary resurgence in catastrophist thinking might be understood as a response to improvements in our understanding of critical earth systems resulting from research-led improvements in scientific understanding. However, I have not been able to identify any new empirical studies to justify the claim that, “Although Earth’s complex systems sometimes respond smoothly to changing pressures, it seems that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule.” (Rockström et al 2009:472). Leading ecologists have long suggested that the general assertions of systems theorists that “everything is connected to everything else” and “you can’t change just one thing” are actually less robust than is often claimed. It seems that most species in many ecosystems are actually quite redundant and can be removed without any loss of overall ecosystems character or function (e.g., Lawton 1991, but for a contrasting view, see Gitay et al 1996). While it is doubtless the case that there are many non-linear relationships in natural systems, it is another matter as to whether non-linearity dominates and whether we should, as a matter of course, expect to find tipping points everywhere. Indeed, a recent review challenges Rockström et al.’s claims, arguing that out of the planetary boundaries posited, only three genuinely represent truly global biophysical thresholds, the passing of which could be expected to result in non-linear changes (Blomqvist et al, 2012).

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.


  1. Just the last sentence is worth the price of admission.. well actually since the price is free, it's worth a lot more...

    Also the whole idea of planetary tipping points is so generic as to be impossible to really figure out with any practicality. Yet everyone seems to think they need to take it seriously because some folks dreamed it up.. Don't quite understand that.

    Also, I am really Sharon F. but can't get Google to realize it, no matter how many times I sign in.

  2. This is a good counterbalance argument in the planetary boundaries debate.

    “The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent 'normativity' of deciding how to react to environmental change.

    There is nothing normal about this, everything is anomalous. It really should set off alarm bells in any educated human being

    There is a Guardian employee connected to the Dark Mountain deep/radical ecology organisation who has posted screeds of doom laden millenarian prophecies. He seems to genuinely believe there is an imminent ecological crisis and 'we' are on the edge of extinction. There are a number of them and the reason is almost always over population.

    It is a hysterical, emotion driven cult that, like all cults self aggrandises and spins its own mythologies . Their favourite word is 'denier', yet in their blind nihilism, they deny almost everything. Their activism is inspired by an imagined Malthusian perfect storm that comes from deeply suspect sources such as Arne Naess, Edward Goldsmith, George Monbiot and Paul Ehrlich. There are also a number of high profile organisations I would regard as suspect who propagate this type of material .

    Here is an article, published today on the individual who more than anyone brought global warming to the political stage, Margaret Thatcher *. It concerns the various anomalies surrounding Thatcher's support for AGW.

    "Looking back at the 1989 speech in 2005, George Monbiot wrote that it's striking how well informed she was in those late 80s speeches, and we probably have her adviser Sir Crispin Tickell to credit for this.


    This so called liberal newspaper fails to mention that Tickell is a member of the Optimum Population Trust and that he was the mentor of a man mentioned in the very same sentence, and an employee of the Guardian, George Monbiot Monbiot has no post graduate qualifications.

    (He was) Warden of Green College, Oxford between 1990 and 1997, where he appointed George Monbiot and Norman Myers 


    They also forget to mention that Bob Ward's salary is funded by a $ 100 billion hedge fund.

    All of the above information is deeply counter intuitive as is the rest of the article and should alert anyone that something deeply anomalous is taking place.

    * A man I know revealed on Monday, that as a young public public employee, it was part of his job to answer Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's telephones including the red one and decide whether to wake her. Sounds extremely dangerous.

    He says that in all the positions he has been in, mainly in government (he worked with almost all senior British politicians of that era) and academia, that Thatcher was probably the kindest and most considerate person he has ever worked with. I mention this because it is again deeply anomalous. Her public persona was driven by external factors.

  3. A clear voice of sanity and reason, a litle sad it will not get the media coverage of fearmongering and alarmism. As I read him, and I fully agree, we have more options and more time than the "Rockström et al"s want us to belive. We can expect politics to sort out the issiues as long as the process is not hijacked by a runaway process like the CO2/global warming.

  4. You say humanity faces a system of trade-offs. Absolutely right. I wonder what percentage of humanity will be invited to engage in debating these trade-offs and deliberate on exactly how much warming is an acceptable price to pay for the continuance of the status quo? On my reckoning 7 billion people face at least two degrees centigrade of warming based on the opinions of a but a handful of technical, political and corporate elites.

  5. This post by Steve Rayner echoes what I said in a comment about previous post by Roger on Mellisa Leach, but in a more elegant way. A powerful narrative of dystopia is being created. It is nothing more than a distillation of the political and emotional beliefs of its adherents with dubious speculative science to back it up. The term "anthropocene" will soon become common usage in the way the terms "global warming" became common two decades or more ago and "climate change" is today. Repetition is necessary in the creation of affective propaganda. These people are expert propagandists and will use every trick to impose their belief system on the uninformed.

    The language being used to this end needs to be attacked and deconstructed on a daily basis and something compelling to replace it must be created. I think Steve Rayner has made a good start here.

  6. All it takes to generate hysteria is for a bright spark scientist or journalist to declare on the basis of 'accepted' projections that :

    1)Climate change is jeopardising winter sports survival

    2)Failure to put climate on G8 agenda will ... undermine our last hope for an international agreement that could avert catastrophic climate change.

    3)The shifting of the jet stream over Europe caused by global warming will lead to clear-air turbulence

    4)Climate change must be integrated into the post-2015 agenda, as ignoring it may condemn many Africans to a life of poverty.

    5) Extreme weather – snow, floods and drought – is the new norm.

    6)One in four Americans think Obama may be the antichrist, survey says: Poll asking voters about conspiracy theories reveals alarming beliefs – including 37% believing global warming to be a hoax.


    All in one week in the Guardian. This was once a serious newspaper (20 years ago). What next ? Bunny rabbits will lose their fur, cry all day and eat children ?

    Number 6 is Bart Simpson level and if they had any integrity, they would hand back their kindergarten graduation certificates.

    The Guardian Copenhagen climate conference coverage was sponsored by Shell Oil.

  7. We need more scientists, less philosophers, less programmers, and certainly less activists. There is an incompletely characterized physical system and it will not be sufficiently understood until it is observed, not simply modeled.

  8. Roger,

    Since you are framing this article around the idea of millenarian thinking I wanted to ask if you were familiar with the works of Prof. Richard Landes? In case you don't already know him, he is a professor of history over at Boston University, he's mainly a medievalist but specializes in millenarianism as it effects historical development and society. He has a recent book out, from Oxford University Press: "Heaven on Earth, The Varieties of the Millennial Experience"


    Of particular interest to me is the notion that millenarianism is not just a phenomenon of religion or even exclusively tied to Judaism, Christianity and Islam but is found world wide throughout cultures. Many social events regarded as secular such as the French Revolution, Marxism in its many forms, Bolshevism, and Nazism all contain key millennialist elements, and also follow the typical apocalyptic curve of: enthusiastic launch, inevitable disappointment and often catastrophic reestablishment of 'normal time'.

    We are very likely to see a lot more of this type of paranoid, apocalyptic, and dystopian hysteria in the future, because in addition to the usual sources of millenarian thinking that emerge out of radical and fundamentalist religion and politics, our new era of inbred propaganda seems to be reinforcing the process in a new way.

    What we are seeing now is an era where all stories that are being fed [and I mean fed] to children are written around a very paranoid and hysterical meme of the world/nature in danger, parents/adults/economic activity to blame, which must then be *magically* 'saved' by children and a radical new way of being imposed on the old order. Nobody ever gets to vote for these kinds of changes - the old order is 'triumphally' defeated and a replaced with a new order that will last the proverbial 'thousand years'.

    This isn't the 'hero's journey'- Uncle Joe [Campbell] must be spinning in his grave! - this is the 'hero's journey' wrapped around the bent, paranoid, hysterical and dystopian axle of millinarian thinking. Virtually all media content directed at children [and their parents] follows this meme whether it be from National Geographic Kids, the Cartoon Network, Pixar, or Disney. Everything is being reworded around this pattern - because it's SO important! Some is more subtle, some is more blatant, but the pattern is pervasive. Almost nothing is allowed to cross the sight-line of children that contradicts this basic pattern.

    Part of this is just Hollywood being Hollywood [and this goes far beyond Hollywood], but the situation is starting to look like a meme run wild and has become highly self-reinforcing. The problem is that this is the basic ideological position that most children are being raised with - regardless of what their parents might wish. This is that basic way that current and next several generations will interpret reality.

    Generations of scientists have been raised to search for ecological apocalypse, generations who have know nothing else as science are in the pipeline waiting to fit their millenarian expectations to the data.

    Sorry, that was about as paranoid and apocalyptic as I get.

    From the chapter on "Narcissistic Millenarianism"

    “Many consider UFO cults a bizarre, fringe phenomenon, inhabited by people who live fare more in a fantasy universe than in the realities of hard science and hard life. The anthropologist might respond, “that is precisely how the Melanesians who don’t join the Kargo cults feel about their cultists.” Are the believes in Kargo more numerous than the believers in UFO’s?"

    Something to think about.