Who will save the planet?


New York Times Opinion Piece

Published: August 11, 2018

Photo by Louis Maniquet/ Oléron, France

Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have to Do That.

By Erle C. Ellis

This planet is in crisis. The safe limits within which human societies can be sustained, the earth’s “planetary boundaries,” are being exceeded, a path leading inevitably toward collapse. The experts have spoken. Only if humanity heeds the science, reverses course and lives within earth’s natural limits can disaster be avoided.

Or maybe you believe the opposite: that human ingenuity can continue to overcome those limits, that there is no need for environmental concern.

Both miss the point. In the age of humans, the Anthropocene, there is no safety in natural limits. Or in overcoming them. For those reasons, we should put the idea of limits off limits.

The question is not whether two degrees of warming is riskier than 1.5 degrees (of course it is), or whether we are using, as some claim, more than one earth’s worth of resources per year (of course not), or how many extinctions per year are sustainable without a collapse of human societies (why allow any at all?). The real question is how we better negotiate among ourselves, across all our many diverse peoples and cultures, so that we can navigate together toward the better futures we wish for, in our different ways.

On a planet of nearly eight billion people with billions more on the way, natural limits simply don’t mean much. Nor are there solutions in limits. The harshest reality of the Anthropocene is that every human action or nonaction generates a labyrinth of consequences, both social and environmental, local and global, some surprising, some predictable, that affect different people very differently.

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