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Feel the Fear

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In my last blog I reflected on whether the findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report would send sufficiently strong signals to induce meaningful, global responses to the climate crisis. This week, the Earth Commission has published a report in Nature journal, which presents more evidence of signals from Earth systems to which we should devote considerable attention. These signals indicate that humans are taking colossal risks with the future of civilization, along with everything that lives on Earth. The FT headline about the report states simply that Earth is past its safe limits for humans. It haunts me that Steve Cutts’ chilling predictions about Man might come true.

Seven of Eight System Boundaries Have Been Breached

The Earth Commission’s report, “Safe and just Earth system boundaries,” assesses several biophysical processes and systems that regulate the state of the Earth system, including climate, biosphere, land use, water, nutrient cycles and aerosol pollutants. The researchers involved have identified the limits within which those systems operate effectively, and the harm that could ensue should those limits be breached. Of the eight boundaries reviewed by researchers, seven have been pushed beyond their safe and just limit into risk zones that increasingly threaten planetary and human health. As the report says, all the systems are interconnected, such that overshooting the safe limit for one could have consequential effects for others.

Natural and Social Limits

Although focussed on science and physical processes, the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report and the Earth Commission’s report both emphasise the effect that changes in earth systems will have on society. Environmental degradation and social justice are two sides of the same coin. The Earth Commission’s report exhibits a sincere concern for justice, focusing especially on intergenerational justice for people into the scientific analysis used to assess safe limits for the planet.

Global, Systemic Transformations Are Needed

The Earth Commission’s work is the first of its kind, building on the notion of Planetary Boundaries that were proposed over a decade ago. The result of work by more than 50 scientists from around the world has been to provide compelling evidence designed to advise key actors to achieve a safe and just future. The report calls for “nothing less than a just global transformation across all earth system boundaries to ensure human well-being.” Such transformations “must be systemic across energy, food, urban and other sectors, addressing the economic, technological, political and other drivers of Earth system change, and ensure access for the poor through reductions and reallocations of resource use.”

Leaping into the Path of Transformation

The report ends by saying that the path to transformation “will not be a linear journey; it requires a leap in our understanding of how justice, economics, technology and global cooperation can be furthered in the service of a safe and just future.” Two other recent news stories might give some insight into what that leap is like.

Leaping beyond growth?

First, the EU’s Beyond Growth conference at the European Parliament was attended by 2,500 people. It was described from day one as the Woodstock of Beyond Growth for two reasons: firstly, because it felt more like a festival than a conference; and secondly, because it attracted the rock stars of the beyond growth movement, and the halls of the European Parliament rang with rowdy ovations. The conference briefing paper provides many insights into possible futures beyond growth, and the fictional newspaper from May 2033 anticipates the news in a world of transformed policy making focussed entirely on the well-being of people and planet. Of course, as some commentators suggest, the conference outcomes do not yet offer a complete vision of an alternative future. Nevertheless, they give insight into what type of leap we need to take.

Artificially Intelligent Leaps

Secondly, debates about the role of Artificial Intelligence in managing our future continue to pepper the news. Will it save us or destroy us? If we humans cannot change course, will AI step in to curb our unsustainable behaviours and what are the associated ethics. These are the key questions that are considered by the William Temple Foundation’s Ethical Futures Network.


The signals that we must stop unsustainable behaviours and practices are overwhelmingly clear, whether from natural systems, or society or from specialists in technology. The William Temple Foundation is planning to convene interested parties from diverse disciplines to consider the contribution that faith-based organisations can play in crafting viable alternatives to current unsustainable practices and details will be forthcoming. Maybe we will get 10,000 participants, in a way that is reminiscent of how Archbishop William Temple attracted a large assembly of people in 1942 when he tackled the social issues of the day. It won’t be easy, but the signals clearly mean that our only choice now is to dig in and feel the fear of the leap into the unknown… It is best that we do it together.

Lois Tarbet is is also a Trustee of the William Temple Foundation.

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