04 April 2013

Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab

UPDATE2: 8 April, Victor Galaz, of the Stockholm Resilience Center, says that this post is focused on a straw man. Read his response here and we start a discussion in the comments here.
UPDATE: 5 April, in the comments Melissa Leach weighs in with further thoughts.

Writing at the Huffington Post UK, Melissa Leach, Director of the STEPS Centre at Sussex University, asks a provocative question:
When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?
The occasion for raising this question was Prof. Leach's participation last month in a United Nations meeting of experts on the development of new sustainable development goals. Leach describes a meeting in which scientific authority was invoked as the basis for closing down debates over policy and asserting the preeminent roles of experts in charting a course for future global development.
This meeting - and many others like it in the run up to September - raise a significant question: Is there a contradiction between the world of the anthropocene, and democracy? The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and 'hard' environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions. It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages.

This is a far cry - as a South African participant pointed out - from some other worlds: on the ground in the global south and north, where people and social movements debate and contest their interests, values and desired futures; and the world according to democratic theory, in which such politics are worth acknowledging and respecting. In this world, there is a need to open up, make uncertainty and ambiguity and dissensus explicit, and foster diversity to cope with it.
The basis for the power grab by the experts -- really old wine in new bottles -- is the fashionable idea of "planetary boundaries" which holds that there are hard and fast ecological limits within which human activity must be constrained. The concept is much contested scientifically -- such as in this excellent review by my colleagues at The Breakthrough Institute.

However, as an instrument of scientific authority in political debates the concept of planetary boundaries could not be more perfect. Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam, explains (here in PDF):
Since the assessment of planetary boundaries is inherently political, scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors. This raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy and accountability of scientific assessment processes . . .
For the proponents of planetary boundaries as political authority, issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science. Consequently, they argue that the tradition conception of sustainable development as a challenge of trading off competing values -- environmental, social, economic -- needs instead to be rethought in hierarchical terms. They explain and illustrate the need as follows (from this recent paper in Nature in PDF).:
[W]e need to reframe the UN paradigm of three pillars of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental — and instead view it as a nested concept.
In the hierarchical axiology, the trump values are defined by the planetary boundaries.

Who, you may ask, is responsible for identifying and enforcing those values? Why, the experts, of course. The power implications of planetary boundaries were spelled out explicitly by several of its leading advocates as follows:
Ultimately, there will need to be an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected. In effect, such an institution, acting on behalf of humanity as a whole, would be the ultimate arbiter of the myriad trade-offs that need to be managed as nations and groups of people jockey for economic and social advantage. It would, in essence, become the global referee on the planetary playing field.
The political model that underlies the power grab of scientists is one of "trusteeship" a form of which was described by PIK's John Schellnhuber, an early advocate of the planetary boundaries model of global politics, in Der Spiegel:
Ultimately only democratic societies will be able to master this challenge, notwithstanding their torturous decision-marking processes. But to get there perhaps we'll need innovative refinement of our democratic institutions. I could imagine assigning 10 percent of all seats in parliament to ombudsmen who represent only the interests of future generations.
An expert body of the German government memorialized the political philosophy in a comic book (illustrated below, here in PDF), complete with the scientist (Schellnhuber himself in this case) symbolically above the policy maker, describing a planetary boundary condition and as a consequence, President Obama in the panel below expressing concern that action is needed.
A real-world example of the implications of the planetary boundaries political philosophy is vividly seen through the issue of global energy access. Future global development, at least in the short term, necessarily will involve trade offs between expanded use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels and the expansion of energy access to the world's poorest. The planetary boundaries advocates, consistent with their hierarchical values framework, call for "universal clean energy" and recommend development targets focused not on measuring expanded energy access, but rather carbon dioxide emissions (here in PDF).

In other words, expanded energy access to the world's poorest is deemed acceptable only if it first satisfies the demands of planetary boundaries -- in other words, the political demands of the scientists couched in the inviolable authority of science. As Shellenhuber explains:
I have nothing against economic growth, as long as it does not break through the planetary guardrails.
In a recent essay, Nico Stehr, of Zeppelin University, characterizes dissatisfaction about democracy among climate experts, and explains the general underlying perspective:
Consensus on facts, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on politics. The constitutive social, political and economic uncertainties are treated as minor obstacles that need to be delimited as soon as possible - of course by a top-down approach. . . the discourse of the impatient scientists privileges hegemonic players such as world powers, states, transnational organizations, and multinational corporations. Participatory strategies are only rarely in evidence. Likewise, global mitigation has precedence over local adaptation. “Global” knowledge triumphs over “local” knowledge. . . the sum of these considerations is the conclusion that democracy itself is inappropriate, that the slow procedures for implementation and management of specific, policy-relevant scientific knowledge leads to massive, unknown dangers. The democratic system designed to balance divergent interests has failed in the face of these threats.
Stehr's explanation aptly summarizes the play book used by the experts at the United Nations meeting described by Leach in their efforts to assert authority over high level decisions on the future course of global development. Leach ends her essay with an ominous warning:
[T]he human rights and well-being that are under threat in the anthropocene may prove not just to be material rights to food, water and energy, but also rights to voice, priorities, perspectives and culturally-embedded ways of life.


  1. Of course China, India, and the other developing countries will never subject themselves to this. Europe may well and the US in in question.

    The end of the West?

  2. “Global” knowledge triumphs over “local” knowledge.

    And there's at least one fatal flaw. I like the way Sowell talks about mundane vs special knowledge. Mundane knowledge (i.e., local conditions) almost always overwhelm special knowledge. How about these guys figure out where the planetary boundary is for knowledge with respect to making decisions is before they decide where all these other planetary boundaries are?

    Also, saying things about how only democratic societies can manage all this (after making them less democratic) seems wrong, though it's probably correct, in as much as people in democracies will simply be surrenduring their say in matters to super national rather than national bodies. A non-democrat isn't interested in giving up his power to anyone.

  3. I'd like to think that The Economist's coverage of the anthropocene didn't endorse anti-democratic tendencies which may be inherent in the "planetary boundaries" concepts. It sought to distinguish the idea of the anthropocene and the idea of planetary boundaries, and specifically questioned the claims of the latter:

    >>To think of deliberately interfering in the Earth system will undoubtedly be alarming to some. But so will an Anthropocene deprived of such deliberation. A way to try and split the difference has been propounded by a group of Earth-system scientists inspired by (and including) Dr Crutzen under the banner of “planetary boundaries”. The planetary-boundaries group, which published a sort of manifesto in 2009, argues for increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene. Carbon-dioxide levels, the researchers recommend, should be brought back from whatever they peak at to a level a little higher than the Holocene's and a little lower than today's.
    >>In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system's behaviour are lastingly changed. For example, the Holocene would, without human intervention, have eventually come to an end in a new ice age. Keeping the Anthropocene free of ice ages will probably strike most people as a good idea.

    -- Oliver

  4. -3-Oliver

    Thanks ... I suspect Leach's invocation of The Economist was to note the mainstreaming of the idea. (Once it hits the front of Economist, its mainstream;-)

    The anti-democracy bent might be worth a future look as the debate is sure to continue.


  5. If planetary boundaries exists, and I think they do, they will assert themselves and subordinate human discretion. The time periods in which humans have restrained themselves from accessing available resources are short. There is simply no durability to cornucopian policy that claims abundance where there is none, just as there is no durability to scarcity policy that claims limits where there are none. But of course, I am a skeptic of the powers of human discretion, or at least skeptical of its scope.

  6. Let's look at the record of supranational bodies. The UN itself has been ineffective most of the time, thanks to security council vetoes, while many of its divisions (such as the HRC) are laughingstocks. The European Commission is widely despised by the citizenry of the EU as meddling, hyper-bureaucratic, featherbedded, and democratically unaccountable; five years after the financial crisis started, the Euro's problems are not only not solved; many of them aren't even fully appreciated yet. The WHO had some substantial early successes, but not recently. The IMF is profoundly undemocratic (thank heavens) and is hated by the citizens of the countries it has bailed out...the list goes on an on.

    With such a consistent pattern of failure, why on earth would one proposed yet one more level of international governance?

  7. Years ago, I spent several months reading through H. G. Wells' post-1900 writings, starting with his 1901 Anticipations. It's an example of how a shrill ideology can destroy what had been a marvelous writer. Few of those writings are read today.

    In each, Well's struggled to establish a world government dominated by elites. Every possible scheme was attempted from great industrials and a airman's union to Hitler-like strong leaders. In his "Well, Hitler, and the World State," George Orwell had this to say of Wells:

    "If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man."

    The contrary point of view was best expressed by G. K. Chesterton, who introduces in Eugenics and Other Evils, written just after WWI, with this warning:

    "And then the hour came when I felt, not without relief, that I might well fling all my notes into the fire. The fire was a very big one, and was burning up bigger things than such pedantic quackeries. And, anyhow, the issue itself was being settled in a very different style. Scientific officialism and organisation in the State which had specialised in them, had gone to war with the older culture of Christendom. Either Prussianism would win and the protest would be hopeless, or Prussianism would lose and the protest would be needless. As the war advanced from poison gas to piracy against neutrals, it grew more and more plain that the scientifically organised State was not increasing in popularity. Whatever happened, no Englishmen would ever again go nosing round the stinks of that low laboratory, So I thought all I had written irrelevant, and put it out of my mind.

    I am greatly grieved to say that it is not irrelevant. It has gradually grown apparent, to my astounded gaze, that the ruling classes in England are still proceeding on the assumption that Prussia is a pattern for the whole world. If parts of my book are nearly nine years old, most of their principles and proceedings are a great deal older. They can offer us nothing but the same stuffy science, the same bullying bureaucracy and the same terrorism by tenth-rate professors that have led the German Empire to its recent conspicuous triumph. For that reason, three years after the war with Prussia, I collect and publish these papers."

    Today, we need more writers like Chesterton.

    --Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

  8. There was a time when those who spoke of the threat of 'one-world'government' were considered cranks, if considered at all. The Anthropocene crowd (I'm lookin' at you, Revkin) fir the bill to a 't.' If you believe that the great issues of the day are planetary, you can hardly see yourself in nationalistic terms. In fact, we're dealing with 'citizen of the world' types here - exactly the types that right wing 'kooks' warned about decades ago. Thus, the love for Kyoto and its descendants. One rule, to bind them all. ;-)

    The Anthropocene is not a geological era - it is a movement. It references science around the edges, but all movements are the same in essence.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. The problem is not people per se. The problem is individuals suffering from delusions of grandeur, who presume themselves to be mortal gods, and it is not new. It is also their followers who dream of instant gratification without consequences. Who fail to comprehend that liberty is only suitable for individuals capable of self-moderating behavior.

    Anyway, before we had religious leaders, today we have "religious" leaders. Some undoubtedly have authentically good intentions, but as they accrete power, they will enjoy dissociation of risk, and will surely suffer the corruption which it engenders. The role of God or gods is not well suited for mortal beings.

  11. Having written a whole book on this issue, I do think planetary boundaries and economic growth can be reconciled - and that therefore the ecological constraints implicit in the boundaries assessment do not have to constrain democratic choices of society. Having said that, PBs themselves were always going to be subject to contention being necessarily normative - the definition of 'safe operating space' cannot be subject only to an objective scientific definition.

    Knowing the scientists involved, and the lead author Johan Rockstrom in particular, I don't at all see them as authoritarians - I think rather that this is a proposal for consideration, which societies and governments may or may not choose to take seriously.

    I do also think that science has a special claim to truth, so would resist going too far down the relativist path. We can have a debate about the numbers attached to the boundaries - 350ppm etc - on the basis of evidence rather than on the basis of assertion and ideology. But yes, I know this is a 'wicked' problem!

    Mark Lynas

  12. -1-Mark Lynas

    Thanks much ... I guess that I see the proposals as more than think pieces. The scientists involved are actively working to secure a seat at the table and exercise influence based on their proposals -- this from just yesterday:


    My critique here has nothing to do with "relativism" related to truth -- as you know 350 ppm and 2 degrees are political rather than scientific boundaries. Climate change is real, but that fact has nothing to do with whether we chose authoritarian or democratic responses.


  13. Too bad the people looking at the world through the planetary boundaries metric are so narrow minded and poorly educated. Julian Simon has shown that, in terms of resources, the human mind is the most important factor. Since knowledge is growing at a very fast pace, the world, in practical terms, is becoming more bountiful, not less.

    JD Ohio

  14. That's right - and climate may not even be the best example. I think the quantified value given for absolute nitrogen fixation is particularly problematic - reducing humanity's nitrogen use by two thirds would effectively preclude feeding today's population, let alone that of 2050. So the absolute value can be a distraction - what matters is how efficiently the resource is used, and the costs and benefits of doing so, and what substitutions exist.

    I still find PBs a useful framework though, because they force you to consider tradeoffs between different priorities. Hydroelectric reduces CO2, for example, but affects biodiversity and freshwater use. Organic may reduce toxic agrochemicals (though it has its own stack of 'natural' pesticides) but trades off against biodiversity and land use because of its inefficiency of ouput per unit of area. And so on.

    In terms of the absolute numbers though, if there were easy substitutes for carbon emissions, the political significance of 350 or 550 or whatever ppm would be much reduced. That I guess is what happened with stratospheric ozone, where we're not still having fights about exactly how many Dobson Units are acceptable up there above the troposphere, because we found new refrigerants and propellants relatively easily. So in the book I came back to technical substitutes - nuclear, for example, on climate. They can't eliminate politics, of course, but they can make the political path easier, and the proposed 'boundaries' less threatening to development and poverty eradication.


  15. Frankly what I'm seeing is people trying to enforce hypotheses that they haven't proven with the force of law. We should note how many hypotheses have had consensus support which later turned out to be be false. They also try to prevent scientists who disagree with them from even publishing.

  16. Speaking of the Economist this recent article plays down temperature increase even with doubling http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21574461-climate-may-be-heating-up-less-response-greenhouse-gas-emissions . This sort of thing picked up on my let the air out of the balloon. It actually a very good review article. I have read some of the papers cited.

  17. Mr. Lynas said, "I still find PBs a useful framework though, because they force you to consider tradeoffs between different priorities."

    I agree with him as far as he went, which I think means that one has to be aware of the constraints one is working with when developing the criteria for planning a course of action; however, I also think this idea makes no positive statement about what level political organization this should take place - that's good in my opinion.

    What we are talking about here seems to be a concerted effort to move decision making about almost everything to the highest, most remote, and smallest group of people possible. What will the tentacles of such a world "referee" not touch?

    It is my contention that a global top-down driven process will necessarily produce fewer good decisions than a system where decision making [well supported by correct information] is returned to the lowest practical level, namely one where the people who are most directly affected by an issue are the ones making the trade-offs and the decisions locally. Adding another level to our Hobbesian layer cake doesn't seem like it will do much but produce a very Procrustean style of decision making.

    What I think we really want is to maximize the number of good decisions. Ultimately this requires people at the lowest levels becoming better decision makers, not a couple of people at the top, however 'smart' and well informed, making the decisions for everyone else. Isn't that what people really want? Or, do some people really want to tell everyone else what to do?


  18. Well, well, well. Haven't we been on this road before? I think the UN should wait a while until all those of us who witnessed the last War have passed on taking our memories with us. We'd only be a nuisance otherwise.
    I expect there'll be enough useful idiots to form the "expert" consensus knowingly or unknowingly to support the political endgame.
    My faith in human nature leads me to expect the worst.

  19. Consider what happens now with constitutional interpretations by supreme courts. A constitution or ultimate law is adopted and then a non-elected body of judges interprets it in their rulings. These rulings can have profound effects on society. It is accepted in law that the constitutions are "living trees" and will that interpretations will grow and adapt as society evolves. So it is accepted that a non-elected elite am limit and define the powers of democratically elected legislatures.

    Ultimate rule by the elite is not a new idea.

  20. ===]]] Knowing the scientists involved, and the lead author Johan Rockstrom in particular, I don't at all see them as authoritarians - I think rather that this is a proposal for consideration, which societies and governments may or may not choose to take seriously. [[[===

    Amazing -

    Someone who is writing about people based on first-hand knowledge of them.

    What would happen if we didn't talk about them as dangerous authoritarians, what if we don't scare-monger, what if we don't write about the "power grab by the experts?"

    How else can we de-politicize the science, right Roger?

  21. Ultimately, the problem is the tragedy of the commons. No effective solution has ever been found for it, except to transfer the commons to private owners, who have a long term stake in its future. Governments or even transnational bodies have tried to simulate privatizing the commons, sometimes with success but more often with failure, by selling 'pollution credits' or fishing rights.

  22. -20-Joshua

    Thanks .. but I'm pretty sure that I know far more of these guys than Mark does and for much longer in a professional capacity. Thanks.

  23. Right Wing Professor writes:

    Ultimately, the problem is the tragedy of the commons. No effective solution has ever been found for it, except to transfer the commons to private owners, who have a long term stake in its future

    This is not correct. The concept is based on the idea that human behavior is based on pure selfishness. Both observation n and experiment with artificial societies of intelligent agents show that cooperation will spontaneously emerge since it is advantageous. Indeed, the Internet is an example of this since it relies on the cooperation of the autonomous networks on which it is based. Strategies, such as spamming, that attempt to exploit the trust inherent in this cooperation are not tolerated.

  24. "An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy."

    Steven Weinberg

  25. I think that generally what people like Schellnhuber are trying to do is impose restraints before they are necessary in anticipation of problems they don't yet understand. Heretofore, the race has responded to problems created by rapid expansion and growth by dealing with them as they arose. We are now soothsaying the future and trying to impact it when it's clear we really don't know what the extent or range of problems is going to be.

    The old way is called crisis management, and while it may seem smart to try and anticipate the next catastrophic crisis, it seems to me arrogant and wasteful to do so until a full understanding of the problem is reached. The possibility that we may be doing more harm than good, that we may be creating problems for ourselves by presuming we are so smart that we can control and shape the future needs to be seriously considered. I've always thought the United States was a special place and that "it can't happen here," but after studying what is going on in the UK and after Obama and his minions declared CO2 a pollutant by fiat, I'm no longer so sure.

    In my day to day dealings with government and governmental bodies I am continually amazed at the ineptitude, waste and stupidity. Within the past year because of a catastrophic medical event in my family, I've had to deal with several government agencies. For me, someone who worked in construction and only had to deal with local or county inspectors on the job, the experience was alarming. Based on this, the idea that an international ruling body of experts might somehow supercede the authority and sovereignty of the United States and make decisions that effect the economic prosserity and social welfare of the Union and the several states therein is a horrifying prospect.

  26. Old wine in new bottles [= wineskins] indeed. Didn't Plato suggest this model of government? I think he called it aristocracy.

    (Wordpress seems to be calling me Unknown, despite my having logged in via Google. I'm Mike Maxwell.)

  27. @8. Mark B. said...

    "There was a time when those who spoke of the threat of 'one-world'government' were considered cranks, if considered at all. The Anthropocene crowd (I'm lookin' at you, Revkin) fi[t] the bill to a 't.'"

    Interestingly enough, Revkin was the moderator at this UN meeting of "experts". And speaking of the UN, "planetary boundaries", "sustainable development goals" and "governance" ...

    There was a raft of resolutions adopted/passed (or whatever they do with them ... probably anything except read before voting, would be my guess) by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 21/2012. Seventeen, to be precise, all of which had worked their way through the various and sundry UN mazes (supposedly) pursuant to the "outcome document" - aka "The Future We [don't need or] Want" - from Rio+20, last June.

    Two of these resolutions kind of got my alarm bells ringing. As I had noted in:


    "I cannot say that I’m particularly thrilled about the thought of a 'New International Economic Order', a 'New Global Human Order' – or of being 'guide[d]' by an unseen text which (presumably) urges 'Harmony with Nature."

    Although "planetary boundaries" had made it into the ZOD - not unlike the call for a 'future generations' supra representative - there is no mention of them (or of other presumptively authoritarian declarations) in the (presumably) final draft of this Rio+20 "outcome document".

  28. This is the organisation at the very centre of all this. The club of Rome.

    Bankrupting Nature, Denying our Planetary Boundaries



  29. My apologies ... I had written:

    "Revkin was the moderator at this UN meeting of 'experts"

    However, the meeting at which Revkin was the moderator was actually an October 16, 2012 UN Panel that was addressing "Formulation of Sustainable Development Goals".

    Although not an "Official Record" (but merely presented for "Information Media"), this UN DPI news release was a report on the "Sixty-seventh General Assembly Second Committee Panel Discussion". The headline reads:

    "Human Life Dependent on ‘Planetary Boundaries’ That Should Not Be Crossed, Says Panellist in Second Committee Special Event"

    Revkin's recorded contribution:

    "Moderator Revkin said goals were needed to allow people to 'fit our infinite aspirations on a finite planet' with some equity. A resilient and adaptable approach was needed over the next few decades because mistakes would be made and it would be essential to accommodate them. Agreements were not enough, he said, calling for goals that actually worked when applied in the real world."


  30. "I do also think that science has a special claim to truth, "

    Mark Lynas
    Thu Apr 04, 11:29:00 AM MDT

    Maybe once upon a time. Not any more. And we know why.


    By James Heartfield

    In 1997 the Club of Rome collaborated with Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute to launch a new report ‘Factor Four’ that promised to ‘halve resource use’ while doubling wealth. The message was that you could get rich saving the planet. A privileged few did indeed double their wealth; but for the rest it was just a case of halving resources.

    Immodestly, Lovins made his own California energy scheme the main example of savings in ‘Factor Four’. His well-paid advice to the State of California was that it was a big mistake to adopt a system that rewarded increased electricity output with increased profits. Such a system would naturally tend to boost output. Instead, rewards for cutting energy use were needed. Rather than getting paid for additional megawatts the utility companies should be rewarded for saving power use: negawatts.

    The impact of Lovins’ model on energy generation in California was decisive. ‘Around 1980, Pacific Gas and Electricity Company was planning to build some 10-20 power stations’, according to Lovins.

    But by 1992, PG&E was planning to build no more power stations, and in 1993, it permanently dissolved its engineering and construction division. Instead as its 1992 Annual Report pronounced, it planned to get at least three quarters of its new power needs in the 1990s from more efficient use by its customers.[4]

    Of course the PG&E was not getting three quarters of its new power needs from anywhere: it had just reduced its output. But manufacturing energy scarcity did indeed grow somebody’s cash wealth: Enron’s. With these artificial caps on energy production the generating companies could start to hike up the charges to utility companies, including PG&E, now unable to meet its own customers’ demands. Those energy companies were owned by Enron.


  32. How is this proposal of rule by elite experts so different from what occurs now. Consider the EU and the Euro. The elites make a proposal that the public is asked to democratically approve. if the public does not approve of the proposal, they are asked again and again until they do approve.

    In Canada, this is called "elite accommodation" and is a fact of life around the world. There is nothing really new in this proposal.

    However if the scientists who propose this think that elite decisions are not made politically and in rivalry between factions then they are very naive.

  33. dljvjbsl: "Strategies, such as spamming ... are not tolerated."

    Are you kidding me? I get at least 100 spam messages per day, and it's not going down. I will agree with you that people are not motivated only by selfishness, but there is plenty enough selfishness to make the tragedy of the commons an all-too-real phenomenon. Yeah, cooperation spontaneously emerges, but it has no history of solving the tragedy of the commons.

  34. At the risk of boring everyone, I'd like to quote from Ike's farewell address in 1960 ("Oh no! Not that again!")

    It is possibly the most prescient speech given by an American Presdident in the 20th century and bears repeating on occasion for the benefit of those who haven't read it:

    "Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    "In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    "Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

    "Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.

    "It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society."

    He was talking about the danger of the domination of the nation's scholars by the federal government and conversely, what he viewed as the opposite danger of a scientific elite becoming a force greater than representative democracy. I believe the problem has gone beyond that. Today it's arguable that we have the federal government and a scientific-technological elite working in tandem to impose their will in dictatorial fashion through bureaucratic decree. And now we are adding to this a discussion on the validity of an international scientific elite making decisions for people all over the world, no doubt in league with the aforementioned elite American federal-scientific bureaucracy.

    I for one am concerned about it.

  35. Melissa Leach sends this in for posting via email:

    "Thanks for all the comments on Roger’s excellent blog; this is a vital debate and it’s great that it’s happening. Since he quoted me to kick things off, I’d like to throw in a few clarifications and thoughts.

    I should make it clear that my Huffpost blog didn’t actually claim that there was anything inherently undemocratic about the concept of planetary boundaries (or indeed of the anthropocene). Rather, the focus of that piece was on the ways that the dynamics of a particular UN Expert meeting ‘closed down’ discussion of uncertainties, contestation, values and politics so that the end result was an apparently scientifically-authoritative/authoritarian set of messages conveyed to the SDG process. Nor am I claiming that the scientists involved in developing the concept are personally authoritarian in outlook. On the contrary. I know and work with many of them too. Indeed, as the longer version of the piece described, some were there at the Expert meeting and there was plenty of discussion in its early stages about uncertainties, politics, values, and the need for debate and dialogue, and bottom-up as well as top-down approaches. At least in part, the ant-democratic moves came in the ways the UN meeting managed and communicated its messages to the Open Working Group process.

    Yet I also don’t think communication alone is to blame. There is a tendency for the concept of planetary boundaries to align rather neatly with approaches that are top-down not bottom up, set rather than deliberated, singular rather than respectful of diversity, privileging scientific over experiential expertise, global rather than local, control rather than response-oriented, and so on. It does so more than other candidate or related concepts – whether the ‘three pillars’, sustainability or sustainable development, or component dimensions such as climate change or biodiversity . There are plenty of reasons for this, and they relate to both scientific and political processes. But it does mean we have to keep a particular ‘watching brief’ on this concept-of-the-moment; one that is constructive and engaged, yet maintains the ability to contest and critique.

    Ultimately, as our work in the STEPS Centre has often underlined, we need to be clear about means and ends; service and mastery. As long as planetary boundaries (like other technical concepts and frameworks) are seen as means to democratically-set ends; retained in service (rather than mastery) of political agency and used to open up (rather than close down) inclusive debate… then they’re part of the solution. And powerful parts at that. Otherwise, they risk confounding not only democracy, but the problems themselves.

    Let’s keep this discussion going.


    Melissa Leach"

  36. This reminds me of discussions that often follow anytime Cass Sunstein is brought up.

    I agree that humans are not rational and are incredibly mistake prone but if the experts believe people should be 'nudged' towards better behaviour, then riddle me this Batman: who will 'nudge' the nudgers? Or are they of such purity of knowledge and clarity of vision as to be infallible?

    Research has shown the more intelligent you are the MORE you can be prone to cognitive biases. History has shown some incredibly intelligent people have subscribed to some incredibly stupid beliefs. Investing more authority in experts will not ameliorate this.

  37. Prof Leach said
    "I should make it clear that my Huffpost blog didn’t actually claim that there was anything inherently undemocratic about the concept of planetary boundaries (or indeed of the anthropocene). Rather, the focus of that piece was on the ways that the dynamics of a particular UN Expert meeting ‘closed down’ discussion of uncertainties, contestation, values and politics so that the end result was an apparently scientifically-authoritative/authoritarian set of messages conveyed to the SDG process."

    I think I appreciate Prof. Leach's point but I'm afraid this seems to be at first glance an exercise in intellectual navel gazing which could very quickly be used by the unscrupulous as a vehicle to advance their agenda. Over here in the UK on a smaller scale it's known as a "public consultation" exercise. The public innocently joins in and then is surprised when despite their protestations the "project" goes ahead anyway.
    Any objections are waved away because the "public were involved in the decision making". Cue everyone looking at each other wondering which of them agreed to it!

    When all's said and done lets think of the make up of this small and powerful band of decision makers. If it happened this year is there anyone on this planet we'd have in charge - ie brilliant and able to deal with the unlimited power?
    It worked for the church for a few centuries and look what happened there.

  38. It is possibly the most prescient speech given by an American Presdident in the 20th centuryIt is possibly the most prescient speech given by an American Presdident in the 20th century

    It was written by a somewhat fleabitten professor of Political Science at U Minnesota named Malcolm Moos, who had a chip on his shoulder. By all means judge it on its merits, but don't blame it on Ike.

  39. I would be much more persuaded by the boundary argument if it wasn't presented as a crisis. The raising of fear via concepts like "100 months to act" and the hand-wring about "a final chance" at every major climate shindig.

    When a crisis that even the worst fear-mongers actually know is many decades off, is presented in terms on a couple of years, then the strong suspicion is that we are being railroaded into making decisions without proper thought.

    So when Johan Rockstrom talks of "catastrophic tipping points" I believe he is deliberately trying to inflame passions, rather than control them. His "tipping points" have no factual basis, as he knows, but are only intended to scare. (If he knew what they were, he would name them, but of course they remain more scary for being unknowable.)

    That he's a nice guy isn't relevant to the logical outcome of his actions.

    Mr Lynas:

    Having said that, PBs themselves were always going to be subject to contention being necessarily normative - the definition of 'safe operating space' cannot be subject only to an objective scientific definition.

    I'm relatively well read, but frankly this makes my head hurt. This is not some academic journal where people value writing like that. If you are going to persuade the masses, then pitching at a non-elite level would seem a pre-requisite.

  40. 26. Unknown said...

    "Didn't Plato suggest this model of government? I think he called it aristocracy"

    Yes, there has always been the monied aristocracy and those who serve them.

    On meeting Edward Gibbon, the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Duke of Gloucester was reputed to have said "Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?"

    Here is an excellent article from the Guardian on the role of the aristocracy in the 'deep ecology' movement.

    Blue-blooded and green - It's no coincidence that many leading greens are privileged: the upper classes have long harboured a fear and loathing of modern society..

    "So, the handbook tells us that we should live in small houses rather than McMansions; we should switch off our central heating and wear jumpers to keep ourselves warm; and we should avoid travelling by plane or car and ride a bike instead"

    Who wrote this call for individual austerity? None other than David de Rothschild, a member of the mind-blowingly wealthy Rothschild banking family and heir to a rather spectacular fortune.


    When the Guardian first started promoting global warming, they almost exclusively used members of the global aristocratic elite to write the articles.

    Here are some of the names Viscount Porrtt, Lord Melchitt, Oliver Tickell, George Monbiot, Zak Goldsmith, David de Rothschild, Paul Kingsnorth (Goldsmith servant), James Lovelock, Edward Goldsmith.

    They were ridiculed off the stage and replaced with one man, George Monbiot who as it happens is descended from French aristocracy (fled the revolution) himself and is an even more forthright advocate of deep ecology.

  41. I think the only proper response to this kind of naked power grab is tar and feathers. I wouldn't dignify it with a reasoned rebuttal.

  42. It seems to me that this issue is linked to the controversy over FOI requests for documents relating to scientists when they are acting in scientific assessments e.g. IPCC.

    Scientists have taken great exception to such requests, considering it an offence against academic freedom.

    However, when scientists in public institutions are acting in international scientific assessments, that are to be used for policy, then it seems to me that they should not be immune from FOI on generalized academic freedom grounds.

    Can't have their cake and eat it too.

  43. Roger: This is an interesting and thought-provoking posts. Thank you. It seems to be problematic, though, that you generalize "scientists" as being authoritarian in outlook. With a few notable exceptions, this isn't my experience with scientists -- least of all, folks that work in the climate realm. This is a point where Lynch appears to agree with me.

    Generalizing "scientists" this way not only makes the point that science should not trump democracy -- a point where I agree with you entirely -- but also fosters a reactionary anti-scientific worldview, which risks having no science at the table at all. That one of your commenters responds to all this by suggesting "tar and feathers" be used is a case in point.

  44. For some reason I think of Aldous Huxley´s Brave New World (1932). There we have a world some 600 years after Ford which finally (after many failed efforts) had reached a global ecological and social balance which was supposed to last for ever. This was created through strict birth control and (which is crucial) a manipulation of the humans so that they actually loved the social role that they were assigned to them. Everybody was happy.
    In a conversation at the end of the book between the inevitable sceptic (who was not happy)and the (also inevitable) guardians of the system, the guardians say something along the line that it is not enough to recirculate matter, also thoughts and ideas have to be circular, so that no new thought might disturb the laboriously created balance. The sceptic is thus dangerous (and is sent to the Orkney Islands where there are other failures who live in isolation from the happy world). A society in ecological balance cannot be allowed to be dynamic. People might get crazy ideas which will disturb the balance.

  45. I'm having trouble posting a piece. Is there a length limit on posts? And if so, Roger, would you mind if I posted in two parts?

  46. #38, TRWP:

    I'm a ware that presidents have speech writers. Nor did I say he wrote it. Are you saying that Ike didn't understand the content of a speech he was giving to the nation? If not, what are you saying?

  47. Gösta Oscarsson

    You hit the jackpot. What I believe we can safely assume Huxley was describing in Brave New World, was a society fulfilling the aims of deep ecology through eugenics (manipulation of the gene pool). Huxley's brother Julian was a very well known eugenicist and no doubt shared his ideas with Aldous.

    Sir Julian Sorell Huxley FRS (22 June 1887 – 14 February 1975) was an English evolutionary biologist, eugenicist and internationalist.
    Huxley was one of many intellectuals at the time who believed that the lowest class in society was genetically inferior. This passage, from 1941, puts the view forcefully:

    "The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore… they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation.


    My understanding of deep ecology is that it eschews technological progress and the domination of nature, for a society which is in harmony with the cycles of nature where human beings leave no permanent mark on the earth. The philosophy that existed in the pre Columbian Americas. (Aldous) Huxley expresses his horror of that through 'the savage' character and his description of even thoughts being continually cycled.

    George Monbiot puts it extremely well

    God of the Soil

    The peculiarities of the Abrahamic religions - their astonishing success in colonising the world and their dangerous notion of progress (now inherited by secular society) - result from a marriage between the universal god of the nomads and the conditions which permitted cities to develop.

    At Easter, the Christian belief in a permanent resurrection is mixed up with the pagan belief in a perpetual cycle of temporary resurrection and death. In church we worship the Christian notion of progress, which has now filtered into every aspect of our lives. But, amid the cracking of easter eggs and the murmur of prayer, there can still be heard the small, faint voice which reminds us that our ecological hubris must eventually be greeted by nemesis.


    Interestingly, Monbiot's mentor at Oxford, Sir Crispin Tickell is a member of the Huxley family. He is also a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, and told the BBC that the ideal population for Britain could be around 20m (currently 71m).




  48. No matter the problem, the leftist solution is always the same: a global dictatorship by the enlightened elite, and mass transfer of wealth from rich nations to poor nations.

  49. -43-Eric-

    Thanks much for your comment, but please don't generalize this post to be about scientists in general -- the post is focused on the planetary boundaries framework and how it has been represented by a few.



    Thanks .. Blogger does have a word limit. Please do submit in chunks.


  50. "With such a consistent pattern of failure, why on earth would one proposed yet one more level of international governance?"

    1. Acquisition of unaccountable power
    2. Concomitant opportunity for graft / corruption
    3. Hubris
    4. Ignorance of The Knowledge Problem
    5. Arrogance
    6. Lack of real world accomplishment

    There are certainly others, but those jump immediately to mind

  51. The Road to Serfdom is paved with good intentions....

  52. For example, I do not think that "anthropocene" is an accepted term in science yet, nor do I think we are on the verge of such a clear step away from the Holocene. Who has proved that we are? Who has written the paper that proves the end of the Holocene is imminent? Or is it based on a five-year old sensationalist headline in the Economist, a magazine that recently admitted the projected warming has not occurred while CO2 has increased as expected. The term "anthropocene" should be banned from the debate. It is a false construct until it is proven that climate change is primarily driven by human economic activity and we are a long way from that.

    What resources are depleting in trajectory? Are there potentially other resources that can be used to replace them? Is biodiversity really being depleted at an alarming rate and if so, what are the consequences? Is a loss of biodiversity at the scale it is occurring really that crucial to the future well-being of the planet? Has anyone proven that? The assumptions of the authoritarian hystericalists are staggeringly one-sided and self-aggrandizing. Mankind and life on earth are in grave danger they tell us, but it's never clear why this is so. From what I've seen, most of the proof offered is anecdotal or speculative and frequently cherry-picked. It is often contradictory. Certainly it is not conclusive in any sense of the word.

    The acceptance of doomsday analysis and terminology that is used by officious climate/environmental scientists and unelected NGO elitists like Schellnhuber, whose statement as quoted by Stehr at the start of his essay should elicit contempt in everyone who follows this debate, is the first step toward acquiescence in the solutions they will attempt to impose. People like Ms Leach need to understand that. She needs to understand that lifeless academic jargon is not going to win the day. It's clear to me that Roger understands that given the palpable concern manifested in this post.

  53. [this is the first of a two part comment. I'm thinking I posted the second half first by mistake. If so, I apologize.]

    I think there is one paragraph in Ms. Leach's HuffPost piece that is representative of the one-sidedness of the debate as it is being framed by the hystericalists who are successfully controlling the choice of language that will be used in the debate. She wrote:

    "New evidence of impending climatic thresholds and resource depletion trajectories, biodiversity depletion and valuation, the climate-water-food-energy nexuses, the importance of diversity, and of adaptive management, in a new era which was perhaps best characterised as of unprecedented variability, rather than hard resource limits, were discussed. And dynamic, engaged debate about the roles of science threw up surprising agreement about the value of co-production and transdisciplinarity in the way science is conducted. There was muted acceptance of the value of public and citizen expertise, and that scientists should be bringing plural and conditional advice to decision-making, and limited acknowledgement that sustainability is political, as is the knowledge that shapes goal definition and processes."

    The first sentence shows the drama that is being created by the hystericalists. The language is suitably ominous and hyperbolic. "Impending climate thresholds," "resource depletion trajectories," "hard resource limits," and even "unprecedented variability," are all examples of unsubstantiated academic doomsday talk. They are fancy code words to induce fear, loathing and eventual acceptance of any solution the authors of those words and thoughts will devise in the near future.

    The sentences that follow in the paragraph show how weak Ms Leach and others in her position are. For example, what is "plural and conditional advice?" What is "the value of co-production and transdisciplinarity?' The terminology is vague, and uninspiring. As weak tea, it doesn't inspire us or tell us anything. People like Ms Leach may understand the problems are not such that can be solved by a form of centralism not unlike that which characterized the Soviet Union, whose unlamented demise occurred exactly because it imposed just such a kind of authoritarian, top-down hierarchical system that did not understand that all problems and their solutions are, like politics, primarily local. But the problem is that Ms Leach and her allies don't communicate this very well. The forces that want to seize control of policy at an international level on these issues are defining the terms of the debate and its parameters, which suggests they will control the outcome, unless people who oppose them refuse to accept the terminology as it is offered and come up with something to replace it.

  54. Yup. Did it wrong. For those interested, read #53 first and then read #52 .

  55. Eric 144: Huxley was wrong, as are many new agers.
    All those beliefs that pre Colombian Native Americans lived in harmony with nature are now known to have been projected onto them by Europenas. Modern Archeology has found they manipulated the environment just as Asians and Europeans, and indeed even the "pristine" Amazon had been techologically developed for farming and fish farming.

  56. Philosopher Kings.

    Still kings.

    Medical emergencies must be dealt by expert physicians. Waiting for a "democratic vote" from patient's family , employees and friends who know little about such situation will end up costing patient's lives.
    Earth's climate, a clear and present danger must be left to the experts of how to resolve the issues. One of them, Lster Brown has most answers: BOOK: PLAN B 4 .

    Example: invasive breast cancers diagnosed in a bride whose wedding is in 6 months needs treatment NOW.
    Friends/family , agree to postpone treatment till after the honeymoon because wedding gifts, party all have been paid for. This democratic vote WILL cost her life as delaying, tumor will further invade.

    We don't have the luxury of TIME. Scientific consensus: we can't afford C02 emissions if we are to survive. Fossil industries, nations who want increasing populations for power and money, businesses wanting money growth, determining life or death of civilization- a is a luxury we can't afford.

    G Kaplan, MD

  58. Christina Reyes Thanks for your reply. I agree. I should have written 'The philosophy that is said to have existed in the pre Columbian Americas'

    Despite going on to be a pioneer New Ager at Esalen, Aldous Huxley was arguing against this ecological model of society.

    I agree with you that those societies have been deliberately misrepresented by environmentalist to further their cause. One example is their omission of the savage cruelty (cannibalism and worse) they inflicted on their enemies and each other.

    In my opinion, that is a central issue in the debate we are having here. Who has to suffer or be sacrificed to make these 'ideals' a reality ?

    Probably the most famous example is an outrageously romantic song by Canadian songwriter Neil Young called 'Cortez The Killer'. Young refers to the human sacrifice in the society of Aztec leader Montezuma.

    "They offered life in sacrifice
    So that others could go on"

  59. I am not willing to engage with the anthropocene. I was a 100% personal and political shoe in for the anthropocene until I read the science. I engaged with people a lot more capable than me.

    It is as convincing as a film or television set. As long as one views it from the angle of the camera (media), it's convincing. Look more carefully and it's no more than a manufactured illusion.

    What scientists or 'intellectuals' say is pretty much irrelevant unless they have money behind them. Some of the most powerful individuals in the world support the concepts in the article.

    They are so impatient to push ahead to their deep ecology utopia, they want to push aside the minimal 'democratic' barriers in their way.

  60. I had always ignored this subject area. However the appropriately named recent UK CH4 6 part drama series 'Utopia' made me sit up and pay attention.

    It was lauded by Guardian journalists and readers alike, including myself !!


    May not be available outside the UK. Contained scenes of cartoon violence which I skipped over.


  61. Re. #57 azeal

    Gee, where do I begin?

    "Medical emergencies must be dealt by expert physicians."......yes, good doctor, but not without the informed consent of the patient.

    "Waiting for a "democratic vote" from patient's family , employees and friends who know little about such situation will end up costing patient's lives.".......perhaps, but who cares more for the individual you seem so anxious to inflict your expert solution upon?

    And, what of the bride who "needs treatment NOW"? I dare say she, not "friends/family", will make that decision. IMHO, your job is to explain to her the facts, to help her see the options she has available to her and to inform her of the possible/probably consequences of her choices. You job is not to "treat her NOW" unless she gives you permission to do so.

    Your anecdotes are silly, but informative of a mindset that some find annoying, while others see it as downright dangerous.

  62. "I could imagine assigning 10 percent of all seats in parliament to ombudsmen who represent only the interests of future generations."

    Of course since these future generations cant vote in person, somebody must vote for them. So who is that, the "enlightened" friends of the planet in the climate science and radical ecology business, all radical leftists of course. It is astounding the high sounding language these leftists use to justify naked power grabs. Of course the real shocking part is the huge number of ordinary peope that beleive this drivel.

  63. Example: invasive breast cancers diagnosed in a bride whose wedding is in 6 months needs treatment NOW.

    But what if the treatment offered is some sham "alternative" treatment?

    She dies anyway, without a wedding. So she is worse off than not being treated?

    Many of us don't believe the bride is dying. We don't believe that you have the correct treatment, even if she was dying. We sure as hell don't believe that your reason for proposing treatment is in saving the bride (in your silly analogy, it would be because the doctor makes more money by emergency treatment costs).

    My converse analogy is: those people who sell poor people life insurance that is shockingly expensive, that they don't need. They are conned into an expensive "precaution" for a risk that is overstated. Rather more common than your analogy too, I might add.

  64. Please try that cancer analogy again when we can diagnose catastrophic anthropogenic global warming as well as we can diagnose cancer.

    A better medical analogy would be to drastic treatment (e.g., chemotherapy) for a hypothetical disease that has not yet been observed, but that many specialists are convinced will affect the bride much later in life.

    I wonder how many brides would take you up on that offer?

  65. I think it's entirely pertinent to this discussion to mention that the recently launched Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability (www.democracyandsustainability.org) incorporates strong references to the earth's natural boundaries and limits within a short text that is about the principles and practical commitments needed to equip democracy to deliver sustainability. Signatories are strongly committed both to democracy and to sustainability.

    Planetary boundaries and democracy can, and must be made, compatible. I commend the Manifesto to you - not only personally as the coordinator of the international consultation process through which the Manifesto was developed, but also because of the urgent need to take action to craft and evolve systems of democracy that are respectful of natural boundaries and limits.
    Halina Ward, Director, Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development

  66. Signatories are strongly committed both to democracy and to sustainability.

    Lenin was strongly committed to both democracy and Marxism. Problem was it wasn't possible.

    Your problem comes when the people choose something over sustainability. Do the Greens then go with the people, or with sustainability?

    Hang on, that's already happening! And far too many Greens are choosing to suggest non-democratic solutions to the problem of the people exercising their democracy.

    People aren't choosing sustainable policies because they don't know about them. They aren't choosing them because they don't want them.

    No manifesto linking sustainability with democracy gets round that awkward issue.

  67. I just remembered this powerful film by acclaimed BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis.

    It traces the inappropriate use of systems theory and cybernetics metaphors to describe the natural world back to Freud who inspired Arthur Tansley, the man who coined the word 'ecosystem'.

    The film is no longer available, but the BBC page (with a short summary) is still there. There is a link to a trailer.


    Here is an article about the programme.

    One was the science of ecology. Following the early work of Arthur Tansley, and until maybe the 70s and 80s, ecologists assumed that there was such a thing as the balance of nature, that nature was essentially in equilibrium.

    The modern science of ecology was founded on this assumption, and it was later supplemented with cybernetics, which was used to create computer models of what became known as ecosystems.

    This was particularly interesting, because I had always used the word uncritically. In fact, built right into the term is the assumption that nature works according to the principles of cybernetics, that it is a system that strives for equilibrium.