By Guest Work 18/01/2017

By Prof Ralph E H Sims, Massey University, Palmerston North

horizon-scan-badge-4The future for secure and peaceful human life on our planet is under threat.

A wide range of socio-economic indicators that illustrate global growth parameters from 1750 to 2010 confirm the rapid acceleration that has become particularly evident over the past six decades as world population has grown exponentially (Steffen et al., 2015a) (Fig. 1).

Competition for scarce supplies of freshwater, food and natural resources will ultimately result.

The great acceleration. Global indicators, aggregated for socio-economic development between 1750 and 2010 (Steffen et al., 2015a)
Figure 1. Global indicators, aggregated for socio-economic development between 1750 and 2010 (Steffen et al., 2015a).

Our planet’s systems have been stressed as a result of this ever-growing human influence, including the acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions and the resultant impacts on climate change such as surface temperature and ocean acidification (Fig. 2). The only trends to have slowed in recent years are marine fish capture (probably because of a significant decline in fish stocks) and the percentage of total land area used for agricultural production (probably because most land suitable for pasture or crops is already being farmed and also the area of degraded land has increased as existing farm land becomes non-fertile).

The great acceleration. Indicators of the structure and functioning of the Earth’s systems between 1750 and 2010 (Steffen et al., 2015a).
Figure 2. Indicators of the structure and functioning of the Earth’s systems between 1750 and 2010 (Steffen et al., 2015a).

The “global commons” (such as the atmosphere, oceans and natural resources that lie outside the political reach of any one nation) have been compromised as a result of human influence causing these trends. This has resulted in an apparent move from the Holocene Age (with its stable climate that enabled the development and growth of agriculture over the past 10,000 years) to the commencement of the Anthropocene Age.

Concerns over these trends have led to an analysis of nine “planetary life support systems”. Their capacities to cope by staying within “safe” boundaries (that is before human life is threatened) are being compromised (Steffen et al., 2015b). The boundaries for climate change, biodiversity loss, and bio-geochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, appear to have already been exceeded.

Our growing demands for food, water, energy and natural resources have created huge stresses on the global commons and the entire planet. It is clearly evident that we cannot continue along the current pathways towards ever-increasing economic growth.

To address these issues, a high-level, 3 day meeting, “Global commons – Solutions for a Crowded Planet” was held at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington D C in October 2016. Convened by IUCN and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), with around 100 attendees, we discussed the impacts of the trends above and attempted to identify the possible tipping points needed to slow the present rates of acceleration. Discussions were led by Helen Clark (UNDP), Andrew Steer (WRI), Johan Rockstrom (Stockholm Resilience Centre), Naoko Ishii (GEF), Inger Anderson (IUCN), Dominic Waughray (World Economic Forum), Peter Bakker (World Business Council for Sustainable Development) and a number of top science journalists.



The resulting Global Commons Movement is now on-going. This recently included a major side-event at the climate change COP 22 in Marrakech on “Agriculture’s Role in Transforming the Food System to Safeguard the Global Commons.

Time is short to achieve change in the Earth’s systems under threat and the risks are immense. However, the goal of a diverse, stable and prosperous planet is still possible but needs a bold approach to match the unprecedented scale of the challenge.

The Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement are a good start, with all nations, including New Zealand, in effect agreeing to slow the Great Acceleration. This now has to be urgently implemented which will require widespread understanding of the problem and strong political leadership; significantly reducing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade would be a good start.


Steffen W, Broadgate W, Deutsch L, Gaffney O and Ludwig C (2015a). The trajectory of the Anthropocene – the great acceleration, The Anthropocene Review 2(1),

Steffen W, Richardson K, Rockstrom J, Cornell S E, Fetzer I, Bennett E M, Biggs R, Carpenter S R, De Vries W, De Wit C A, Folke C, Gerten D, Heinke J, Mace G M, Persson L M, Ramanathan V, Reyers B, and Sorlin S (2015b). Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. 347 (6223): 1259855. doi:10.1126/science.1259855



The Sciblogs Horizon Scan

This post is part of the Sciblogs Horizon Scan summer series, featuring posts from New Zealand researchers exploring what the future holds across a range of fields.

Featured image: Hong Kong city skyline. Credit: Diliff / Wikimedia.

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