By Guest Author 03/12/2015

How do we go about communicating that the whole of the biosphere (and humanity) is at stake? Professor David Teather looks for answers in the book Big World, Small Planet in a review originally featured in the latest issue of Forest & Bird magazine.

BWSP_jacket SV copyConvincing others to care for the natural world is a matter for both heart and mind. Careful description and reasoned analysis of the need to conserve a particular landscape, an ecosystem, or the habitat of a threatened species are usually accompanied in Forest & Bird magazine by stunning photos. A picture can be worth a thousand words.

But how should we go about this communication task, of showing as well as telling, when the whole of the biosphere is at stake? Where the reasons for concern are as diverse as climate change, atmospheric pollution and interference with the natural cycling of major nutrients?

Big World, Small Planet is an attempt by a world-renowned scientist Professor Johan Rockström, of the University of Stockholm, and award-winning National Geographic photographer, Dr Mattias Klum, to reach out internationally to explain the latest thinking about our place on planet Earth.

In 120 pages of narrative, complemented by 80 of photos and graphics, it provides an accessible account of the world’s greatest complexities. It engages with readers both intellectually and emotionally.

Entering the Anthropocene

Throughout the last 10,000 years climatic fluctuations have been minimal and conditions for the development of human civilisations particularly benign. But the authors argue that we’ve now entered the Anthropocene period – an era of massive human impact on the Earth. This is marked by rapid increases in population and affluence, which are changing the global climate and degrading the ecosystems on which we depend.

The first half of Big World, Small Planet summarises our predicament. The key is to keep our impacts on the Earth below the limits beyond which the biosphere might flip into a different and, for us, undesirable state. The authors call these limits “planetary boundaries” and identify nine of them:

  • Climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and ocean acidification. These three are sharply defined global thresholds, with direct implications for the whole planet.
  • Biodiversity loss, land-use change, freshwater consumption, and interference with the natural cycles of major nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus). All undermine the resilience of the biosphere.
  • Air pollution (by soot and other particles), and chemical pollution of the biosphere (by heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals).
Mattias Klum (1)
Credit: Mattias Klum

The authors then redefine the focus. “Our grand challenge is not about saving a species or an ecosystem. It’s about saving us. It’s about making it possible for humanity to continue pursuing economic development, prosperity and good lives.”

It’s only by saving the natural environment, on which we wholly depend, that the future of humanity can be assured.

Mattias Klum
Credit: Mattias Klum

Sustainable solutions

In the final section the authors provide thought-provoking examples of sustainable, nature-based solutions. For example, the discovery in Sardinia that oil from a common weed, the artichoke thistle, can be used to make plastics led to the conversion of an old petro-chemical plant into one of the world’s most advanced bio-refineries.

They point out that such solutions are often blocked by perverse incentives and by lack of clear regulation. It’s far too easy to plunder natural resources, ecosystems and the atmosphere for short-term economic gain.

By calculating the true costs of pollution and planetary abuse and establishing regulations that enable economic development within planetary boundaries, they claim we can protect the Earth’s remaining ecosystems without impeding development.

Indeed, they claim such measures would unleash innovation by making it worthwhile to invest in sustainable, nature-based solutions. Correcting massive global market failures would lead to a “good” Anthropocene.

Big World, Small Planet is an important and beautiful book.

Author Professor David Teather has been a Forest & Bird member for over 40 years and currently lives in Australia. He was inspired to write this article after reading Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries by Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum, Max Ström Publishing, Stockholm, $39. For more information on sustainable global development, see