Monday, January 8, 2018

Ending Note

This coursework has pushed me to examine the central question of my educational pursuit. Why did I want to study this, here, and what do I want to achieve? I like how this evolved from a space where I explored different questions I have while toying with Mean Girls memes, to a space where I provided serious answers to my own questions, and even began answering others' questions.

In my learning process, I've made key changes to my blog, such as toning down on ecofeminism, because I believe in reformist rather than radical environmental discourses.

I intend to continue blogging, because I truly enjoyed the process of writing to engage a wider audience. Blogging has helped me learn a lot more than exams have, and it has created "intellectual output" that I'd actually revisit when I've forgotten about it. Since I'm writing for a topic I care deeply about, too many things were left unsaid. I also have a punny blog title, which is handy.

I'm left with many more questions to ponder. Ultimately, it's important to remain optimistic and proactive.

That was my Prom Queen speech. Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Review: Doughnut Economics

In Doughnut Economics (2017), Kate Raworth explores limitations of modern economics theories. (A prominent female academic!)


Merging social boundaries into the planetary boundaries structure, she introduces the Doughnut for social and and planetary boundaries for development. This video, by Oxfam International, summarises her key ideas. Here's the full paper, published in 2012.


In the 2017 update, social boundaries have 12 dimensions, derived from internationally agreed minimum standards for human wellbeing, as established in 2015 by the Sustainable Development Goals. They are jobs, education, food, networks, gender equality, social equity, political voice, peace and justice, and access to health services, energy, water, and housing. Together with the 9 PBs, they encompass human well-being, and promote inclusive and sustainable economic development.

It also quantifies human transgression on these boundaries. Just like overshooting PBs concern ecologists, shortfalls under the social foundation concern social development.

(Source: The Lancet)

The Doughnut answers to the criticism that PBs only focus on biophysical aspects of resilience. It provides the social dimension of what a safe space for humanity means.

This is another instance where, instead of criticising the PBs for oversimplification, or disagreeing with the actual boundaries or the extent of human transgression, researchers have used the framework constructively by tying in other important aspects of sustainable development.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Wrong Model, Useful Framework

"All models are wrong, but some are useful." - George Box

(From Mean Girls to models. Source: Dailymail)

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that "The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum." In other words, the world is (increasingly) chaotic: this much I understand from Physics. The desire for simplicity motivates us to model it. The need to make decisions motivates us to simplify complex problems. The urgency to solve complex problems pushes us to make informed decisions. 

Hence, I argue that even if the PBs are "wrong", whether it is the way they quantified anthropogenic perturbations, the numerical boundaries they proposed, the way they linked regional and global scales, the actual PBs selected, or even the tendency of their hard science preoccupation with quantitative methods to oversimplify and distort complex problems (and there are many more ways they can be wrong), the framework it provides us is useful. Science has never been about being right. It has always been about dialogue and debate.

Professor Anson Mackay has contributed to a paper that reinforced my belief in the PBs' usefulness. This paper provides empirical evidence on the positive contribution of the the safe and just operating space approach for regional social-ecological systems. Its starting point is the PBs framework, and it examines two Chinese localities by mapping their regional safe and just operating spaces to determine the current status of key ecological services/processes. Instead of PBs, regional processes can exceed an "environmental ceiling" of sustainable use of ecological processes. They selected 6 "environmental ceilings". Both localities are experiencing "dangerously" compromised water quality due to unsustainable practices, but sediment regulation is considered "safe". The statuses of "Dangerous" (red), "Cautious" (yellow) and "Safe" (green) are determined by qualitative evaluation of ecological records.


This paper is one instance in which, despite criticising PBs for not being current for regions that already occupy dangerous operating spaces (like China, a LDC), it made use of the framework constructively, by adapting and applying it into the regional safe and just operating space (RSJOS). Considering regional-scale boundaries also enhances the global environmental governance objective of PBs.

It's inspiring to see the PBs concept taking up a different permutation.

This paper also makes reference to the Oxfam Doughnut, which I will discuss next.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Who's Who: Journals

I found this hilarious comic while comparing Nature and Science, two journals the PBs have officially published in, which also happen to have some of the highest "Impact Factors (IF)".

(Source: PhDComics)

I read up further about journal reputation, and came across this article about important papers that were initially rejected by esteemed journals. I also come across this Reddit discussion about Nature vs Science

It is understood that we should not only look at IF when evaluating the value of scientific work. Some even go as far to opine that scientific contributions published in multidisciplinary scientific journals like Nature and Science are less valuable than counterparts published in esteemed discipline-specific journals, which generally have lower IF. 

It makes sense for PBs, an interdisciplinary concept, to be published in interdisciplinary journals, although it did begin life in a niche ecology journal

Quantifying/ranking reputation and value of scientific contribution gives us some idea of inflence. It should not be used for evaluating strengths and weaknesses of a piece of work, as that would commit an ad hominem fallacy. They are, however, relevant to the study of the complex social institutions of Science and Academia

(Not so much of a social institution in high school.)

On a related note, I will discuss the quantitative methods to determine environmental indices in my next post. Quantification and hierarchy underlie the PBs. Does this oversimplify environmental challenges? 

Monday, December 11, 2017

From Who's Who to Environmental Justice

We all know Steffen, W. Who's "et al. (2015)"?

Of all the authors of the 2015 paper, 9 are men and 7 are women, a satisfactorily even representation. What about other forms of representation? Except for Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan, all are (at least partly) caucasian. Except for Ramanathan, researchers representing organisations in developing countries (LDCs) like Kenya and South Africa hold joint appointments with organisations in Europe. Even Ramanathan is representing both India, an LDC, and United States, a developed country (DC).


Not to go all intersectional feminist and criticise good research for feminism's sake, but it's worth noting that DC representation exceedingly outnumbers LDC representation in this paper. This gives the impression that PBs is an initiative of the Global North.

Debates on global environmental governance are a privilege of the secure, wealthy and powerful. Professor Juan Martínez‐Alier quotes Hugo Blanco, a former peasant leader in Peru, "The common people have more important things to think about, for instance how to get their daily bread."

However, with great power comes great responsibility. In a survey in Germany on the perceived levels of pressure to act on water management issues and air pollution control, global pressures were rated significantly higher than local pressures. Secure, wealthy and powerful states - DCs - are not only privileged enough to take up global environmental causes, they are apparently burdened with the responsibility to. This is no surprise, since from the perspective of Environmental Justice, many consider DCs to have an ecological debt to LDCs.

(Source: Jason Ammerlaan)

From a policy perspective, LDCs have poorer infrastructure to ensure compliance with environmental regulations than DCs do. There is a tendency for DCs to export environmental degradation to LDCs.

There are different varieties (and theories) of environmentalism. Here, I'm pointing out the difference between the environmentalism of affluence and the environmentalism of survival. Hugo Blanco's speech went on to list valiant environmentalists fighting against local pollution and exploitation problems; "Indigenous peoples oppose deforestation; northern environmentalists may complain against deforestation only if they reduce CO2 in their own countries."


Thus, one valid criticism of the PBs, developed to influence global environmental governance, is that it has less relevance on local scales, especially in LDCs, where resource exploitation and environmental degradation have priority over the less urgent global environmental changes.

Although the importance of local environmental governance cannot be underestimated, global efforts are just as important to furthering Environmental Justice. LDCs are the most vulnerable to security consequences of climate change. Coastal communities in LDCs are most vulnerable to rising sea levels.


In addition, assuming that "environmental conflicts" fall into the "established patterns of interstate conflict", and convening on national scales to "mobilise environmental awareness and action, may prove counterproductive by undermining globalist political sensibility". Exacerbating the North-South divide in the name of justice is not the most sustainable strategy for decision-makers to build sustainability.

While LDCs more often than not have to prioritise local over global problems, all environmental issues are interconnected - even the 9 PBs interact - because "Earth is a single, complex, integrated system". I believe that the planetary perspective of PBs unite humanity in a way that environmental concepts with a narrower focus cannot achieve. With this mindset, world leaders would look upon the environmental degradation of a remote region not as a faraway problem, but as inseparable from the Earth System.

(Source: Oxfam America)

However, as with everything, moderation is key. It has been shown that in the case of Climate Change, a fragmented, loosely-coupled set of specific regimes has advantages over a comprehensive, integrated, global regime. The importance of local environmental governance is further supported by evidence that "agents make decisions based on individual perceptions". Earth System scientists abstractly debating planetary-scale processes is not the only meaningful conversation we should be having about global environmental change. We should encourage people to share their individual stories about environmental change, too.

Personally, I've noticed that more and more open green spaces in Singapore are being converted to buildings. I've read about the Three Gorges Dam and other environmentally invasive initiatives happening in China during my lifetime. I've vacationed on Southeast Asian tropical islands, and watched our speedboat cut corals. These instances of land-use change concern me; I don't need science to be convinced. The PBs simply put them all into perspective.

Friday, November 17, 2017

What PBs Tell Us


Which PBs have we transgressed, and how do we know?

Firstly, it is important to note that in addition to quantitative methods, early-warning signs can indicate approach towards a threshold.

Statistically, the proposed PBs are placed significantly before reaching the threshold; the buffer in between accounts for uncertainty and the element of Surprise.

(Source: Science, 2015)

Of the PBs presently quantified, individual safe operating space and present positions are quantified to the following levels:

Climate Change
Based on IPCC reports in 2012 and 2013, the safe operating space is below an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350ppm and an increase in top-of-atmosphere radiative forcing of +1.0Wm–2 relative to 1750. Human-driven changes to radiative forcing include CO2, other greenhouse gases, aerosols, and other factors that affect the energy balance. Present values are 406.75ppm CO2 and +2.3Wm–2. Hence, the boundary has been transgressed. Early-warning signs that indicate transgression are the increase in heat waves, the increase in heavy rainfall eventsincreased drought, and mass loss of ice sheets. The problem of system inertia needs to be taken into account in assessing the time needed for society to react to early-warning signs.

Ocean Acificiation
The boundary is defined as ≥80% of the preindustrial annual average global Ωarag. Present global value is 84%, within safe boundaries. It would not be transgressed if the Climate Change PB were respected, and system inertia means future risk will increase.

Stratospheric Ozone Depletion
Boundary of minimum ozone concentration is defined as 275DU. Concentration drops to 200 DU only over the Antarctica in the austral spring, transgressing the boundary regionally. This is the ozone hole. Global concentration has been steady for 15 years and is expected to rise as the ozone hole is repaired after environmental policy phased out ozone-depleting chemicals.

Ozone-Depleting Chemicals (Source: Ozone Assessment 2010)

For PBs with sub-planetary scale dynamics, units of analysis vary. Changes in Biosphere Integrity occur at the level of land-based biomes, large freshwater ecosystems, or major marine ecosystems. Land-System Change in biophysical climate regulation is primarily related to changes in forest biomes. Freshwater Use occurs in the major river basins around the world. Biogeochemical Flows aggregate from localized but severe perturbations in intensive agricultural zones to affect global flows of nutrients.

(Source: Science, 2015) 

I shall focus on those transgressed.

Biogeochemical Flows 
The global-scale boundary for Phosphorus is set at a sustained flow of 11TgP/year from freshwater systems into the ocean. At a sub-planetary scale it is 6.2TgP/year from fertilizers to soils. The present global rate of application of Phosphorus to croplands is 14.2TgP/year, well above the PB. For Nitrogen, the PB for eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems is 62TgN/year, which we have significantly transgressed, at 150TgN/year. From the above diagram, the main contributors to these transgressions are a few agricultural regions of very high P/N application rates.

Land-System Change
The major forest biomes play a stronger role in land surface–climate coupling than other biomes. The biome-level boundary for tropical and boreal forests are set at 85% of potential forest, and that for temperate forests at 50%. The diagram above summarises risk of sub-planetary scale transgressions. The global boundary is set at 75% of original forest cover, which is transgressed: present forest cover is 62%. It would not be transgressed if the Biosphere Integrity PB were respected.


Biosphere Integrity
The Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) assesses anthropogenically-caused change in population abundance across a wide range of taxa and functional groups at a biome or ecosystem level using preindustrial abundance as a reference point. Though the PB is set at 90%, the high degree of uncertainty, 30-90%, makes the present value, 84%, appear much less significant a transgression than represented on the wedge.

Atmosphere aerosol loading
The annual mean Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD) is presently at 0.3. The proposed boundary proposed is 0.25 (0.25-0.50), indicating transgression within the zone of uncertainty. A substantial decrease in monsoon activity can be used as an early-warning sign, and would occur at AOD 0.50.

(Source: Science, 2015)

From the supplementary materials, we find many additional proposals of methods and values for boundaries and present positions. The summary diagram in each paper, such as the one above, give us a general idea. One would have to complete many PhDs to understand the specific quantification methods behind each PB!

Which PBs should be policy priority?

The extent of transgressions informs policymakers of the urgency of each environmental problem. However, the paper has made it clear that there is a high degree of uncertainty in the quantification of each boundary and each transgression risk. Although control variable wedges have been normalized for the zones of uncertainty, the exercise of representing all PBs with vastly differing measurement units on one chart is like comparing apples with oranges.

The hierarchical approach to classifying the boundaries suggests that two of the PBs, climate change and biosphere integrity, are recognized as “core” PBs based on their fundamental importance for the Earth System and integration with the other PBs.

The scale of tipping points determines importance of PBs to organisations of different scales. International organisations should prioritise planetary-scale tipping points, while smaller organisations may find it more effective to prioritise regional-scale tipping points.

From a Research perspective, the PBs yet to be quantified, as well as the highly uncertain PBs, represent gaps in knowledge and should be prioritised.

What PBs don't tell us 


Since the PBs became influential in global sustainability policy development, many scholars have proposed supplementary or alternative PBs, and critiqued the PBs.

(Source: Science, 2012)

For instance, this paper suggests an alternative PB, terrestrial net primary (plant) production (NPP), a global measure of biosphere production humans are consuming for food, fiber and fuel. Present human appropriation is at 40%. 6 out of 9 PBs either are incorporated in or influenced the NPP.


This paper criticises the PBs for downplaying the urgency of Freshwater Use problems.

This paper questions the relevance of a global perspective for Biogeochemical Flows from a governance perspective. It may be more effective to address transgressions from a regional perspective.

Nevertheless, most see the usefulness of the concept.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Justification for Planetary Boundaries

To quote Rockström on the PB MOOC, there are 9 environmental processes that "science now believe" qualify as PBs. He appeals to the authority of an arbitrary, seemingly objective, arguably masculinist "science".


Feminism aside. What is science actually saying?

One characteristic that set the PBs aside from earlier sustainability science concepts like ecological footprints and limits to growth, is its focus at the biophysical level of the Earth System's resilience, without making assumptions on either human needs or human innovation capacity. This means that it is fundamentally science-driven, instead of socially-driven or politically-driven, although it has implications on society and politics to mitigate threats. 

Firstly, how were the PBs selected, and how was this justified?


1. Climate Change
Acknowledging that the stable Holocene climate enabled human flourishing, it makes sense for climate to kickstart discussions about safe environmental limits. There are many negative feedback loops, such as the ocean solubility pump, which regulate climate and promote equilibrium, but there are also many positive feedback loops, such as the ice-albedo effect, which may create runaway effects and irreversible change. We must thank the lifeless Venus, which took on a very different climate trajectory, for providing concrete evidence for the runaway greenhouse effect.

The Carbon Cycle (Source: NASA)

2. Ocean Acidification
Oceans have planetary-scale tipping points. Due to the increase in atmospheric CO2, concentration of free H+ ions in the surface ocean increases, lowering the saturation state of aragonite, quantified as Ωarag. At Ωarag<1, aragonite dissolves: a clear tipping point, because aragonite forms naturally in almost all mollusk shells.


3. Stratospheric Ozone Layer
The Stratospheric ozone layer in the upper atmosphere experiences the ozone hole phenomenon, a classic example of a tipping point. It is important for maintaining the stable state of the biosphere because it shields the entire biosphere from harmful solar ultraviolet radiation, which can harm animals and plants and kill bacteria, fungi, and phytoplankton on the surface of the Earth.

(Source: Eco-Globe)

The experts also identified 6 processes that qualify as PBs but do not have planetary-scale tipping points. Still, they fulfill the PB criteria for 2 reasons. Firstly, they determine whether the large-scale processes would cross tipping points. For example, land use systems and freshwater use, are fundamental in providing the capacity for land areas to be carbon sinks. If that capacity is not there, the climate system will very rapidly cross the tipping point. Secondly, they regulate sub-planetary scale tipping points. For instance, biodiversity loss is increasingly shown to have ecosystem-scale tipping points. In the Anthropocene, we risk having tipping points crossed in so many places around the world simultaneously that they aggregate into planetary-scale impacts.

4 biosphere processes with sub-planetary scale tipping points were identified:

4. Biogeochemical Flows 
Global Phosphorus and Nitrogen cycles link the living (bio) and the non-living (geo) parts of the Earth System.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=191&v=bLphCLCIMIA

5. Freshwater Use
Water regulates the amount of biomass, which regulates the amount of Carbon in the Earth System.

(Source: Nature, 2016)

6. Land-System Change
Renamed from "Land-Use Change" in 2009, land systems are the fundamental fabric for all living species on Earth. This PB focuses on land surface–climate coupling: biogeophysical processes in land systems that directly regulate climate.

(Source: Nature, 2014)

7. Biodiversity
The genetic diversity of organisms determines the overall ability of the biosphere to adapt to changing conditions. In the 2015 update, this PB was renamed "biosphere integrity", and branched out as genetic diversity and functional diversity. Genetic diversity is easier to define and quantify. Quantifying functional diversity has been developed at local scales, but not yet on global levels.

(Source: Nature, 2004)

They also identify 2 boundaries that are heavily anthropogenically caused:

8. Atmosphere aerosol loading
This describes the amount of soot and pollutants in the air. This is related to the biosphere in that it regulates the stability of large rainfall systems, such as the Monsoon. At present, only one regional boundary (south Asian monsoon) can be established for atmospheric aerosol loading. Aerosols (highlighted in red below) are also components of Radiative Forcing, producing a net cooling effect on climate.

(Source: MOOC)

9. Novel entities
This was referred to as chemical pollution in 2009. In 2015, this was provided as "new entities", and stems from increasing evidence that the cocktail of chemical accumulation and modified life forms in the biosphere could potentially cause major shifts in life conditions on Earth, such as plastics and the genetic composition of species. There is not yet an aggregate, global-level analysis of chemical pollution on which to base a control variable or a boundary value.


Skeptics argue that these scientists made an arbitrary, but reasonable, decision on which processes to select as PBs. However, the framework is very useful as a springboard of additional ideas and improvements. The SRC itself is also constantly seeking to improve its research, revising the original PBs in 2015.

(Source: Nature, 2009)

(Source: Science, 2015)

With today's greater interconnectivity and educational resources becoming increasingly made available online, MOOCs are a great way to learn. I found this MOOC clear, thought-provoking and informative.

Within the 2015 paper, there is uncertainty about how or whether PBs can be usefully and/or accurately quantified, what "transgression" means or will lead to, and the hierarchy of the boundaries. I will discuss this in my next post.

Ending Note

This coursework has pushed me to examine the central question of my educational pursuit. Why did I want to study this, here, and what do I ...