Breaking Boundaries: The Science Of Our Planet

We recently watched the Netflix documentary “Breaking Boundaries: The Science Of Our Planet” and it inspired me to write this blog entry. For me this documentary organized and explained what often seems so overwhelming to us. We know there’s something wrong with the way we treat the planet and we have to save it and stop using plastic AND use renewable energy AND stop carbon emissions AND stop overfishing AND stop animal cruelty AND so many other things, that it seems completely overwhelming and confusing. There are so many things that we “should” do that – to me personally – I just loose the overview.

Johan Rockström, a Swedish scientist and the leading role in this movie, researched the question which systems keep our planet stable and together with David Attenborough as narrator they lead us through those 9 systems and what their boundaries are. Boundary means how far the system can be pushed before it reaches it tipping point – before it turns from re-generating to self-destructing. Even worse: these systems are all interconnected. If one fails the others are very likely to follow.

The goal of the documentary is not to scare people. As described in the movie: They are trying to turn on the headlights, so we can see the road that lies ahead of us and how we can navigate ourselves out of the current crisis into a safe future. A future that’s designed to not only not collapse the planets systems but to work WITH the systems since we rely on them as much as any other creature on the planet. It might not be a surprise how everyone can/must take part in this transition since we’ve heard about it since childhood, but for me it was another eye opener to see those systems explained and to connect the measurements that we can take to the specific systems. What can I do to help, and what exactly does it do for which part of the planets system? I like math, and if I can make sense of things through numbers or a graph. This was just perfect for me.
credit: J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015

So what does this graph actually show?

1. Earth’s Climate

Climate change is not new: Melting glaciers, greenhouse gases, CO2-levels, rising temperatures and sea levels, etc… We’ve been warned before and even though there are indeed people that don’t believe in climate change, the evidence is all around us (more forest fires, melting ice caps, more floods, heatwaves, droughts).

What I didn’t know is that glaciers actually cool the planet not only through their temperature (obviously) but also through their color because they reflect 90 to 95% of the sun’s energy back into space. If they melt their color gets darker which makes them not only reflect less sunlight but – like a dark surface – absorb the sun’s energy and become self-heating! To reverse this effect (and get the glaciers back) it’s not enough to return to the original temperature from before the industrial revolution but it would actually have to be cooler than that! How are we going to do that?

As for the boundary of the climate system Johan Rockström states that 350PPM (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere is the first boundary where we enter the danger zone. We crossed it in 1988! Right now we are at 415PPM marching towards the second boundary at 450PPM which is the high risk zone. At this point the earth’s climate will most likely tip over and become self-warming, since it can’t absorb any more carbon-dioxide. As for temperature that means that we CAN’T cross the 1.5ºC mark. Right now we are at 1.1ºC. The earth’s temperature had been relatively stable (+-1ºC) for the past 10,000 years which made modern civilization possible. In the past 50 years (not even one lifetime!) we’ve managed to push the earth out of that stable state and warm it by more than 1ºC.

The only chance we have is a fossil fuel FREE world economy within the next 30 years.

Which means that EVERYONE has to cut their CO2 emissions in half every decade. So if you have a newborn baby right now, there can’t be any cars running on fossil fuels by the time it turns 30. How crazy is that? It seems like a drastic change we have to execute in a short amount of time, but according to Rockström, it’s also the least we have to do to have a chance.
That’s what Greta Thunberg meant when she said “[…] our house is on fire.”!

2. Biomes

Humans transform natural habitats into agricultural land, mostly for livestock and soy farming. The result is that the rainforests are drying out. The dry season in the Amazon usually lasts for 3 months max. Due to forest degradation and global warming, the dry season has become 6 days longer each decade since the 1980s. With the forest reduced and fragmented, it looses its ability to recycle water and generate rain. If the dry season lasts longer than 4 months the trees die and the jungle transforms into a savanna, also called savannization. On top of that, the dead trees release even more carbon into the atmosphere.

The first boundary for this system is the loss of 25% of the worlds forest cover. We are at almost 40% right now.

To get into the safe zone we simply have to plant more trees and stop destroying forests.

And that is something every one of us can EASILY do! Plant a tree in the backyard. Why not? Trees capture carbon, they prevent soil erosion, and they produce the oxygen we breathe (!!!) – to name only a few benefits.

3. Biodiversity

Now this almost made me cry:

In 50 years, humanity wiped out 68% of the global wildlife populations!

Only 30% of ALL birds on earth are wild.
Only 4% (!!!) of ALL mammals on earth are wild species.

The more agriculture expands, the more wildlife shrinks. And the irony is that around 70% of the world’s crop species rely (to some extent) on pollinators whose population drastically declined due to the expansion of intensive monoculture and the overuse of pesticides. Global food production is wiping out the very thing it relies on. By the way, that also applies to the fishing industry. Watch “Seaspiracy” on that topic!
We are far into the red zone of the biodiversity boundary.

The only chance we have is ZERO loss of nature from now onwards.

How can I help? Simply eat healthy foods: less red meat, more plant-based protein, more fruit and nuts, less starchy foods. Just be more aware of what you’re eating and where it comes from.

4. Freshwater

Johan Rockström calculated that every person uses around 3,000L of fresh water every day.

  • 50L for hygiene and drinking
  • 100L for washing and household (in the richer countries)
  • 150L for the industry
  • 2,500L for food

So by far most of the world’s fresh water is used to produce what we eat. According to Rockström’s calculations, we’re still in the green zone of the freshwater system (even though we rapidly move towards the danger zone), but here as well, it can be so easy to reduce the daily water usage of each of us by simply monitoring our eating habits more closely. I recommend “Cowspiracy” on that topic.

5. Nutrients

“Nutrients” here refers to the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Nitrogen is being taken out of the air and chemically converted into a form that plants can use, phosphorus is dug out of the ground and chemically developed so it is more efficient. With these elements as fertilizers the production of food around the world has quadrupled. That sounds great at first, since we need to feed a growing population, but it also became a habit to use far more fertilizer than the plants can actually use. The leftovers are being washed away into rivers, lakes, and the ocean, over-fertilizing them too. This effect is called eutrophication.

Once in the water the nutrients cause algal blooms (a rapid increase in the population of algea). Blue-green scum floats on top of the lakes. While decomposing it uses up oxygen. The reduced oxygen in the water changes the chemical composition of the sediment on the bottom of the lake, which leads to the sediment releasing even more phosphorus. It’s a vicious cycle. The same thing happens in the oceans which explains all the dead zones that we already have worldwide, where the marine life either died due to the lack of oxygen, or simply left that area (out of the same reason). If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend the documentary “Mission Blue” about the condition of our oceans!

We are already deep in the danger zone of the nutrient boundary.

6. Ocean Acidification

⅓ of the CO2 emissions have ended up in the oceans. As a result the oceans pH changes and becomes less alkaline or more acidic. This process is called ocean acidification. Over the past few decades, the oceans have become 26% more acidic. Right now we are still in the green zone but pushing towards the danger zone since the the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere remains high and the acidification of the oceans continues.

7. Novel Entities

Novel entities are any human made pollutants (basically all the waste we produce from nuclear waste to heavy metals to micro plastic). Humans have created 100,000 new materials, and since they are new, it’s difficult to determine their long term effects on the planet. Johan Rockström couldn’t identify a boundary for this system but it is obvious that most of these new materials have the potential to cause planet-wide disruption if not controlled.
I highly recommend “A Plastic Ocean” to see how plastic is already causing problems worldwide!

So for each of us, it simply means to be aware of which and how much of these materials/pollutants we use. Eliminate waste and turn the linear system of production into a circular one, where products are designed so that the raw materials can all be recovered/reused. This way our use of resources could be infinite!

8. Aerosols

75% of the aerosol pollution is from fossil fuel combustion. The aerosol particles in the air cause “global dimming” which we see as a haze in the sky that blocks out sunlight (you would think that this is a good thing). Since the earth’s glaciers are having a harder time reflecting sunlight, the aerosols could help in that matter. But apparently this effect also masks 40% of the global warming effects that are already in place right now. We just don’t feel it as strongly because of the aerosols in our air. Additionally – who would have thought? – over 7 million people die per year due to air pollution, and on average, it takes off 3 years of each person’s life expectancy!

It’s difficult to identify this system’s boundary as well, but according to Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan from the University of California at San Diego, who had been consulted as an expert in that matter, we are far into the red zone.

The solution here as well: Less fossil fuel combustion.

9. Ozone Layer

Finally the 9th system: the ozone layer. This is actually the only boundary where we’re heading into the right direction. And why is that?

When the antarctic ozone hole was discovered in the 1980s, it caused a global panic. Immediately the nations phased out the chemical pollutants that caused this change in the atmosphere. So it IS actually possible to make a quick change if everyone understands how serious the situation is and contributes. Not only every individual, but ALSO companies, politicians, and whole nations! We already were in the high risk zone of the ozone layer and we returned into the safe zone.
Were the 80s a different time? Did people care more then or perhaps they were easier to scare? I don’t think so! So why couldn’t this immediate/effective change happen nowadays?

Summing Up

There are 9 systems:
  1. Earth’s Climate (danger zone)
  2. Biomes (danger zone)
  3. Biodiversity (high risk zone)
  4. Freshwater (safe zone)
  5. Nutrients (high risk zone)
  6. Ocean Acidification (safe zone)
  7. Novel Entities (not yet quantified)
  8. Aerosols (not yet quantified/likely in the high risk zone)
  9. Ozone Layer (safe zone)
The impact is:
  • increasing droughts
  • more forest fires
  • accelerated ice melts
  • accelerated thawing of permafrost
  • collapse of coral reef systems
  • coral bleaching (watch the documentary “Chasing Coral” on this topic!)
  • mass extinction
  • wildfires
  • pandemics
The solution:

[…] now it’s a question of framing the entire economic growth model around sustainability and have the planet guide everything we do.

Johan Rockström

Reduce carbon emissions to ZERO and stabilize the global temperature as low as we possibly can
– bends the global curve of emissions now
– benefits Climate (1), Biodiversity (3), Ocean Acidification (6), Aerosols (8)

Plant more trees and stop deforestation
– draws down the carbon that’s already overheating the planet
– benefits Climate (1), Biomes (2), Biodiversity (3), Freshwater (4), Nutrients (5)

Eat healthy food
– balances the food industry and makes you healthier (no-brainer!)
– benefits Climate (1), Biomes (2), Biodiversity (3), Freshwater (4), Nutrients (5)

Eliminate waste
– circular economies
– benefits Climate (1), Biodiversity (3), Nutrients (5), Novel Entities (7), Aerosols (8)

The documentary ends with

What we do between 2020 and 2030, […] it will be the decisive decade for humanity’s future on earth. […] What happens over the next centuries will be determined of how we play our cards this decade.

Johan Rockström


It’s a remarkable time to be alive.

David Attenborough

And if I may add: It’s also a very scary time to be alive. It’s a big responsibility we have right now and I am worried that humankind hasn’t developed far enough yet to carry this responsibility. In between social media addicts, profit oriented companies, and corrupt politicians, I want to believe that every person on this planet has a heart that wants every species on this planet (including the generations to come) to live a peaceful and healthy life. I want to believe that there is compassion and good in everyone and that every person understands NOW or in the very near future that it is up to every one of us to change our lives immediately. It doesn’t help to point fingers at big companies or politicians and tell them to go first. (Well, of course it helps to point them out and demand them to adjust their ways, but so much can already be done if you start in your own home).

It reminds me of the house concerts we play, where at the end of a song, nobody wants to be the first one to clap. There’s a brief moment of silence until someone makes the first sound and only then everyone else joins in. Maybe that’s part of human’s nature; to not want to stand out because being part of a group was a big part of survival in ancient times. But in this case, it’s about the survival of the planet itself. So: BE PART OF THE START! Start the change and inspire people around you to do the same. And besides, there’s already a huge movement in the world (e.g., Fridays For Future, a growing vegan community, the zero waste lifestyle, package-free stores, second-hand stores, and ocean/beach clean-up projects). The movement has started, and it slowly gains momentum. But we’re quickly running out of time. It’s not about being perfect and doing everything 100% right immediately. It’s about being AWARE of the problem and STARTING to move in a better direction.