Systems Error for Planet Earth

Dan Piraro’s representation of this century’s state of the planet (the Anthropocene).

Dan Piraro’s representation of this century’s state of the planet (the Anthropocene), courtesy of

“Our planet is subject to stresses, stresses of which are recent to human history” writes Nicole Clark. Is that a coincidence?

When you think about ‘human environmental impact concerns’, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine a flower pushing hippy chained to a tree. Or, the WWF black and white Panda symbol that flashes before the beginning of every documentary. Maybe you even envision a sad picture of Earth with a thermometer dangling out of its mouth. Whatever comes to mind, you know it is not at all that great. Everybody knows the planet is not in a good position these days and everyone has noticed, the emissions reduction schemes tightening the noose on the general public. However, does anyone really know why?  Why is the planet in such a state?

Putting this whole climate change issue into context is not something that is achieved over night, and as the ancient Greeks described:  the planet, ‘Gaia’ (Mother Earth) is something of a complex system. Gaia is suffering from what scientists are now calling, the dreaded anthropocene (age of man).  Current statistics show, 7.4 billion human beings inhabit our earth (1) and everything we touch has an equal and opposite reaction.

To put this into further perspective let’s look at a recent paper that was published in 2009 by, Nature entitled: ‘A safe operating space for humanity’ (2). Johan Rockstrom, expresses key ideas for the safe guarding of further environmental change, where the only solution is to prevent further change. What does it mean to ‘prevent’ further change? Rockstrom proposes a framework for the ‘planetary boundaries’ that must not be crossed in order to maintain current state.

The earth has lots of complex systems and according to Rockstrom, there are 9 systems – that if the threshold is crossed, will generate unacceptable environmental change. They are known as: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change inland use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading (2). These systems can be thought of as a changing interface, a complex network of interlocking puzzle pieces. So how can we put this puzzle back together?

Our planet is subject to stresses, stresses of which are recent to human history. It’s over run by well . . . us. Humans have achieved what no other species are close to being capable of, something the experts like to call ‘niche construction’ (1) we have designed the perfect world for us, it has everything we need; clean water, food and shelter as well as other unnecessary comforts like mobile phones, the internet and televisions. Everything we have done to manipulate our patch has consequences and these 9 systems Rockstrom describes, are part of the earth’s environment. They are complex ‘equilibriums’, which means when they are subject to change, consequences can be severe.

Rockstrom recognises three of these systems as being already over the acceptable threshold. And others are heading the same way. Put briefly, humans have been burning coal and pumping chemicals into the atmosphere for a good two centuries (3) so now the atmosphere is changing, humans are taking carbon out of the ground (fossil fuels) and releasing it as a gas into the atmosphere, that gas is trapping heat in the atmosphere warming up the temperature of Gaia.

These same gases and chemicals are also disrupting the water cycle and changing the climate, as well as seeping back into the land, influencing nutrient cycles and seeping into the oceans , making them acidic and bleaching coral (4). So, that explains all these concepts (nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading). Now for the others: humans are niche constructors (1), so we manipulate our environment to our liking, during the process to perfect our environment we forgot to consider (all life other than humans), and this explains our last key concept: biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity loss means we are losing animal species faster than they can evolve! We are polluting (land and air) faster than Gaia can recover and we are affecting coral reefs and fish populations faster than they can grow. And humans, as a population, are spreading like wild fire taking too much (100 year old tree crops) and giving too little (using non-renewable resources).

Scientists are calling this earth stage ‘the anthropocene’ because never before has one single species impacted their environment in such a way (4). And why do we need these boundaries? Because we are affecting all of these 9 systems to a point that everything is changing for the worse. In fact, Rockstrom proposes, our impact is so severe that if we don’t mediate now Gaia won’t just be out of balance; she’ll probably reach a state of no return. But what can we do? Rockstrom describes that setting a boundary for these 9 systems (as they all influence each other) and three boundaries have already been crossed. They are (climate change; rate of biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle) that, it is “essential for the life support properties of the environment for human well being” (2), that no further boundaries are exceeded. Or, the prospects for humanities’ future endeavours will truly hang in the balance.

So now we come back to the first question: ‘When you think about human environmental impact concerns, what do you think?’ Well, by now you’re probably going to think: Chemical pollution and atmospheric pollution, ocean pollution, complex systems which need to be mediated and humans are out of control affecting every environment they touch. But you’ll know, there is a solution, if we mediate what is already reaching the threshold and what is going that way, we can stop impacting Gaia to a point of no return. Rockstrom’s important message preceding this idea? We need to stop what we are doing . . . before a systems error is eminent.


(1)   Laland, K., Odling-smee, J. & .Feldman, M. 2001, “Cultural niche construction and human evolution”, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, vol. 14, pp. 22-33.

(2)   Rockstrom,J et al (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461,472-475

(3)   Meure, C., Etheridge, D., Trudinger, C., Steele, P., Langenfelds, R., vanOmmen, T., Smith, A. & Elkins, J. 2006, “Law Dome Co2, CH4 and N2O ice core records extended to 2000 years BP”, Geophysical Research, vol. 33.

(4)   Doney, S.C. and D.S. Schimel, 2007: Carbon and climate system coupling on timescales from the Precambrian to the Anthropocene, Ann. Rev. Environ. Resources, 32, 31-66, doi:10.1146/


This article was first published on “Science in Australian Society” and reproduced with permission.


Categories: Environment

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17 replies

  1. Since I was a young man( I’m 62 now) I’ve felt this planet was in grave danger because of human over population. The situation is vastly more serious now but we continue to consume and waste and ever more of us seek to join in the good life. The planet as a living organism is sick and probably dying albeit slowly. It may recover at some time in the distant future. But only when mankind has become extinct and his works are no more. We have had choices to make, to ensure the Earth’s survival. Thus far it seems we’ve always made the wrong ones. If this doesn’t change, and there’s little evidence that it will, it’s inevitable that the declining health of the planet will carry us all off. The Earth will carry on, perhaps in a vastly altered state. But then it doesn’t need us like we need it.

  2. Brian, it seems that our caring for the planet has gone backwards in the past several decades. In the late 80’s we saw the introduction of recycling, minimization of plastic packaging and an emphasis on the development of renewable energies..companies such as the Rainbow Power Company were leaders in this field. Yet today we have gone not only nowhere but backwards.

  3. Some more happy fun information about the Ozone hole masking global warming which, as it repairs, will actually increase temperatures. But let’s not worry about the facts.

    “As the ozone hole recovers this century, the masking effects of ozone depletion causing reduced summer warming over the Southern Hemisphere will disappear,”

    Read more at:

  4. As bit of interest Carol I lived on the community at Paradise Valley in Nimbin where the rainbow Power Company started some 30 years ago. We new there was a problem back then and all this time later were still vacillating in a fog of self-destructive ignorance.

  5. Stephen, and about 5 years later when I was a councilor for the Shire of Lilydale we were talking about ‘the crisis’ in our disposable society and instigated a recycling scheme including pelletisation of plastics as a renewable. It seems to me that the enthusiasm we once had, the feeling that we all, as individuals could help in some small way gave way to the Greedy Nineties where we were all going to be millionaires..Howard’s so-called ‘aspirationals’. Saving the planet receded as an issue, or rather remained an issue only for those labelled as tree-huggers or watermelons.

  6. Carol funnily enough when I was Managing Veterans Accommodation and Counseling for some my nickname was Tree Hugger. I wore it as a badge of honor. It didn’t help them because they knew I would still kick butt if necessary.

  7. Stephen I can imagine you as Tree Hugger..and kicking butt. 🙂

  8. “We new there was a problem back then and all this time later were still vacillating in a fog of self-destructive ignorance.”
    I don’t think I have ever heard it put better or more succinctly than that Stephen, but here is a try.
    A ship of fools is what we are, sailing full steam ahead, through a fog of greed and ignorance, into certain oblivion as the captains are drunk and asleep at the wheel. Here is the greatest tragedy of all, happening before us like a slow motion train wreck, and yet it seems we are powerless to do anything but scream.

  9. Yes I understand and accept all that has been said .But it is all negative. The thing is THERE ARE POSITIVES, and they are not expensive.
    Every person can contribute a positive. ALL plants are on our side, ALL plants. They need what we need, clean air and clean water. The forces which kill plants are destroying the atmosphere. Herbicides of all kinds are destroying Mother Earth’s equilibrium. She will recover, but we will not. Ordinary people know that killing plants with chemicals, whether they are slightly or very poisonous is an assault on the soil and environment. That is why herbicides are sold to governments. An estimated 95% of herbicides used in
    Australia are paid for by governments, either directly because they are used by government departments and local councils, or they are discounted from income tax. If all entities, corporations and individuals had to pay for herbicides, the use of these Earth destroying substances would reduce dramatically. We would see
    improvements in soils, atmosphere, and human health almost immediately. The recents rains have greatly
    improved the atmosphere over Australia, reducing CO2. How did that happen? PLANTS.

  10. Yaeh that wishy hopey thing is going to work a treat.

    Rain reducing C02? What is the causal mechanism? Where did it go? Is CO2 soluble? What a bout increasing emissions?

    Supporting research please.

  11. Rotha is, I think, right to some measure, Stephen, in that the water availability triggers growth, which uses gaseous carbon in photosynthesis to lay down it’s structure. The role of broad strata vegetation in the earth’s water, gaseous and weather patterns is, I think, often under-rated.
    The fossil fuels we are using for most of our energy and transport, and the plastics we derive from them, come mostly from plants. All long dead and buried but now resurrected and released into the air, as gaseous carbon, or worse, methane. And micro and macro-particular plastic pollution is turning our oceans into carbonic soups.
    Forests have halved and humans doubled in my lifetime. Less trees to store it, more carbon in the air. Less trees to store it, more water for the weather(or oceans).
    The time to get serious was long ago.

  12. corvus boreus:

    Thanks for the reply much appreciated.

  13. Hi everyone!, Thank you kindly for reading my article, I appreciate it, I’m a young environmentalist and soon to be scientist, at the end of the year when I finish my bachelor of environmental science. It brings me great pleasure to see that there are others out there that feel this way and agree with my sentiments, I appreciate that you took the time to read 🙂

  14. Good luck with the path, Nicole. Only advice I could offer(not as a scientist: got no degree) would be to modify the Gaiaic references when addressing wider audiences. I am not dismissive of Lovelock’s concept, and have a belief myself that their are symbiotic cycles in our geosphere, biosphere and atmosphere that function similar to an organism, but Gaia is a term that might make more conservative minds immediately visualise dolphin stickers and trivialise an otherwise summary (not that I think AIMN receives too many closed minded, non troll visitors).
    Hasten to add, not criticism of content, just a little(presumptuous?) advice on style.
    Thanks for the post.

  15. otherwise (insert) “excellent” summary(damn self proofing)

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