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David Maggs John Robinson

In linking the Planetary Boundaries thesis to the Great Transitions Initiative, Johan Rockström illustrates the promise, but also, we believe, the peril of this approach to sustainability. The promise, as is well appreciated, has to do with the quality of the science underlying the PB approach and the essential role this will inevitably play in any sustainability transition. The peril has to do with how this approach positions human knowledge and agency. In this brief comment, we would like to pose some questions about these assumptions and propose an alternative approach.

Reading Rockström’s paper, we recognize a certain contradictory element in the PB argument, that is, the simultaneously celebration and dismissal of the role of human agency. While Rockström advocates integrated, holistic approaches, the planetary boundaries project is a strongly empiricist account of the problem. As Karen O’Brien suggests, a contradiction (or, as she puts it, a “philosophical schizophrenia”) arises when PB discourse identifies human decision-making as essential to achieving sustainability, yet persists in treating it as exogenous to empirical accounts of reality. Thus, human agency is essential to achieving what nature “should be”, yet irrelevant to identifying what nature “is.”  

This yields a double disempowerment of human agency. First, despite the fact that our understandings of nature are themselves deeply grounded in human processes of scientific understanding, experimentation, and measurement, these understandings are treated as if they describe realities independent of those processes. The denial of subjective involvements in our account of planetary realities naturalizes particular accounts into “objective truth,” dismissing other forms of understanding as mythical or fantastical. Second, human intentionality itself, when invoked as a means of addressing the challenge of sustainability, is conceived in simplified and highly instrumental terms which mostly ignore the wide diversity of views, cultures, societies, and experiences that make up the human condition, along with a plurality of options, goals, objectives, and means that might have defined what a sustainable world was and how best to get there, were it not conceived of as an unquestioned necessity to accommodate a series of incontrovertible planetary facts. Not surprisingly, as O’Brien notes, options for action narrow to “nudging” and “doomerism. 

The basic elements of this contradiction, where human dimensions are evoked and accorded extraordinary levels of agency, while at the same time stripped of their complexity and world-making functions, run deep both in Rockström’s discussion, and much sustainability literature more widely. For just as such work remains committed to physical accounts of planetary systems, that is, to establishing the facts of natural objects, its primary preoccupation is the Anthropocene, the present age in which, as Rockström puts it, “humanity is in the planetary driver’s seat”—an age, in other words, in which planetary realities arise evermore out of the actions of cultural subjects and in which not only the meaning but the very material make-up of the world around us are increasingly human artifacts.

How at odds is this with Rockström’s Figure 2, the “Sustainable Development Paradigm for the Anthropocene,” which clearly shows “human societies” nestled deep within “Earth’s systems”? (Yet, of course, this diagram represents a particular attempt to depict the relationship between humanity and natural systems: it is itself an artifact of specific human processes of knowledge generation and organization). Even as we diagnose the Anthropocene, are we not shying away from its deeper metaphysical and practical implications, continuing, instead, to pursue an “Earth systems” approach and persist with fact/value approaches to sustainability?

We believe that such empiricist framings represent an honorable determination to carry non-human dimensions of environmental change into our awareness. Yet, widespread diagnoses of Anthropocenic realities suggest that such a paradigm is increasingly inadequate to conceptualize and launch practical engagements with complex dimensions of the problem. While rhetoric calling for a reorientation of sustainability efforts is high, it has been met predominantly by fairly simplistic conceptions of human agency that do not challenge such framings, hoping instead to stretch the reach and nuance of standard approaches without abandoning course. 1 Thus, while we may be in the driver’s seat, the underlying assumptions of the planetary boundaries approach tie our hands behind our backs to the extent that they both ignore our agency in creating the pictures of the world we are confronted with and postulate a reductionist picture of human society and decision-making.

Could it be that the contradiction at play here reflects a reluctance to complete the existential journey sustainability has set out for us? The journey out of empiricist framings of reality, rooted in the founding dichotomies of fact/value, subject/object, culture/nature? While few subscribe to the absolute reality of such dichotomies anymore, fewer still seem willing to abandon them as guideposts to action. What might it mean to move beyond these oppositions? And what emerges beyond nudges and doom when we do? In the interest of promoting discussion of these questions, we would like to suggest several ideas.

First, the work of Bruno Latour fills out a metaphysics of the Anthropocene in a way that highlights human agency without turning the world into a series of social constructions.2 In Latour’s world, we are confronted with a series of environmental and social “imbroglios,” or entangled sets of complex human and nonhuman interactions that cannot be parsed out into subjects and objects, or facts and values. Something like this argument, we suggest, is key to stepping out of O’Brien’s “dark ages” and into a context that is much more adept at understanding and incorporating human dimensions and their engagements with the natural world.

Second, it is possible to put this metaphysical opportunity into practice by engaging sustainability as an essentially contested, and contingent concept, without transcendent signifiers of truth or value.3 This “procedural” approach is well-summarized in Castree’s call, in his response to Rockström, for a “values-based debate about the sort of Earth we want future generations to inherit.” It also addresses the ‘is/ought’ problem Castree identifies in his discussion of Roger Pielke’s arguments, where the normative judgement of researchers is masked as scientific fact, often, as Castree points out, “deafening” the ears of stakeholders.4 Instead, following Andy Stirling, when procedural approaches avoid transcendent indicators such as inviolable planetary boundaries, scientific descriptions are able to enter political conversations in ways that are less burdened by unrealistic expectations of certainty, more resistant to political cooptation, and more inviting of open dialogue from stakeholders, all while remaining a vital methodology nonetheless.5

Third, when pressured by the insistent demand, “but how does this solve sustainability?” we can turn to Mike Hulme’s response: “It doesn’t.” Rather than approaching climate change as a problem to solve, Hulme’s post-positivist position is to enlist diverse imaginative and practical resources in order to fashion from it a lens through which we are compelled to view deeper questions of meaning, value, identity, purpose, etc.6 This may be a promising turn for those of us hoping to meaningfully engage sustainability beyond purely empiricist framings.

Finally, we believe that success in converting sustainability into collective existential opportunities for a better future aligns well with the concept of “regenerative sustainability.” Such an approach trades harm reduction strategies and the disengaging imperative to “do less damage” for a central role improving environmental and human wellbeing.7

Much work remains to be done to articulate and elaborate the theoretical and practical implications of the approach suggested here. However, reconciling the contradiction in which much sustainability engagement finds itself by accepting the deeper practical and existential implications of the Anthropocene might offer more genuine space for the humanities and what Steve Raynor and Elizabeth Malone called the “interpretive social sciences.”8 It is an enlistment we consider critical to Rockström’s challenge to foster that elusive longer-term shift in consciousness needed to secure the sustainability transition.

1. Noel Castree, “Changing the Intellectual Debate,” Nature Climate Change 4 (August 2014): 763-668,
2. Bruno Latour, The Politics of Nature, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
3. John Ehrenfeld, “Sustainability Needs to be Attained, Not Managed,” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 4, no. 2 (November 2008): 1-3,; John Robinson, “Squaring the circle? Some Thoughts on the Idea of Sustainable Development,” Ecological Economics 48, no. 4 (April 2004): 369-384,; see discussion in Thaddeus Miller, “Constructing Sustainability Science: Emerging Perspectives and Research Trajectories,” Sustainability Science 8, no. 2 (April 2013): 279-293,
4. Roger Pielke, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
5. Andrew Stirling, “Transforming Power: Social Science and the Politics of Energy,” Energy Research & Social Science 1 (March 2014): 83-95,
6. Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Mike Hulme, “‘Telling a Different Tale’: Literary, Historical and Meteorological Readings of a Norfolk Heatwave,” Climatic Change 113 (2012): 5-21,
7. John Robinson and Raymond Cole, “Theoretical Underpinnings of Regenerative Sustainability,” Building Research & Innovation 43, no. 2 (2014): 133-143,
8. Steve Raynor and Elizabeth Malone,” “The Challenge of Climate Change to the Social Sciences,” in Human Choice and Climate Change, Vol. 4 – What We Have Learned, eds. Steve Raynor and Elizabeth Malone (Battelle Press, Columbus OH: 1988).

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John Robinson
John Robinson is Associate Provost, Sustainability, and Executive Director of the University of British Columbia Sustainability Initiative, responsible for leading the integration of academic and operational sustainability on the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus. His research focuses on intersection of sustainability, social and technological change, behavior change, and community engagement processes.
David Maggs
David Maggs is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. His work focuses on forging a more robust engagement between the arts and sustainability. His doctoral thesis “Artists of the Floating World: Art-sustainability Relations in the Late Days of Modernity” helped form the basis of Sustainability in the Imaginary World, a three-year multidisciplinary sustainability research initiative.

Cite as John Robinson and David Maggs, "Commentary on 'The Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition,'" Great Transition Initiative (April 2015),

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