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Karen O'Brien

“Bounding the Planetary Future” presents a convincing argument about the state of the world and the need for a Great Transition. The planetary boundary framework serves as both a good metaphor and a useful metric for understanding and evaluating human-environment relationships in relation to some of the control variables deemed necessary for sustaining human well-being. However, Johan Rockström’s article makes it clear that we are still pretty much in the Dark Ages when it comes to taking in existing and emerging understandings of human development and social change; the integrated approach that he considers necessary is far from being realized in science today.

I would like to reflect briefly on a few of the assumptions in the article about how social change comes about, and draw attention to some of the intellectual boundaries that are trapping us in what Richard Heinberg describes as “doomerism,” leaving us with the need for a crisis-oriented fallback plan.

Rockström calls for a two-pronged approach in response to the existential risks that we face: bending environmental and social justice curves within our current framework, and fostering a longer-term shift in consciousness to integrate people and planet.

His first prong, which calls for nudging the trajectory away from the most immediate risks within an obsolete development paradigm, is pragmatic—yet it seems to assume that citizens, social movements, collective action, and democracy are unable to influence the interests and power relationships that are perpetuating the obsolete paradigm, or that launching radically successful alternatives that directly challenge this paradigm is ineffective. While nudging encourages people and organizations to “do the right thing,” it does little to challenge social orders, power relationships, or the beliefs that are perpetuating current pathways. Although new technologies and nudged behavioral changes can support planetary boundaries, they do little to change beliefs about human relationships with the biosphere. This gap becomes particularly clear in films like The Singularity is Near, where exponential technological change seems to be driven by everything except concern for universal values and planetary boundaries.

The second prong calls for a change in consciousness and values. Although this is often offered as the real solution to global problems, the hope that people will adopt universal values to catalyze change at the scale and rate that is needed to maintain “a safe operating system for humanity” is seldom based on social science and philosophical research on values, worldviews, and consciousness. In fact, although much of social science research implicitly accepts humans as conscious beings with free will and intentionality, scientific materialism does not recognize consciousness or intentionality as “real.” This leads to philosophical schizophrenia in Earth systems science, where science admonishes humans for transgressing boundaries yet provides no real sense of individual and collective agency for responding. We thus end up with nudging and doomerism as the best available options.

Rockström’s article recognizes that we need to transcend the current paradigm, and I fully agree with him. However, it should come as no surprise to scientists that people have difficulty stepping outside of their discourses and paradigms to accept abstract notions of planetary boundaries and calls for new models of development. Ironically, our own disciplinary and intellectual barriers seem to get in the way of bringing together the knowledge that we need for “navigating the world back into a safe operating space.” Whereas students tend to be open and curious to alternative philosophies of science and philosophies of mind, I have met very few scientists who are comfortable and open-minded when their own assumptions are challenged. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to wait for a paradigm shift to occur through academic funerals. The ultimate irony may be that bounding the planetary future may only be possible by breaking down intellectual boundaries, including those held tightly in place by a classical, dualistic worldview.  How many are ready to challenge these boundaries? 

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Karen O'Brien
Karen O'Brien is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo. Her research has focused on climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation. She has written and co-edited numerous books about global environmental change, including A Changing Environment for Human Security and Climate Change Adaptation and Development: Transforming Paradigms and Practices

Cite as Karen O'Brien, "Commentary on 'Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition,'" Great Transition Initiative (April 2015),

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