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Unravelling the Planetary Boundaries Discourse - Scientism and Utopian Thought



In this forum contribution, the planetary boundaries discourse put forward by W. Steffen and colleagues is scrutinized. These boundaries are defined as a 'safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth system'. Without reference to specific empirical shortcomings, it is shown that this discourse falls prey to the scientistic fallacy as part of utopian thought. Thus the erroneous belief is propagated that reality, through empirical research, can be penetrated to the full whereby a complete, that is, utopian, grasp of human reality can be translated into said 'operating space'. This discourse is shown to be incoherent and lays waste to any useful research that tries to fathom particular accidents, crises and contingencies.
Unravelling the Planetary
Boundaries Discourse –
Scientism and Utopian Thought
Jaap C. Hanekamp*,**
*Science Department, University College Roosevelt, Middelburg, The Netherlands.
**Environmental Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA, USA.
In this forum contribution, the planetary boundaries discourse put forward byW. Steffen
and colleagues is scrutinized.These boundaries are defined as a ‘safe operating space for
humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the
Earth system’.Without reference to specific empirical shortcomings, it is shown that this
discourse falls prey to the scientistic fallacy as part of utopian thought.Thus the errone-
ous belief is propagated that reality,through empirical research,can be penetrated to the
full whereby a complete, that is, utopian, grasp of human reality can be translated into
said ‘operating space’. This discourse is shown to be incoherent and lays waste to any
useful research that tries to fathom particular accidents, crises and contingencies.
1. Introduction
Reflecting on crises and disasters in our world, the
biggest one of them all is the end of planet Earth.
Examining a recent article, published in Science (Steffen
et al., 2015) on the subject of global collapse, we
uncover a line of thought of the utopian kind that both
compromises academic work on understanding and
preventing crises as well as ensures that no decision-
making tools can effectively tackle them.The approach
in Steffen et al.has very old papers yet still entices quite
a few academics and decision-makers. Our forum con-
tribution rebuts the utopian thinking underpinning such
publications and points to a way forward, out of this
flawed rationality.
Utopian thought assumes a complete grasp of human
reality in the world we inhabit whereby the central
problems of the human race are not only ascertainable
(that is, they can be discovered with certainty), but also
solvable as a result (Berlin, 1990). Steffen et al. phrase
this utopian premise as follows:‘The human enterprise
has grown so dramatically since the mid-20th century
that the relatively stable, 11,700-year-long Holocene
epoch, the only state of the planet that we know for
certain can support contemporary human societies, is
now being destabilized. In fact, a new geological epoch,
the Anthropocene, has been proposed.The precaution-
ary principle suggests that human societies would be
unwise to drive the Earth system substantially away
from a Holocene-like condition.A continuing trajectory
away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncom-
fortably high probability, to a very different state of the
Earth system, one that is likely to be much less hospi-
table to the development of human societies. The last
sentence suggests some kind of ‘collapse’ of the current
global society and we use this truncated term further
below for ease of reference.
2. Planetary boundaries – a framework
of critique
‘The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe
operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic
biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the
Earth system’ – so Steffen et al. introduce their Science
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management Volume •• Number •• •• 2015
©2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd DOI: 10.1111/1468-5973.12103
article of 15 January 2015 (see also Rockström et al.,
2009). In their contribution, they aim to ‘define a safe
operating space for human societies to develop and
thrive, based on our evolving understanding of the func-
tioning and resilience of the Earth system’.
The planetary boundaries discourse is surely evolving
and for our purposes, the focus here is only on the
work by Steffen et al. They do, however, give a rather
extensive review of the work done so far in their 158
references cited.This is sufficient for us to demonstrate
that: (1) their discourse is an expression of an incoher-
ent scientism and (2) the discourse has all the mislead-
ing traits of a utopian blueprint for academics and
decision-makers. Both conclusions are closely inter-
twined and revolve around the belief that science can
and does penetrate and interpret reality to the full.
‘Thus,’ so such an argument goes, science guides
researchers and decision-makers to research topics and
interventions that are on the one hand all-
encompassing in their ambit and on the other hand
necessarily successful when correctly understood and
These two conclusions together establish that the
planetary boundaries discourse is incoherent and
thereby futile. For the philosophically untrained eye, it
looks like science is, in fact, but obscurantism.We con-
clude our reflection with a way out of this utopian
shambles. It requires taking seriously accidents, crises
and contingencies in their intricacies without the holis-
tic anything-is-connected-to-everything rationality that
defines an impossible operating space of infinite pro-
portions in time and space that no one – certainly not
Steffen et al.– could truly understand, let alone manage
(see McKinney & Hammer Hill, 2000). If we want to
both understand and manage, we must forswear the
kind of utopian thought exemplified by Steffen et al. and
instead do the hard and meticulous work that is before
us all.
One final caveat before proceeding:This reflection is
not an attempt to show that the science of planetary
boundaries is incomplete or otherwise lacking empiri-
cally.The arguments here are not calls for more science.
We propose instead an argument of the deductive kind
elucidating how and why the discourse is deficient by
embracing a scientistic perspective on reality that is
self-referentially incoherent.
3. The scientism of the planetary
boundaries discourse
The core tenet of scientism is that every legitimate
method of acquiring knowledge consists of or is
grounded in the purported exhaustive methods of the
empirical sciences (see Craig & Moreland, 2000).Along
these lines, the eminent chemist Peter Atkins (2011)
notes that ‘the scientific method is the only means of
discovering the nature of reality, and although its
current views are open to revision, the approach,
making observations and comparing notes, will forever
survive as the only way of acquiring reliable knowledge.
Consequently, scientism holds the claim that science
alone is capable of elucidating and resolving human
problems – poverty, social inequity, climate change,
warfare, pollution, food safety, the meaning of life –
whereby all important human affairs, including what it is
to be human, can be reduced to scientific discovery and
confirmation (see for a detailed analysis Stenmark,
2001; see further Barzun, 2000).
Plainly put, scientism applies science to human affairs
so as to claim its priority in a reductionist fashion‘all the
way down’.This is not news. In 1900, Karl Pearson gave
a useful window onto scientism when he stated that the
scientific method is the sole path by which we can attain
knowledge. Other methods may lead to fantasy,such as
that of the poet or metaphysician,or to outright super-
stition, but never to knowledge (Pearson, 1900).
The question to answer here is whether Steffen et al.
do indeed embrace scientism as a means to delineate
the planetary boundaries within which life in its fullest –
as science knows it – needs to keep true to the Holo-
cene and withstand the Anthropocene. An example
from the Science article makes their scientism clear:
‘There is a need for a truly global evidence base, with
much greater integration among issues, in order to
respond to these global challenges [climate change,
ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, fresh
water use, etcetera; author]. New research initiatives . . .
provide evidence that science can respond to this need
by applying Earth-system research to advance a new
generation of integrated global analyses and to explore
options for transformations toward sustainability.This is
a clear sign that, as the risks of the Anthropocene to
human well-being become clearer, research is maturing
to a point where a systemic step-change is possible –
and necessary – in exploring and defining a safe and just
planetary operating space for the further development
of human societies.
In unpacking this statement, Steffen et al. present us
with the following. First, by means of combining the
global challenges (in the same manner as the ‘world
problematique’ of the Club of Rome’s ‘The Limits to
Growth’; Meadows, Meadows, Jorgen Randers, &
Behrens, 1972; see further Hanekamp,Verstegen,Vera-
Navas, 2005), science elucidates and integrates these
challenges in order that the proper responses can and
in fact are formulated. Second, the science of ‘Earth-
system research’,from a decision-making point of view,
necessarily provides the opportunity and platform to
identify and further explore ‘options for transforma-
tions toward sustainability’, although the latter term is
not explicated. Science ‘thus’ delivers answers on ques-
tions of beneficial global societal change.Third, the risks
2Jaap C. Hanekamp
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2015©2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
of the ‘Anthropocene to human well-being’ ascertained
(again note the implied ‘with certainty’) by virtue of the
integrative Earth-system research, drive the sense of
urgency for global change. Fourth, research insights as
described by Steffen et al. give us the mandate and
necessary wherewithal to survey and demarcate a ‘safe
and just planetary operating space’, the planetary boun-
daries of the article’s title by which we must adhere in
order to avoid collapse. In these ways, the bio-chemical,
geo-chemical, physical, biological and other sciences dis-
close all relevant fault lines of our planetary existence,
its (human-induced) risks, and its future secure paths.
An overarching empirical claim of solvable proportions
is thereby proffered (see Scott, 1998).
All that promise raises a fundamental problem,
however. How can we know that we have identified all
relevant matters with respect to the purported plan-
etary boundaries we must adhere to in order to avoid
collapse in the first place? They assume that the rela-
tively stable ‘11,700-year-long Holocene epoch is the
only state of the ES [Earth system; author] that we know
for certain can support contemporary human socie-
ties’. On what grounds is this assumption of ‘the only
state’ made? How is their certainty even ascertainable
by the rest of us? We are left in the dark here, as the
writers do not say.
Notwithstanding all the citations, in the end Steffen
et al. present a comprehensive and unavoidably flawed
scientistic – not scientific – work.What exactly,though,
is amiss with scientism? Return again to the claim put
forward by Steffen et al. that planetary boundaries of
the Earth-system and safe societal routes towards sus-
tainability are knowable – and necessarily so – through
the sciences.To repeat: How are we to know this?
In essence, Steffen et al. are asking us to trust them in
their analyses and citations, without the authors allow-
ing us an independent and external way to confirm their
premises for taking action except through the very same
sciences they happen to trust and put forward.This is
nothing other than the circularity of begging the ques-
tion. In so doing, they ironically render a self-
referentially incoherent argument that is not in any way
dependent (that is, solvable) on increasing knowledge of
the world. The perimeters of reality can never be
defined with the aid of science (see further Chalmers,
1990; Polanyi, 1958). No method in chemistry, physics
or biology can claim that (which is of course why we
have chemistry and physics and biology in the first
The point to underscore is that within scientism, a
dire shift is made from ‘science gives us knowledge of
reality’ to ‘nothing but science gives us knowledge of
reality’ (Stenmark, 2001) – in this particular case in the
name of a purported benefit to all of present and future
humankind.That, of course, is an uncorroborated claim
extraneous to science that can never be shown to be
true through science. It is no small irony that by assert-
ing that science comprehensively applies to global safety
and sustainability, the scientism of Steffen et al. leaves
reality fundamentally under-specified.
3.1. Concluding utopian thoughts
Let us now push our argument further. When Steffen
et al. is précised as scientism, we see more clearly the
dystopianism they leave us with – if humanity does not
abide by the planetary boundaries they envision.Again
consider their statement:‘A continuing trajectory away
from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably
high probability, to a very different state of the Earth
system, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to
the development of human societies.
To be sure, they bring that formidable number of
references to the table to underline the empirical
reality of their planetary boundaries and the risks
current human societies are taking with these bounda-
ries. But as their scientific efforts collapse into
scientism, they leave us only with the road to
catastrophism, should humankind not do the, in their
eyes, needful.
As the authors have in no way demonstrated how we
can triangulate (outside the science they bring forward)
on their findings and validate them, we once again have
to trust their trusting science alone, which, as we have
seen is question begging.They‘reveal’ planetary bounda-
ries but we have no means to cross-check or confirm
the safe and just planetary operating space they say is
mandatory. Worse, they insist there is no need for a
cross-check outside the limits they have defined for us.
Consequently, their sleight of hand into scientism
results in a work that can only be characterized as
utopian and not scientific. The resulting dystopian–
utopian dialectic shapes their entire work and nothing
expressly scientific can add or detract from that dialec-
tic, which generates the questionable nature of their
contribution in the first place (see further Hanekamp,
2015). If utopianism does not work – and it does not, as
we know from centuries of experience and thorough-
going logic (Popper, 1971a, 1971b) – we are left with
their dystopia-writ-large as the only basis for trusting
Steffen et al. to push the agenda they subscribe to.
But if we don’t trust science now, the reader asks,
how can we hope for something better later? You can
hear notes of despair in the words of Steffen et al.when
confronted by the rest of us who do not recognize just
how fully and comprehensively science must make a
difference: ‘This evolution is needed more than ever
before; there are severe implementation gaps in many
global environmental policies relating to the PB [plan-
etary boundaries] issues, where problematic trends are
not being halted or reversed despite international con-
sensus about the urgency of the problems.
Unravelling the planetary boundaries discourse 3
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2015©2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
In case the reader thinks this an ad hominem attack or
caricature, Steffen et al.’s Science contribution is quite
clear that more of the same scientism is required
(author’s italics): ‘A proposed approach for sustainable
development goals (SDGs) argues that the stable func-
tioning of the Earth system is a prerequisite for thriving
societies around the world.This approach implies that
the PB framework, or something like it, will need to be
implemented.’ In this view,the necessity of implementing
the planetary boundaries framework is ‘self-evident’. So
too is evident the ‘comprehensiveness’ of the approach
required: The planetary boundaries framework is not
‘designed to be “down-scaled” or “disaggregated” to
smaller levels,such as nations or local communities.’ For
them – and to be sure – nothing less than global can
In the final analysis, proposals such as put forward
by Steffen et al. will fail for the following reasons: (1)
the intricate nature of society will never be fathomed
to a point of effective overarching regulatory inter-
ventions; (2) science trying to gauge the entirety of
global societies and their manifold interactions will
always slip into scientism; and (3) the utopian thought
that ensues lays waste to any useful research to
understand parts of our world related to specific acci-
dents, crises and contingencies – not just dystopia,
however writ large.
The last conclusion brings us to the crux of our
contribution. Fathoming even small parts of our shared
reality as experienced (not just known) requires
efforts of multifaceted research that spans decades of
experimentation and reasoning. Shortcuts in the wrong
direction like that of Steffen et al. have already been
tried and found wanting.We need research that brings
us closer to solutions one step at a time and in ways
that show lasting value for the next steps ahead; the
many and diverging crises that plague our world
require no less.
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Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
Volume •• Number •• •• 2015©2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
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Full-text available
The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth system. Here, we revise and update the planetary boundary framework, with a focus on the underpinning biophysical science, based on targeted input from expert research communities and on more general scientific advances over the past 5 years. Several of the boundaries now have a two-tier approach, reflecting the importance of cross-scale interactions and the regional-level heterogeneity of the processes that underpin the boundaries. Two core boundaries—climate change and biosphere integrity—have been identified, each of which has the potential on its own to drive the Earth system into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.
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