Sustainable and Just Operating Space for Humanity

This past spring, I taught a course titled “Environmental Issues” for the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department at UC Berkeley. I took the opportunity to design my own syllabus from the ground up, focusing on the interrelationship between planetary boundaries – biophysical thresholds that if exceeded will prevent Earth from continuing to support life as we know it – and social foundations – biomedical, economic, and political thresholds below which humans cannot live a dignified life.

My purpose in centering the course on a ‘sustainable and just operating space for humanity’ was to emphasize that the increasingly severe environmental crises facing humanity – from global heating and climate crisis to the sixth mass extinction – can neither be understood nor combated in isolation from the economic, political, and cultural frictions that are driving people apart and creating vast gulfs of socioeconomic inequality across the globe.

I returned to this basic idea this week, when I received an email from the office of my congressperson asking me what the issues are that I think are most critical. Instead of merely checking off a bunch of unconnected boxes from her list, I wrote a longer response laying out the same rationale I presented to my students. Since it seems to be of critical importance in the present moment, I wanted to revisit this idea here.

We’re facing an impending global collapse of the biosphere due to two (plus) centuries’ worth of capitalist exploitation that effectively steals natural resources and ecosystem services from the many to line the pockets of a few. Inequality and environmental collapse are thus intertwined. I’ve previously discussed various aspects of this history in posts on metabolic rift, hunger, and mechanization – each of which cover several ways in which environmental exploitation for private gain has led to socioeconomic inequality.

The biggest barriers to social equality that I see right now are systemic misogyny (dividing people by gender), racism (dividing people by race), and not having a right to the basic human needs: clean water, healthy food, housing, and healthcare (dividing by whether people are desperate or not). All of these factors that contribute to inequality are undermining our ability to actually govern ourselves (which I’ve written about before) at all levels from city to nation, which is preventing meaningful collective action[1] on protecting the biosphere – upon which all of humanity depends – by combating climate change, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution.

Therefore, the fight to secure greater equity – following through on the moral premise that all humans are created equal – and the fight to secure a livable biosphere – following through on the moral premise that the current generation should not wreck Earth for future generations – are one and the same fight.


[1] As opposed to individual attempts to ‘opt out’ or ‘escape’ from environmental crisis.

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