Is Earth past the tipping point?

I would like to share a press release from the University of Minnesota I received a few days ago announcing a short video on environmental sustainability.

Press release as follows:

Greetings from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

For 10,000 years, our world seemed endless. The sky was the limit. But today’s world looks much smaller. We’ve cleared, consumed and polluted our way across the globe. The planet is shrinking. Have we pushed Earth past the tipping point? That’s a critical issue we explore in our second Big Question video, which draws on research from “Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” published this past fall in the journal Nature.

View the video here:

Featured as part of the cover story of Scientific American magazine’s April issue, which hit newsstands on March 24, U of M professor Jon Foley makes the case for why we need to pay more attention to all environmental processes that contribute to the Earth’s health. In his article, “Boundaries for a Healthy Planet,” he argues that while climate change gets ample attention, species loss and nitrogen pollution exceed safe limits by greater degrees. In addition, other environmental processes such as ocean acidification and stratospheric ozone depletion are also moving toward dangerous thresholds.

To listen to a podcast of Foley discussing this article and to read related articles from Scientific American, visit

This is the second installment of the Institute on the Environment’s Big Question series. The first video – titled “Feast or Famine?” – can be viewed here:

But just to show I am Fair and Balanced(tm), here is the other side of that debate:

6 thoughts on “Is Earth past the tipping point?

  1. My personal opinion:

    We have passed “a” tipping point, but maybe not “the” tipping point. There already has been, and will be, more extinctions, and in fact the number and percentage of extinctions already qualifies as an “extinction event”. Will 90% of all life die on the planet? Most likely not. However, if 20% dies, that can shake things up quite a bit.
    Will NYC go underwater? Probably not, however a 1 meter rise in average sea level can wreak quite a bit of havoc globally. Will Earth turn into a Venus? Probably not, but anything higher than a 3 degree C rise cause major shifts in our civilization.

    So just finding out the worst possible scenario, then allowing things to get as close as possible (i.e. – playing “chicken” with the mass-extinction threshold) I think is not a very good idea.

    On the other hand, the president and the congress of the USA and even other nations define their job as keeping the investment banks free from any kind of regulation, and making sure the law doesn’t apply to huge corporations that can give them lots of campaign money. They also believe that the purpose of civilization is to transfer money to the weathiest 0.1% of humanity and lock it up there, regardless of the suffering that inflicts on anybody, or anything else, including the planet and any of its living inhabitants, be they other people or animals or plants.

    Of course, your local congressperson would object to that statement and so would lots of CEO’s. But the point is this: if you study the actions of our civilization over the past 200 years, you will see that our actions support those beliefs, even while we lie about not holding those beliefs.

    If we don’t believe in destroying the ecosystem, then why do we do it?

    No, I say this: we destroy the ecosytem because we believe we have to in order to survive. What’s more, is we don’t want to give up that belief even if it kills us.

    So while the video appeals to our better wisdom, the cartoon reflects better where society is actually positioned on the issue?

    What’s the point of making a better world if you might lose money while doing it?

    If we make no changes, at least the 0.1% have the best odds of surviving, and they get to keep ownership of everything.

    So of course they think that is better.

    But that’s ahell of a belief to uphold, and I think it’s going to lead to some very harsh results for billions of people globally.


  2. i generally agree.

    the cartoon captures the essence: the resistance to acting on climate change is also a resistance to doing things we have excellent reasons to be doing anyway.

    that is the bitch of it to be sure . . . and its amazing how when you debate from this angle on this and other fora you never get a straight answer from our “skeptic” brethren.


  3. “Tipping point” is a stupid term. Positive feedbacks have already been triggered by human activity with regard to many environmental systems. When graphed versus time some of these feedbacks may display an inflection point while others are more linear. When perturbed some systems may return to their previous set points when the perturbation is relaxed, others may shift to a new set point and others may respond chaotically. It may be virtually impossible to predict beforehand which behavior a perturbed system will display. The danger in perturbing systems is not that some “tipping point” may soon be, or may already have been, passed. The danger is that systems may, and probably will, react to disturbance in unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ways, and that the consequences of multiple environmental stresses may interact synergistically to the detriment of the integrity of ecosystems upon which biodiversity depends.


  4. Everything conveyed in that video could have been put into a single typed paragraph that could have been read in a fraction of the time. Kinda sad that we have to entertain people with a video to get them to pay attention.

    I blogged about that Nature article when it came out:

    People are already sticking their heads in the sand about climate change. Telling them that it’s not even the worst of our problems will probably motivate them to dig a tunnel.


  5. So just finding out the worst possible scenario, according to Weathercast Forecaster, then allowing things to get as close as possible (i.e. – playing “chicken” with the mass-extinction threshold) I think is not a very good idea.


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