Transgression of natural thresholds

Visualization of narrower problems
Irreversible environmental trends
Exceeding the limits to growth
Overstepping the limits of nature
Excessive critical ecosystem loads
Planetary overload
Degradation of natural life support systems
Overloaded natural life support systems
Unprecedented rates of population growth, swiftly rising incomes and per capita demand, and technological advances, impose requirements on natural systems which may exceed their capacity to respond. As a result the life-support system of the planet may eventually be damaged beyond repair. The fact that perturbations in remote and seemingly unimportant parts of the biosphere can trigger off a chain of cause-effect reactions that ultimately provoke profound changes in the entire system, underlines the absence of world-wide integrated resource management.

Many important ecosystems have been degraded and ecological processes impaired. Trends indicate that this situation is not improving, and that growing human populations and unsustainable rates of resource consumption will result in increasing negative impacts on biodiversity. Unless immediate action is taken much biodiversity, including the life-support systems upon which humanity relies, will soon be lost.

Human activity has been changing natural ecosystems for thousands of years, but the pace and extent of change increased rapidly with agricultural and industrial development. Present estimates suggest that a substantial proportion of natural habitat has been transformed largely by agriculture, urban developments, afforestation, mining, and dams. In addition to habitat loss and degradation, the overexploitation of certain species, the introduction of exotic species, and the pollution or toxification of the soil, water and atmosphere have had major effects on terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity.

If present trends in population growth, economic growth and consumption patterns continue, the natural environment will be increasingly stressed. Distinct environmental gains and improvements will probably be offset by the pace and scale of global economic growth, increased global environmental pollution and accelerated degradation of the Earth's renewable resource base. The negative impacts of environmental degradation will fall most heavily on the poorer developing regions. The income gap between rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor within countries, will increase for several decades. Under a business-as-usual scenario, current inequities in the distribution of the environmental costs and benefits of consumption seem likely to grow worse. This could be expected to have a destabilizing influence on the physical, social and political environment.

The Kyoto World Conference (1-10 December 1997) was not only a call for the survival of the Earth, it was a sign that the limits of growth in industrialized countries may have already been reached. The impact of our present way of life has huge repercussions for the planet and it is no longer possible to reproduce and to perpetuate it indefinitely.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, there is no doubt that the natural systems on which all life depends are severely impacted by human activity. During the past century, these systems have borne the stresses imposed by an eighteen-fold increase in world economic output and fourfold increase in human population. The increasing demands and activities of growing economies combined with a world population of over six billion are exceeding the productive and regenerative capacity of these systems.

1. The growth of human activity on the planet has produced effects which are approaching, and in some instances may have exceeded, the thresholds for maintenance of equilibrium balance by the planetary system.

2. Social legislation cannot repeal physical laws.

3. Research into mass extinctions has revealed that the global ecosystem is far more fragile and unstable than was once supposed.

4. We face a crisis -- one of our own making -- and if we fail to negotiate it with vision, we will lay a curse of unimaginable magnitude on future generations (Richard Leakey).

5. There is strong evidence that the life support systems on which our economies depend are being overloaded, and unless a shift is made towards sustainable development we face severe or irreversable damage to the environment.

(C) Cross-sectoral problems