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Planetary boundaries: at the threshold… again: sustainable development ideas and politics


The implications of the planetary boundaries (PBs) proposal involves scientific, moral and political dimensions. The core of the PBs idea is that humankind is transgressing global environmental tipping points resulting in changed conditions that threaten to unravel human progress. The growing status of the proposal potentially makes it a highly influential organising concept that seems to contain within it aspirations to dramatically reconstitute the relationship between society and the environment—thereby transforming the politics of sustainable development. This paper situates PBs in contemporary green thinking. Key planning events and related documents supporting the Post-2015 Development Agenda process are then examined to identify strategies and reactions to the PB proposal. The findings show that divisions reminiscent of older North/South environment and development tensions related to the role of experts, democracy and the Right to Development threaten to prevent PBs from being mainstreamed in key UN environment and development programmes and fora.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    With deeper roots in Malthusian and the romantic discourses.

  2. 2.

    Under contraction and convergence, each country will start out with emission entitlements equal to its current real emissions levels, and then, over time, converge to equal its per capita entitlements, while the overall global budget contracts to accommodate the emissions reduction objective” (Project Team of the Development Research Center of the State Council, 2009, p. 402). It is unclear how this concept could be applied to the range of PBs measures and as far as I know it has not be elaborated with this broader range of sustainability and equity concerns in mind.

  3. 3.

    Shared characteristics include, the precautionary approach; emphasis on the role of science and technological innovation to steer and adapt; institutional reform; central role of experts; the importance of eco-efficiency gains; and the centrality of market based instruments (Hajer 1995; Mol 1995). That said, ecological modernisation like sustainable development has been variously conceptualised and interpreted in practice (Dryzek 2013). The type of ecological modernisation discussed here is characterised as being a 'weak' form rather than say the 'strong' form described by Christoff (1996).

  4. 4.

    Notwithstanding Langhelle’s (2000) arguments concerning the differences between ecological modernisation and sustainable development—even Langhelle (2000) concedes that there are large overlaps between these two concepts and that ecological modernisation is comparable to a weak form of sustainable development at best.


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I would like to acknowledge the generous contributions to the development of this paper by my Södertörn University colleagues; particularly those by Associate Professor Sara Sjöling, Lise-Lotte Hallman, Dr. Jonas Bylund and Professor Kari Lehtilä. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and considered feedback on earlier versions of this work. That said, I take full responsibility for the content of this paper.

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Correspondence to Fred P. Saunders.

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Saunders, F.P. Planetary boundaries: at the threshold… again: sustainable development ideas and politics. Environ Dev Sustain 17, 823–835 (2015).

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  • Planetary boundaries
  • Sustainable development
  • Limits to Growth