humanity lives beyond its means, and there is urgency

A large study claims that a planetary boundary has been crossed, and paints a very disturbing picture of global chemical pollution.

In 2009, a group of Swedish researchers caused a stir in the scientific community with a paper that defined “planetary boundaries“fundamental for our species. We learn today thatone of these limits, that concerning global chemical pollution, has already been exceeded.

When they published their original work, researchers from Johan Rockström’s team defined nine such limits. For example, we can cite the acidification of the oceans, biogeochemical fluxes, or even global warming. But the one that interests us today is the proliferation of “new entities”, a nebulous term that simply refers to chemical pollution.

Very briefly, it is critical thresholds. As long as humanity is below these benchmarks, it will be able to survive and proliferate. Corn the more it exceeds them, the more the chances of survival of our civilization are compromised.

Planetary boundaries, humanity’s leeway

Some are extremely easy to quantify; for example, we know full well that the integrity of the biosphere is in a deplorable state and that this does not bode well for the primates that we are. But others are much more complicated to estimate. This is the case of chemical pollution; if it is very easy to study it on a local scale, it is much more complex to propose an assessment on a global scale.

This limit therefore remained in abeyance pending conclusive results. This is what a new team of researchers, also Swedish, is now proposing. In their work published in the very prestigious journal American Chemical Society, they reviewed a mountain of scientific literature. They pulled out an immense amount of data that allowed them to estimate the state of this boundary… and their conclusions are worrying to say the least.

An elusive, rapidly proliferating killer

They have identified about 350,000 of these chemical pollutants on the market, and explain that their production is increasing at high speed. Since 1950, the volume produced has been multiplied by 50. However, a large quantity of these sometimes very toxic pollutants is now found in nature. To estimate this quantity, researchers propose several different criteria. But the conclusion always remains the same: whatever the method used for the calculation, we would have already exceeded this planetary limit on chemical pollutants, and by a long way.

Even worse: the researchers suggest the reality could be even grimmer than their models suggest. They explain that many by-products of this production tend to spiral out of control. The problem is that they are often themselves pollutants! So the picture could be even bleaker than these models suggest.

A vicious circle with consequences

The other major problem with this situation is that it is a vicious circle that will be extremely difficult to control. And this is certainly the most worrying point of the whole analysis. Indeed, with the acceleration of research and development cycles in industry, new pollutants continue to appear more and more rapidly. Researchers bluntly state that today it is impossible for governments to keep pace in terms of risk assessment and control.

This is all the more worrying since this problem does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, chemical pollution is particularly important, because it is directly related to other of these limits. We know, for example, that it has a harmful impact on the integrity of the biosphere and biogeochemical fluxes. Two planetary limits that we have already largely exceeded, and in large part because of chemical pollution.

Is the situation already hopeless? Should we therefore give up and concentrate on other objectives still within our reach? Absolutely not. Although this is one of the largest studies on the subject to date, the researchers repeatedly point out that these are only models. Science still comes up against “major data limitations”.

On the other hand, this does not mean either that these results should be brushed aside. Now is not the time for catastrophism, but the trend remains indisputable and the urgency very real. Exceeding these limits is not not necessarily irreversible, and the researchers recommend urgent action, for example by having widespread use of recycling. Whichever method is chosen, the important thing will be to control the volume and nature of production. Otherwise, “the persistence of many new entities and associated effects will continue to pose a threat” for all our civilization.

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