Societal Planetary Boundaries: When Global Society Endangers the Future of Our Planet

This article is presented by the Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, co-authored by Sander van der Leeuw, Manfred Laubichler, and Peter Schlosser

“Indeed, as he heard the cries of delight rising from the city, Rieux remembered that this delight was always threatened. For he knew what this joyous crowd did not, and what you can read in books — that the germ of the plague never dies or disappears, that it can lie dormant for decades in furniture and linens, that it waits patiently in rooms, in basements, in trunks, among handkerchiefs and paperwork, and that perhaps the day would come when, for the sorrow and education of men, the plague would revive its rats and dispatch them to die in a happy city.” Albert Camus — “The Plague” 1943–1945 (translation Laura Marris, New York Times 04/16/2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly shows how our current health, social, and economic systems are ill-equipped to handle a global crisis. We recently established the COVID-19 pandemic as a stress test for the stability of our planet and its life supporting systems. It reminded us of our limits of control.

But, how did we get into this situation? It is indisputable that uncontrolled world population growth and the related accelerating patterns of globalization, with their associated ever-increasing consumption of resources, have placed unprecedented pressure onto our planet that has already reached or will soon reach its natural boundaries (e.g. Meadows et al. 1972).

For about a decade we have acknowledged the existence of Environmental Planetary Boundaries — within which the world will have to remain, or which it has to return to if it is to avoid disaster through climate change, water and food shortages or loss of ecosystem services, to name just a few prominent examples (Rockström et al., 2009). We have not systematically explored Societal Planetary Boundaries to the same extent. Yet, social processes are the main reason why we, as a global society, are rapidly approaching environmental planetary boundaries.

This COVID-19 moment highlights Societal Planetary Boundaries and how exceeding them is the main driver of sustainability crises. And, as the COVID-19 crisis, with its immediate global impact on all functions of societal structures demonstrates, successful interventions and solutions depend on managing these underlying societal dynamics.

Societal Planetary Boundaries

Planetary Boundaries recognize limits to growth and resource use. The original framing of the Planetary Boundaries specifically focused on the Environmental Planetary Boundaries (EPBs), following decades of research in the natural and environmental sciences. A number of political decisions, as well as societal concerns expressed in the “green” movement over the past 50 years, led to a large global research effort and the recognition that a number of environmental developments could jeopardize the so-called safe operating space of humanity on our planet (as described by the EPBs literature, e.g. Rockström et al. 2009; Steffen et al. 2005, 2015).

While all these research efforts documented the consequences of changes in the physical part of the Earth system, it became increasingly clear that the drivers behind these changes are human activities. Any solution or course correction could only be accomplished by changing human activities and ultimately human behavior. As this essentially is a political, economic and social process, scientists limited their main role to providing evidence and developing scenarios for the future of the environment.

But clearly there are also Societal Planetary Boundaries (SPBs) — limits to societal dynamics that greatly affect our ability to keep our planet on a course that leaves the next generations options to shape their future. Since the Industrial Revolution, with the expanding population and rate of consumption and waste that comes with that growth, we have been narrowing the options space for future generations at an alarming and increasing pace. If we accept that choices made by individuals, groups, and societies drove us towards the EPBs, we have to conclude that limitations in the societal fabric that led to those decisions de facto are SPBs.

There is a close connection and interaction between SPBs and EPBs. Societal choices have driven us to the point where many societies no longer function properly — amplified by extreme population growth. At the same time these choices placed pressure on the environmental systems, thereby moving us towards EPBs. The consequences of approaching the EPBs in turn limit the choices society has concerning its resource base, services provided by natural systems, etc., moving us closer towards SPBs. Thus, once societal dynamics start to drive humankind out of its dynamic equilibrium with the rest of the Earth System, an intricate set of positive feedback loops between SPBs and EPBs is initiated that leads to phenomena such as the runaway process we currently observe as the Great Acceleration. This should not come as a surprise as the intrinsically coupled social and physical subsystems of our planet represent the ultimate, closely interlinked, complex system.

COVID-19 highlights Societal Planetary Boundaries

Despite at least a decade of targeted expert warnings that a pandemic was bound to emerge, the sudden spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant unpreparedness of virtually all ‘developed’ societies on Earth is in part due to a lack of recognition of SPBs. This is mainly due to a [mistaken] sense of control over the environment, and, in particular, over human and global health, among the ‘developed’ nations. That sense of security and failure to recognize the SPBs, contributed to an efficiency-based economy that has characterized the last 40 years, elevating profit and wealth over other dimensions of human well-being. As part of modern globalization, regulations and redundancies were methodically removed in allegiance to free market ideology, leading to a major system transformation characterized by a new set of vulnerabilities and systemic risks.

COVID-19 dramatically reveals the social and societal fracture lines in the current Earth system. It is a reminder that our socio-environmental systems have been rendered instrumental to the dominant economic forces, although we value many dimensions other than the economic ones: foremost among them is the health of human beings, as well as many societal, religious, normative and emotional dimensions.

Dealing with the epidemic demands urgent responses to questions such as: What is the economic value of a human life? How do we protect the sanctity of human life and ensure fairness when resources are so scarce? What is the role and value of belonging to a society? Do we maintain or change the societal structures on which our current lifestyle is based? Do we have the collective will and capacity to re-design societal systems, so that humankind can equitably thrive over the long-term — which, in the parlance of EPBs, is described as keeping within the safe operating space and out of the buffer zone of the Earth system? What is the evidence for such a capacity? If we have it, why are we so slow in reacting? Can we really learn from the past?

The lack of a simple technological solution to COVID-19 (no specific treatment and no vaccine) forces us to confront additional questions that are fundamental to understanding integrated Earth system dynamics. These include: What is the role of societies and societal behavior in the environmental dynamics that seem to be overwhelming us? How did population growth increase to this unsustainable point? What might be the negative effects of depending on technological solutions?

As we observe that COVID-19 exploits the specific social and economic structures developed over the last decades (an adept evolutionary ‘move’ on the part of the virus), we come to fully realize the fundamental links between societal and environmental planetary boundaries. We also realize that we still lack a coherent perspective on the highly interconnected system in which we live and where and when it approaches its environmental and societal boundaries. Collectively, our societies have failed to make sufficient provisions against an occurrence such as this one, and what we see is a systemic breakdown that is the result of a centuries-long history of moving towards boundaries we did not recognize or take seriously.

Accepting the existence of Societal Planetary Boundaries

Identification of the existence of SPBs and their central role in designing responses to both rapid shocks such as COVID-19 and long-term threats such as the looming sustainability crisis requires rethinking the evolution and future trajectories of life on a highly complex and interconnected planet. Changing our perspective begins with a simple truth: both the COVID-19 crisis and the rapidly developing sustainability crisis are foremost societal crises rather than environmental ones.

Any crisis like COVID-19 or the sustainability crisis must be seen as a [temporary] incapacity of a society to fulfill its role, i.e., to constructively deal with the dynamic environment in which it finds itself. Frequently, this is due to the unintended and unperceived consequences of collective decisions made in the past. Our western societies’ globalizing way of life has co-evolved path-dependently over some 600 years. Demography, urbanization, trade, technology, resource exploitation (agriculture, fossil energy, raw materials), health management, knowledge and science, beliefs, institutions, and other aspects of our current ways of life have developed in very close interaction to each other. The dynamics that led to the present situation, as in all complex systems, involve all of these domains and many others enabling one another. Among all these drivers, population growth is uniquely quantifiable.

Understanding Societal Planetary Boundaries through population size

Many features that are currently adding substantial stress to the socio-environmental Earth system are manifest in the explosive growth of Earth’s population, which more than doubled since 1960 to now around 7.7 billion people. The idea of the Great Acceleration — embodied in the iconic ‘hockey stick graphs’ showing exponential growth in all metrics, both environmental and socio-economic (Steffen et al. 2005, 2015), with the real uptick starting around 1950 — is a forceful reminder of a complex system rapidly approaching or already exceeding its limits. One annual expression of these dynamics is Earth Overshoot Day, the day at which humanity has used up all the resources that the Earth can produce in a year. In 1960, that was January 1. For 2020, it is expected to be August 4, 2020 (although the drop in economic activity due to COVID-19 might push it slightly back).

We can then identify societal planetary boundaries as those components of the Earth system that are stressed by the growth of the overall global system, measured by population size as a proxy, while in turn contributing to the growth of that system.

If population growth is a manifestation of the way the Earth system reaches its limits, we need to ask: What is responsible for population growth? We are confronted with the unique dynamics of highly interconnected complex systems. Many of the factors that are enabled by population growth — whether it is technology, finance, resource extraction, knowledge production, communication, etc. — are, in turn, feeding back on population growth, as well as on each other. Thus, we have a system that is predominantly characterized by positive feedback loops, which is the reason for all the exponential growth we see. We can then identify societal planetary boundaries as those components of the Earth system that are stressed by the growth of the overall global system, measured by population size as a proxy, while in turn contributing to the growth of that system.

One way to characterize the types of feedback involved is by scaling these parameters relative to population size. That highlights different types of relationships and correlations that, taken together, can give us a better quantitative understanding of how the individual societal planetary boundaries are connected. Another, more qualitative way to understand the dynamics of societal planetary boundaries is to reconstruct the historical developments leading to the current state of stress in the system.

Historical Context of Societal Planetary Boundaries

The pressure towards societal planetary boundaries is the result of close interactions between industrialization, financialization, and globalization, especially through strong positive feedback loops between human capital, resource capital, financial capital, and technological capital. As a result, we are seeing an explosive increase in all three domains over the past century.

These trends and the related SPBs have, to a large extent, been facilitated by technology. In its evolution, technology does not follow either a societal or an environmental logic — rather, it has a logic of its own. That logic has been a major driver of the positive feedback loops pushing us towards societal planetary boundaries. Technology is the domain where society and the environment interact, in a process that is simultaneously the information of matter and the substantiation of form. In other words, when one creates an artefact or a technology, one gives shape to (informs) matter (things), while that action simultaneously instantiates (materializes) information (knowledge). That process concretizes the ideas of a society and shapes the material constraints for the society’s evolution.

As such, the evolution of technologies is an inherent part of the evolution of human societies and populations. Our current global population numbers could never have been reached without a concomitant evolution of technology. In the co-evolution of societies and technologies, the latter have been created by the information circulating in the societies. But — and, this is not generally recognized — the technologies have also been part of the information processing of the societies, by standardizing and mechanizing some of that information processing and thus reducing the information load circulating. For example, cars have very complex engine and steering mechanisms, but the driver does not need not know the details of the mechanics to drive.

For most of human history, societies developed different ways to process information and deal with issues of matter and energy. Innumerable innovations, particularly over the last two centuries, made the lives of many of us easier, healthier, and more mobile, based on a wider range of resources, etc.

But recently, in a development exploding in the late 2000s, this dynamic has taken another form: information processing became the subject of itself! This is a fundamental change that is affecting the core structure of our societies (van der Leeuw 2019), because it is enabling everyone in the world to communicate with everyone else. As a result, the mechanisms that had been in place, without most of us realizing it, to maintain some degree of alignment among members of each society (e.g., unity of basic values, thoughts, institutions) were removed. In other words, the societal dynamics that enabled societies’ members to distinguish between signals and noise suddenly more or less evaporated with the explosion of “alternative truths,” fake information, meddling in the value systems of other societies, etc.

This accelerated a range of processes that had been going on over the last century or so (for a more extensive treatment of these phenomena see van der Leeuw, 2019):

● The undermining of the international diplomatic order, established in 1648 and based on autonomy (non-interference in other countries) and balance of power. The most evident sign of this is the interference of certain states in others’ politics and elections;

● The undermining of the democratic governance systems of many countries, where political parties were no longer needed to win elections — replaced by massive databases with the political, economic and personal data about all citizens;

● The undermining of communities due to the increased individuation that is promoted by urbanization and the social networking over the web;

● The increasing blending between the realm of fantasy and that of reality, by television ‘reality’ shows, computer games and social media, in which more and more hours are spent on computer-based interaction that is based on many fewer dimensions than reality;

● The globalized economy having disconnected so many of us from the sources of our food and other goods;

● The increasing disappearance of a sense of place, because everyone can communicate with everyone in the world without any reference to physical location.

Altogether, these and other developments have substantially weakened the institutions in which we have, in the ‘developed’ countries, based our confidence. And, weakened institutions contribute greatly to the effects of societal planetary boundaries.

The Role of SPBs in the Instabilities in Global Society

This complex interactive co-evolution of societal dynamics has created a fundamentally unstable state of our global societal systems. The structure of our global society emerged after World War II, with a population of somewhere around 2 billion people, and is now no longer adapted to the present after the huge global growth in many dimensions. We are challenged to find and establish a completely new structure for current societal dynamics, and to do so within the Environmental and Societal Planetary Boundaries.

The extent of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was enabled by the inadequacy of our societies to constructively deal with the dynamics in which they find themselves. One important lesson is that the surprising ripple effects that are currently emerging result from longstanding unaddressed frailties and systemic risks. Crises have a way of bringing to the fore issues that are easy to ignore in good times.

We need to devise new cooperative structures, new values, and new ways to deal with our world as different visions of the future are beginning to battle for dominance. The COVID-19 crisis calls for urgent responses, but we should deliberate deeply on actions that have long-term consequences. We should implement innovative collaborative practices that involve diverse communities in reimagining the future, applying different epistemologies and value systems to planning exercises. We should place urgency on understanding the risks and uncertainties, including those of unintended consequences of measures taken in the past or measures necessary today. It will be a question of experimentation and re-assessment.

We must harness the emerging drive for change that has been generated by the COVID-19 panic. One immediate candidate for reconsideration is unbridled globalization in its current neoliberal form, in which companies can move production wherever it’s most efficient; people can hop on a plane and go nearly anywhere at any time; and money can flow to wherever it will get the highest return.

Until very recently, the diversity of ways to deal with the environment as well as society has enabled the human population of the Earth to survive and flourish. While globalization has many positive effects, excessive cultural uniformization and drive for efficiency are seriously weakening the resilience of the human species on Earth. Other major structural areas to address are demography and resource use, as well as wealth discrepancy.

Transitions towards a Sustainable Future

For all of these, we have the tools to transition into a more stable system. This will require a major effort to better understand the underlying dynamics, as well as a political effort among governments and businesses to implement responsible solutions and a large effort in education worldwide. This will require a global reconceptualization of the means and ends, to redefine development, and then to wean the ‘developed’ world off its consumerism, and to create for the ‘developing’ world the conditions that it can develop economically in sustainable ways. The ‘developed’ world will finally have to pay back the debt to the remainder of the planet that it incurred over the centuries between 1500 and 2000. Without these efforts, crises will keep recurring. For us, restructuring societal dynamics conscientious of SPBs and EPBs is an important lesson of the COVID–19 pandemic.


Meadows, D., Meadows, D., Randers, J., Behrens, W. W. III, 1972, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of Mankind, New York: Universe Books

Rockström, J.,, 2009, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity”, Nature vol. 461, 9/24/2009, 472–475

Steffen, W., et al., 2005, Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure, Springer

Steffen, W., et al., 2015, “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet”, Science Vol 347, Issue 6223, 1259855

van der Leeuw, S.E., 2019, Social Sustainability, Past and Future: Undoing Unintended Consequences for the Earth’s Survival, New York: Cambridge University Press