Exploring Planetary Boundaries: An Interview with, Tyler Prize Executive Committee Member Dr. Jim Watson.

We’re dealing with some complex environmental challenges these days, and it can be difficult to find where to start! The Planetary Boundaries framework – led by Johan Rockström – has become a crucial guide for collective action toward a more sustainable future.

Rebecca Rhodes from the ReAgency Media Team sat down with Jim Watson, a member of the Tyler Prize Executive Committee and Director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London, to discuss the Planetary Boundaries and its implications for global sustainability

Could you describe the Planetary Boundaries research for us as simply as you possibly can? We know it’s a complex subject matter! 

Planetary Boundaries in essence brings together a whole set of assessments for how the Earth is coping with human society, and asks, “Are we putting too much pressure on the planet, or are we not?”. 

It’s setting out a set of limits so we can understand that if we cross them, we’re in trouble.

What was the state of Earth Systems Sciences before the development of the Planetary Boundaries framework?

Before the framework was developed, there was already a lot of environmental research already out there: we knew we were in trouble on things like climate change, water use, land use, etc, as the science had been around for a long time. But I think what was needed was something to bring all that together in one place and to give us a real overview of the impact we were having on the planet.

I think even at the time in the early 2000s, we knew it was bad. I remember, really vividly, at a conference of the parties, a UN negotiators meeting, sitting with a negotiator from a small island state who said that they were facing an existential threat: that if climate change continues, their country was going to disappear. 

Why do you think the research on Planetary Boundaries was needed?

The Planetary Boundaries has an impact and a power that all of the individual assessments of things like Water Footprint and Climate Change and Land Use just don’t have on their own. The framework provided us with an effective visual tool that brought everything together, synthesizing data from across a range of fields and from scientists who are experts in those fields, led by Johan Rockström

The research also set boundaries for each of those areas, giving us a sense of how the planet was coping, which was original because it served almost like the indicator dashboard of a car: if you get things flashing red on your dashboard, you know that you urgently need to act. It’s not that the world is going to end! But it’s a real warning that we need to act quite urgently to bring these things back into balance. The Planetary Boundaries framework acts in the same way. 

What was the approach to environmental action prior to the planetary boundaries?

Action existed in different areas, but they operated in silos; lacking a connection between water, land use, and climate change issues.

Why did the Tyler Prize Committee select Johan Rockstrom for the Tyler Prize this year?

One significant reason is the brilliance of the Planetary Boundaries science that Johan has led. It has had a huge amount of interest, and is original and adaptable: it acts as a living framework that has continually adapted over time. It has also had a considerable impact: scientists, governments, companies, and individuals all over the world are all using it.

Johan has shown real leadership in bringing scientists together to work collectively on the Planetary Boundaries, but also significant communication skills to communicate the framework and engage with decision-makers in the way that he has. 

Why is the focus on Nature important in the Planetary Boundaries research?

Nature is a really important component of the Planetary Boundaries framework. I think it’s tempting to see nature as something separate from society, but there is a deep connection between nature and our health. Without nature, we cannot exist. Johan emphasizes the connection between the natural world and the ‘human-made world’ in his work. 

What do you make of Johan’s perseverance with the work, despite slow progress?

Persevering with this kind of research on sustainability can be hard. A lot of the environmental indicators are going in the wrong direction. I think Johan perseveres because it’s so important to keep bringing this message to decision-makers who have the power to make change. 

But things are also changing in the right direction. Keeping that urgency at the top of the agenda, even if perhaps we don’t act as quickly as we should, is still so important. If we all stopped and went home, then it would make the situation much, much worse.

How should the Planetary Boundaries research inform individual lifestyle choices, if at all?

The main consequence of the Planetary Boundaries is to empower those people with power in society to act. Governments and large companies; they’ve got to take the lead on these things. I do worry when we start thinking about what individuals should do in isolation… of course, there are areas where we can act to reduce our own carbon footprint, our water footprint, etc. But I would always look to those people with power in society, the governments, the big companies, to take the lead and help people to make the right choices, and with the financial means to make the right choices as well.

How does Johan’s scientific fieldwork inform his advocacy with global leaders?

That background Johan has on the ground as a field scientist is really important, because I think if you are developing these very high-level frameworks and talking to scientists, famous people, and leaders around the world, you can end up a little bit detached from what that framework is describing – which is the change on the ground. So the understanding of the change on the ground helps to communicate the power of it, rather than it being a set of abstract numbers on a spreadsheet. You really know what those numbers mean, because you’ve done the fieldwork yourself. 

What action would you like to see taken by leaders in response to the updated Planetary Boundaries research?

The updated research reinforces the need for action. I would like to see a much more ambitious Climate Agreement at the next climate summit, which really talks about how we’re going to get off fossil fuels. We similarly need a lot more action on biodiversity and on water use. I think the science is very clear. It’s up to decision-makers to actually do the right thing now.

A big thank you to Jim Watson for his time!

Discover more about Dr. Jim Watson here.