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Earth's Perilous Journey Beyond Planetary Boundaries
The last time I went for a run this year was in April, during a short window between the moment the previous winter's three meters of snow had melted and the day I injured my knee and decided to give it maximum rest. I wanted my knee to heal sufficiently before I started this year's 700-kilometer walk in the French Pyrenees. The price I paid for those lazy weeks came once I began to walk the Camino de Santiago; unlike last year, I had many blisters on my untrained feet. Today, I paid another price; I was shocked by the slowness of my run.
But I have reached the age that I don't mind about speed, so I enjoyed being outside, and I soon found myself surrounded by the lush greenery of Ottawa. As you can see in the photo, one tree stood out from the others. Its foliage already blazed with the beautiful colors of autumn, a striking contrast to the still-green canopy around it.
I captured this moment in a photo, partly as an excuse for a brief stop to catch my breath but also with the anticipation of the foliage in the weeks to come. Gatineau Park, just a stone's throw away from Ottawa, promises to display nature's beauty at its best as the seasons shift.
Nature is on the brink of a breathtaking transformation, and I saw this tree as the herald of the vibrant symphony to come in all shades of fiery reds, burnt oranges, and rich yellows.
A tree can be a source of inspiration, bearing witness to the passage of time through the changing leaves. I can marvel each day at the shift in colors and the play of sunlight. I still remember my favorite tree of last year and the one before. All close to home, and I'll follow their changing hues in the next weeks.
In all its wisdom, nature reminds me that change is not something to be feared but embraced. Like the seasons, life is an ever-turning wheel of growth, transformation, and renewal. But that doesn't mean we are given a carte blanche to use and abuse nature as we please. Resilience is not without its limits. It's like a rubber band returning to its original shape after being torn, stretched, or stressed. But when it snaps, it will never be able to perform its functions as before.
Tipping points are points of no return. Once you stop heating, warm water in a kettle will return to its original state. But you pass a tipping point once the water starts boiling; putting the kettle off the fire will not result in the water vapor returning back into it. Johan Rockström defined tipping points at a much larger scale than this kitchen example; he looked at a global scale and defined the planetary boundaries essential for maintaining the planet's well-being.
In a recent study in Science Advances, scientists cautioned that human actions have pushed the Earth beyond the acceptable thresholds of six of these nine critical boundaries.
It is, or I may better say it should have been, breaking news on the front pages of the world's newspapers because human civilization hinges on these nine primary "planetary boundaries." We should all be alarmed by the news that humanity has recklessly transgressed six of these crucial boundaries: climate change, biosphere integrity, freshwater accessibility, land utilization, nutrient contamination, and the intrusion of novel entities (comprising human-induced pollutants such as microplastics and radioactive waste). Only three domains—ocean acidification, air quality, and ozone preservation—still fall within the tolerable limits. This grim reality underscores the precarious state of our planet's health.
I am now back in my small office at home in Ottawa and looking again at the photo of the remarkable tree. I deeply appreciate the beauty of change but realize that there is a condition I wasn't aware of. Change in nature is beautiful when it signals a return to a phase we have seen before. The return of autumn colors, snowy winters, flowery springtime, and the return of a sunny summer.
But climate change, a decline in biodiversity, or our oceans changing into a plastic dump where there will be around 2050 more plastic than fish in the water is not a natural change, nor is it a change in nature that anyone welcomes.
The big picture is often painful and full of tipping points. Meanwhile, I find joy in the cycles of nature and the enduring beauty that can be found in every season of life.
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