Book Reviews

Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within planetary boundaries

Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries

Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum


208pp. Hardback.

Max Ström Publishing, Stockholm

ISBN 978-91-7126-334-6

Review by David Teather

A collaboration between a world-renowned scientist and an award-winning freelance photographer has produced a gem of a book. Big World, Small Planet comprises 200 pages of thought-provoking text, photos and graphics. It focuses on a key issue for Friends of the Earth, the changing relationship between humans and the natural world, and demonstrates how best to communicate this to the general reader.

We've entered the Anthropocene, the era of massive human impact on the Earth. This redefines our future. Our current way of life is threatening to trigger catastrophic tipping points that could knock the planet out of the stable state that has for millennia favoured the development of our species.

The authors explore an innovative approach to this situation. They claim that neither the neo-Malthusians (who ridicule the idea of growth on a finite planet) nor the neo-liberals (who favour limitless growth) are correct. Instead they explore the middle ground, namely a future for humanity that provides abundance in a safe operating space within the boundaries set by the biophysical limits of the Earth.

They argue that this development paradigm – sustainable development leading to abundance within planetary boundaries – requires a deep mind-shift, technological transformations, system innovations, and lifestyle changes.

Planetary boundaries

The concept of planetary boundaries was propounded in 2009 in two landmark scientific papers, a short paper1 in the journal Nature and a fuller account2 in Ecology and Society. Johan Rockström, co-author of Big World, Small Planet, also co-authored these 2009 papers with a team of leading scientists from around the world. Rockström is now the Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a professor at Stockholm University.

In 2012 Professor Rockström, together with the co-author of this book, Dr Mattias Klum, wrote a much larger volume3 entitled The Human Quest: Prospering Within Planetary Boundaries. This 2012 book, with a foreword by former US President Bill Clinton, was written to establish an authoritative baseline for debate on this novel approach to future human development. Copies of The Human Quest, a 2 kg doorstopper of a book, were presented to more than 130 heads of state and government, and to delegates at the 2012 UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

In the preface to Big World, Small Planet the authors state its purpose as follows: "The world needs a new narrative – a positive story about new opportunities for humanity to thrive on our beautiful planet by using ingenuity, core values, and humanism to become wise stewards of nature and the entire planet. ... We need a new way of thinking about our relationship with nature, and how reconnecting with the planet can open up new avenues to world prosperity."

Our present predicament

This book is in three sections. Section 1 summarises the urgent predicament we are facing as Earth responds to the massive human impacts of the last few decades. Throughout the previous 10,000 years, the Holocene era, climatic fluctuations had been minimal and conditions for the development of human civilisations particularly benign. But recent rapid increases, in population and in affluence, are impacting the global climate and degrading the ecosystems on which our future prosperity depends.

New knowledge about the behaviour of ecosystems reveals that changes can occur abruptly when tipping points are reached. But now we also know much more about how to maintain the Earth in its benign, stable state.

The key to human survival is to keep our impacts on Earth below the biophysical limits beyond which the biosphere might flip into a different, and for us, undesirable state. Rockström calls such limits "planetary boundaries", and identifies nine such boundaries as follows:

  • Climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification. These three are sharply-defined global thresholds, with direct implications for the whole planet.
  • Biodiversity loss, land-use change, freshwater consumption, and interference with the natural cycles of major nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) all undermine the resilience of the biosphere.
  • Air pollution (by soot and other particles), and chemical pollution of the biosphere (by heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals) are direct consequences of human activity.

Crossing thresholds in each of these nine planetary boundaries will bring about changes on a global scale, but some effects are seen more quickly at the local and regional levels. For example, the appearance of dead zones in the Baltic Sea, caused by pollution, is prompting adjacent countries to co-operate to clean it up.

Chapter 3 focuses on local events that have global impact. Examples given included the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, changes in European Union fishing policies, and droughts affecting grain production in Russia and Australia. Chapter 4 focuses on global depletion of raw materials, particularly oil, minerals and phosphorus.

New ways of thinking

Section 2 makes the case for new ways of thinking about prosperity, justice and happiness on a sustainable planet. Rockström states that in the Anthropocene our challenge "... is not about saving a species or an ecosystem. It's about saving us. It's about making it possible for humanity to continue pursuing economic development, prosperity and good lives ... It's our world that's at stake."

But the corollary of this is that it is only by saving the natural environment, upon which we wholly depend, that the future of humanity can be assured: "There can be no business in societies destabilised by abrupt social-ecological change. ... Only a stable climate and ecosystem can provide the resilience and sustainability we need to make our cities, [towns] and villages livable."

Rockström reports that a growing number of business leaders, policymakers and other citizens have reached the conclusion that the world is now facing unacceptable risks, and that we need to find ways to promote development within global sustainability criteria. In the last 5 years the conversation has moved from burden-sharing and contraction to strategies for minimising risk, generating benefits, and developing modern, high-tech solutions.

Sustainable solutions

In Section 3 the authors offer practical solutions to the biggest challenges, such as feeding nine billion people and powering tomorrow's economies within planetary boundaries. Here are three of the many practical examples that they present:

  • In Sardinia biotech researchers found that vegetable oil from a prickly weed, artichoke thistle, can be converted to chemical base-products for numerous industries. An old petro-chemical plant has been converted into one of the world's most advanced and innovative green chemistry bio-refineries. This uses thistles to make bioplastics.
  • Farmers in southern Niger have increased productivity on five million hectares by growing nitrogen-fixing trees with agricultural crops. Biodiversity has risen, soil fertility has improved, and the landscape has become more resilient to water-related shock. And real farm incomes have doubled since the 1990s.
  • In parts of northern India, in order to reduce the impact on tiger habitat by villagers seeking firewood, thousands of small biogas-fuelled cooking stoves have been installed. The stoves burn methane produced from cattle dung, and in some areas fuel wood consumption has been reduced by 70%.

But at present too many such sustainable, nature-based solutions are blocked by perverse incentives and lack of clear regulation. It's too easy to plunder natural resources, ecosystems and the atmosphere for short-term economic gain. If longer-term costs were properly taken into account, such practices would cease.

By calculating the true costs of pollution and planetary abuse, and by establishing regulations that enable economic development within planetary boundaries, we can protect the Earth's remaining ecosystems without impeding development. Indeed, the authors claim, such measures would unleash innovation by making it worthwhile to invest in sustainable, nature-based solutions. Correcting massive global market failures would lead to a "good" Anthropocene.

A synergy of science and communication

To return to the design of this remarkable book, which results from an interdisciplinary team effort encompassing science, photography, graphics and narrative.

Photography has long been employed in the service of nature conservation. Showing, as well as telling what is at stake has immediate and lasting impact. From 1965−82, photos by Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis brought remote and inaccessible areas of Tasmania into the public realm, enhanced campaigns to save the Franklin River and, arguably, influenced the outcome of the 1983 Federal election.4 Today photos of whales, migrating birds and many other species support international campaigns for their protection, and superb books provide photographic records of climate change.5

In Big World, Small Planet the title page is complemented by "Earthrise", the famous photo of the Earth in an ink-black sky with the moon's surface in the foreground, taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders. Throughout this book the text is similarly complemented by more than 50 original, high-quality photos by co-author, Mattias Klum.

Do buy and read this important and beautiful book. If you find it convincing, consider who else you can encourage to read it.


1. Rockström, J. and others (2009a) "A Safe Operating Space for Humanity." Nature 461: 472-475.

2. Rockström, J. and others (2009b) "Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity." Ecology and Society 14(2): 32

3. Rockström, J. and Klum, M. (2012) "The Human Quest: Prospering Within Planetary Boundaries." 316pp. Hardback. Langenskiöld, Stockholm. ISBN 978-91-87007-14-9

4. Dombrovskis, P. and Brown, B. (1983) "Wild Rivers." 128pp. Hardback. Peter Dombrovskis Pty Ltd, Sandy Bay. ISBN 978-0-670-82645-2

5. Braasch, G. (2007) "Earth under Fire: How global warming is changing the world." 296pp. Hardback. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London. ISBN 978-0-520-24438-2

Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard

Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard

Edited by Vandana Shiva

ISBN: 9781742199566
376 pp, $34.95

The industrial paradigm for food production is no longer viable. It is unviable because it came from labs producing tools for warfare, not from farms and fields producing food and nourishment. The industrial paradigm of agriculture has its roots in war; an industry that grew by making explosives and chemicals for the war remodeled itself as the agrichemical industry when the major 20th century wars ended. Explosives factories started making synthetic fertilisers, war chemicals began to be used as pesticides and herbicides. Whether it is chemical fertilisers, or chemical pesticides, their roots are in war. They are designed to kill. That is why thousands were killed in India, in Bhopal in December 1984, and hundreds of thousands continue to be maimed because of leaks from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals). That is also why chemicals like Roundup (glyphosate) are being implicated in new disease epidemics by scientists like Prof. Seneff of MIT, who identify the processes through which these chemicals cause harm.

This unique, international offering on an issue of critical importance today, demonstrates how women as activists, scientists and scholars are at the forefront of shaping new scientific and economic paradigms to reclaim seed sovereignty and food security across the world. Women in the North and South are leading movements to change both practice and paradigm: how we grow and transform our food. As seed keepers and food producers, as mothers and consumers, they are engaged in renewing a food system that is better aligned with the ecological processes of the earth's renewal, the laws of human rights and social justice and the means through which our bodies stay well and healthy.

Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned environmental thinker and activist, a leader in the International Forum on Globalisation, and of the Slow Food Movement. Director of Navdanya and of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, and a tireless crusader for farmers', peasants' and women's rights, she is the author and editor of a score of influential books, among them Making Peace with the Earth, Soil Not Oil and Staying Alive.

Contributors write on the following topics:

Section I: International: Reflections on a Broken Paradigm: Fields of Hope and Power; The Ethics of Agricultural Biotechnology; Food Politics, the Food Movement and Public Health; Autism and Glyphosate: Connecting the Dots; The New Genetics and Dangers of GMOs.

Section II: Global North: Seed Emergency: Germany; GM Soy as Feed for Animals Affects Posterity; Seeds in France; Kokopelli vs. Graines Baumaux; If People Are Asked, They Say NO to GMOs; The Italian Context; The Untold American Revolution: History of the Seed in the US; Reviving Native Sioux Agriculture Systems; In Praise of the Leadership of Indigenous Women; Moms Across America: Shaking Up the System.

Section III: Global South: Seed Freedom and Seed Sovereignty: Bangladesh Today; Monsanto and Biosafety in Nepal; Sowing Seeds of Freedom; The Loss of Crop Genetic Diversity in the Changing World; Seed Sovereignty and Ecological Integrity in Africa; Conserving the Diversity of Peasant Seeds; Celebrating the Chile Nativo; Seed Saving and Women in Peru; Seeds of Liberation in Latin America; The Other Mothers and the Fight against GMOs in Argentina; Seeding Knowledge: Australia.

Nonviolence unbound

Nonviolence unbound

Brian Martin

Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2015
354 pages. ISBN 978-91-88061-03-4

Order a hard copy:

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Rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins – these and other methods of nonviolent action can be used to bring down dictators. Nonviolence Unbound shows how insights into what makes nonviolent action effective can be applied to four completely different arenas: defending against verbal abuse, responding to online defamatory pictures, and engaging in the struggles over euthanasia and vaccination. This investigation shows how to analyse options for opposing injustice.

The book has chapters on: the effectiveness of nonviolent action; transportable features of nonviolent action; verbal defence; being defamed; euthanasia struggles; and vaccination.

The author, Brian Martin, is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of numerous books and articles on nonviolence, dissent, scientific controversies, democracy and other topics.

The book is available as a free download, courtesy of the publisher. Irene Publishing is a non-profit operation, committed to providing works relevant to grassroots social change.

How Australians were persuaded to ignore the risk of climate change

Global warming and climate change: What Australians knew and buried ... then framed a new reality for the public

Maria Taylor

ANU Press

Australians, including Australian political leaders, were among the best informed globally and every state had an action plan on climate change 25 years ago, according to a new book by journalist Maria Taylor, published by ANU Press. Taylor's book documents the history of Australia's descent from an early highpoint of good public knowledge and will to act into confusion, uncertainty and stalemate on action.

As climate scientists issue increasingly urgent warnings of irreversible changes, particularly to the world's oceans, and with new global climate talks due in December, Australia is now seen as one of the most backward nations in terms of response. This book analyses how this happened in a country that was once at the forefront of climate knowledge.

Taylor states: "The science risk messages didn't change. What changed is the story that Australia's political leaders and the mass media together told the public. This book explores how and why a whole nation was persuaded or propagandized to ignore the risks and defend the fossil fuel status quo over a 25 year period. As a result we have a much higher burden of greenhouse gases to deal with now, than if we had acted earlier. For example, Australia in 1990 had a draft target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% below 1988 levels and was setting up programs to implement it. What happened then in the 1990s has led directly to the present day toxic politics surrounding climate change action. The current federal leadership rejection of the opportunities offered by renewables, including many jobs, and the manufactured hysteria about a pollution tax seem extreme, but fit into the thinking of the past two decades. To move forward, it helps to understand the values and beliefs and the institutions that trumped the science and blocked effective action and how it was done."

The book documents how a phony media debate can be and was created. And how 'uncertainty' was used and abused to make people forget about risk insurance they might apply elsewhere.

The book includes the story of Dr Graeme Pearman, former head of CSIRO Atmospheric Research, who played a key role in the early good communication and understanding, only to lose his job because he persisted in communicating with the public. We also hear the evidence and verdicts from government ministers, journalists, policy experts, and more scientists who played roles as this story unfolded.

More information:

Free electronic copies of the book are available from ANU Press in several formats:
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Hard copies can be printed on demand and purchased for $28 plus courier shipping from the ANU Press (

The race to feed a crowded world

The End of Plenty: the race to feed a crowded world

Joel K. Bourne Jr.

Scribe, July 2015

RRP: $35.00, 400pp

ISBN: 9781925106565
An award-winning environmental journalist introduces a new generation of farmers and scientists on the frontlines of the next green revolution. When Thomas Malthus famously outlined the brutal relationship between food and population, he never imagined the success of modern agriculture. New seeds, chemicals, and irrigation, coupled with free trade, drove the greatest global population boom in history — but left ecological devastation and an unsustainable agroeconomic status quo in their wake. Now, with a greater number of mouths to feed than ever before, tightening global food supplies have spurred riots and reform around the world.

Author Joel K. Bourne Jr takes readers from his family farm to international agricultural hotspots, searching for new solutions that can feed us all sustainably. He visits young corporate farmers trying to restore Ukraine as Europe's breadbasket, a Canadian aquaculturist channelling ancient Chinese traditions, the agronomist behind the world's largest organic sugar-cane plantation, and many other people and groups, large and small, who are racing to stave off a Malthusian catastrophe. Part history, part reportage, part advocacy, The End of Plenty is a wake-up call for anyone concerned with what the coming decades will hold for our planet and its inhabitants if we don't take action.

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,