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Our Civilization is Beyond 'Safe Operating Space': Is Humanity Doomed?

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A new study has painted a grim outlook on the human civilization on Earth as it claimed that humans have exceeded four out of nine planetary boundaries that are crucial for the so-called "safe operating space."

According to the new study published in the journal Science on Jan. 15, these four planetary boundaries that have already gone beyond the point of no return included altered biogeochemical cycles such as the surplus of nitrogen and phosphorus, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and climate change.

"The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth System," the researchers wrote.

The researchers said that exceeding four out of the nine safe operating space boundaries indicate that humans are doomed by 44 percent and all these happened in the last century because of human activities.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology director Steve Carpenter said that this should be a wake-up call for the policymakers that humans have been going beyond the biophysical boundaries that allow human civilization to exist.

Of the systems affected is the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle that is important to all life and is especially crucial to the production of food and having clean water. Because these two elements are widely used as crop fertilizers, the amount of these chemicals seeping into the ecosystem has largely increased.

Carpenter noted that the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles have been changed more vastly compared with other elements with the increase estimated to be between 200 to 300 percent. In comparison, the increase in carbon is only between 10 to 20 percent.

Study co-researcher Elena Bennett from McGill's School of the Environment, who contributed to the study on the nitrogen-phosphorus cycle said that the new data exhibit that the human ability to have clean and potable water and produce sufficient amounts of food in the future is at risk.

Increased amount of phosphorus is the number one cause of damaging algal blooms. Phosphorus and nitrogen runoff likewise causes serious damage to quality of water.

 "We will see more lakes closed, will have to pay more to clean our water, and we will face temporary situations where our water is not cleanable or drinkable more and more frequently," Bennett said. "That's what it means to have crossed this planetary boundary. It's not a good thing for any of us."

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