Organic carrots in plastic?

Published on
August 29, 2022

The opening of the academic year on 5 September is themed planetary boundaries. But, what are they? How can you study them, and can you use them in your day-to-day life? Today, episode 2: Jessica Duncan, associate professor and one of the speakers during the opening.

How can we change our production and consumption to stay within the boundaries of our planet? This is the societal issue at the core of sociologist Jessica Duncan’s work. She focuses mainly on what governance models best suit transitions towards a sustainable society.

‘My work on planetary boundaries is focused on creating an equitable and safe setting for future transformations. I concentrate on the way in which different groups of people get together to negotiate such transformations. What are their views? How do they make sense of the challenges ahead? On what do they agree and disagree? And, how can we design equitable, administrative processes to ensure that those most affected are heard and prioritised?’

Jessica Duncan about planetary boundaries

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Duncan thus does not merely study planetary boundaries but also aims to deliver societal impact by developing transition pathways. ‘I believe scientists have a key role in exploring the barriers of the transition pathways and exposing the different considerations leading to them.’

Is your work on planetary boundaries motivated by a profound concern over the future of our planet?

‘Over the past few years, I have seen an increasing level of concern and fear over the future of the earth amongst my students. As scientists, we must address this existential anxiety. Planetary boundaries provide a powerful tool to communicate the complexity and urgency of the issue to various target groups, including policymakers and students.’

What are planetary boundaries?

The phrase planetary boundaries was coined in 2009 by Swedish Earth Scientist Johan Rockström. He formulated nine boundaries within which humanity must operate in order to use the earth’s natural resources sustainably. These boundaries are global warming (greenhouse effect), biodiversity loss, the closing of the nitrogen and phosphor cycles, hole in the ozone layer, acidification of the ocean, water scarcity, land use (limiting farmland), chemical pollution through toxins contained in plastics, and harmful compounds in the atmosphere. Most of these boundaries have already been crossed or have almost been crossed. The precise values of these boundaries are arbitrary. Still, they are considered a promising first step towards the safe continued existence of humanity.

Duncan believes this should also include social boundaries since ‘a sustainable transformation can only exist through diligent consideration of equity and fairness.’

How do you incorporate planetary boundaries in your personal life? What do you struggle with?

‘I don’t know about you, but I get a sense of fear and paralysis every time I go grocery shopping. Suppose I want to buy carrots; pretty straightforward, you’d think. I wish to buy organic carrots because they are better for the soil and our health. But, due to the strict policies for organic food, these carrots are wrapped in plastic. I wish to reduce my use of plastics, and the non-organic carrots are sold without packaging. Moreover, the non-organic carrots are locally grown. In contrast, the organic ones are imported, and I aim to support the local economy and reduce the number of food-kilometres. And then there is the cost: the organic carrots are slightly more expensive. Which decision is best? And how can we make good decisions when the food system itself has so many paradoxes and is so complex?’

Although it is up to each of us to make an effort to live more sustainably, I believe that better management of food systems is key to a sustainable future for food. No amount of oat milk or vertical farming will be able to save our food system unless we improve how we manage the system. We must discuss governance, as it is the governments that must act with urgency and take unequivocal decisions. We must depart from placing responsibility on the individual and move towards structural solutions, particularly when the main driver for this type of change is rooted in consumption. Moreover, approaches that focus on people buying their way to sustainability mean that the wealthy get a bigger say in the matter. This is incompatible with an equitable future for food.’