People and societies are integrated parts of the biosphere,1
depending on its functioning and life-support while also shaping it globally, with geological imprints in the Earth System (Steffen et al. 2011
). The issue at stake is broader than climate change. It is about a whole spectrum of global environmental changes that interplay with interdependent and rapidly globalizing human societies. A key challenge for humanity in this new situation is to understand its role in the Earth System, start accounting for and governing natural capital and actively shape development in tune with the biosphere (Jansson et al. 1994
; Rockström et al. 2009
). This is a new situation and it calls for new perspectives and paradigms on human development and progress—reconnecting to the biosphere and becoming active stewards of the Earth System as a whole.
During the last couple of generations, we have witnessed an amazing expansion of human activities into a converging globalized society, enhancing the material standard of living for a large part of people on earth, and despite still many in destitution the gaps between rich and poor are closing in regions of the world (Rosling 2010
). The expansion in particular since the 1950s, which predominantly benefitted the industrialized world, has pushed humanity into a new geological era, the Anthropocene, and generated the bulk of the global environmental changes with potential thresholds and tipping points, currently challenging the future wellbeing of the human population on Earth (Steffen et al. 2007
; Rockström et al. 2009
Now, new accelerations are occurring. The majority of the world’s population has started to move decisively out of poverty with a rise of an affluent middle class aiming for material growth and increased income in a rapidly urbanizing world—an environmental challenge as well as equity challenges of momentous scale (Leach et al. 2010
). Simultaneously, information technology, nano-technology and molecular revolution are accelerating with unknown potentials, while the speed of connectivity and feedbacks of globalization create new complex dynamics across levels and domains with often surprising outcomes. In addition, international institutions are becoming increasingly complex and fragmented through the evolution of a suite of public, private and hybrid forms of transnational collaborations (Andonova and Mitchell 2010
), presenting new governance challenges for global sustainability.
Current perspectives and worldviews mentally disconnect human progress and economic growth from the biosphere (Arrow et al. 1995
; O’Brien 2009
) and the life-supporting environment,2
if not simply ignored, has become external to society with people and nature treated as two separate entities. We still seldom account for changes in the capacity of natural capital to sustain human wellbeing in measurements of progress like GDP or the human development index and tend to treat the environment as a sector in policy and decision making.
But things are changing. For example, freshwater was earlier largely viewed as a natural resource extracted from rivers and groundwater for households, industry, and irrigation. Now, there is a shift in perspective reconnecting water governance to the life-supporting ecosystems, emphasizing the role of water as the bloodstream of the biosphere with people as embedded parts (Falkenmark and Folke 2003
; Hoff 2009
; Fig. ). New approaches linking water and ecosystems services, like adaptive water governance, are emerging (Gordon et al. 2008
; Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2010
; Pahl-Wostl et al. 2011
). Similar trends are seen in shifts toward ecosystem-based adaptive governance of dynamic landscapes and seascapes incorporating forestry, agriculture and fisheries.
Reconnecting to the biosphere, Stockholm archipelago, Sweden (photo: Carl Folke)
Societies are not only interconnected globally through political, economic, and technical systems, but also through the Earth’s biophysical life-support systems. Globalizing human–environment interactions are characterized by increasing connectivity, speed, mobility, and scale (Young et al. 2006
). For example, shrimps farmed in ponds in Thailand for export to global markets, are fed with fish meal derived from marine ecosystems worldwide (Fig. ) (Deutsch et al. 2007
). Numerous similar interactions play out in all corners of the world. The urbanized global society, which accounts for >50% of the world population, depends on the capacity of ecosystems of all kinds worldwide to support urban life with essential ecosystem services (Folke et al. 1997
; Grimm et al. 2008
), even though people may not perceive this support or have preferences for it.
Fig. 2 Sources of fishmeal imported to Thailand 1988, 1990, 1995, and 2000. Fishmeal amounts are metric tonnes and the numbers in parentheses are the percentage of total imports. Fishmeal is used in shrimp farming in Thailand (modified from Deutsch et al. 2007 (more ...)
Human action alters ecosystem support not only locally and regionally but also globally. Increases in connectivity, speed, and scale may enhance the capacity of societies to adapt and transform with changing circumstances. However, if globalization operates as if disconnected from the biosphere it may undermine the capacity of the life-supporting ecosystems to sustain such adaptations and transformations. Shifting from managing natural resources one by one and treating the environment as an externality to stewardship of interdependent social–ecological systems is a prerequisite for long-term human wellbeing (Berkes and Folke 1998
; Ostrom 2009
; Chapin et al. 2011
In a globalized society, there are no ecosystems without people and no people that do not depend on ecosystem functioning. They are intertwined and thus, ecosystem services are generated by social–ecological systems. Social–ecological systems are dynamic and connected from the local to the global, in complex webs of interactions subject to gradual and abrupt changes. Dynamic and complex social–ecological systems require strategies that build resilience rather than attempting to control for optimal production and short-term gain in environments assumed to be relatively stable. The shift from people and nature as separated parts to interdependent social–ecological systems provides exciting opportunities for societal development in tune with the biosphere; a global sustainability agenda for humanity.
In this article, we focus on the necessity and challenge of reconnecting humanity to the biosphere. It is argued that this is a fundamental prerequisite in the search of planetary opportunities that meet both global sustainability criteria and human development needs. The first section is about understanding the dynamics of natural capital and social–ecological resilience in a globalized world with multiple links and feedbacks. We present attempts to account for natural capital in economic development and discuss governance challenges of social–ecological systems from the local to the global.