An Open Dialogue on the Earth Commission’s “Translating Earth System Boundaries for Cities and Businesses” Paper

35 min readJan 25, 2024

Call Transcript, 22 January 2024

Edited for readability by Bill Baue

Video recording available here

Presentation deck available here.

Bill Baue: Welcome, everybody. My name is Bill Baue — I’m Senior Director at r3.0, and my colleague Ralph Thurm, our Managing Director, is here. And we also have Sarah Cornell, who is with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us!

I want to thank all of you for joining as well. This is a sort of impromptu open dialogue that came about just because I posted on LinkedIn about this new article called “Translating Earth’s system boundaries for cities and businesses.” And there was an idea about having a call about this. And so we just kind of organically pursued that — I communicated with some of the co-authors that I know. And Sarah really gracefully agreed to be a Respondent here [as a co-author of the paper]. I asked her if she wanted to present some materials and she said it made more sense for me to do so.

So I’m going to just present as briefly as I can, with some background and then my understanding of the paper — I may be wrong on some of my assumptions, but this is my best attempt to summarize the paper and it seemed like doing some just foundation setting seemed to make sense. And then Sarah may have a few words, but then we’ll go into a round of discussion. There’s been some some questions that have already been pre-seeded on the LinkedIn post. So that’s how we’re going to roll folks. Ralph will be keeping an eye on the chat so if questions come up that really need to be introduced. Ralph, if you could do that, that would be great — thank you.

Welcome everyone to this open dialogue on the Earth Commission’s “Translating Earth’s system boundaries for cities and businesses” paper. I’m going to jump right in with some background, so I’m gonna go to some framing that we at r3.0 have used in terms of where this paper comes from. So this background material is not from the paper — this is our sense of things.

We have framed this idea of Thresholds & Allocations as Doughnuts & Pies — I’m sure you’re familiar with some of that thinking [the doughnut] but maybe not with the right hand side of things [the pie].

Just a quick view, we’re not going to look at this in depth, but just a quick view that this idea of Thresholds & Allocations actually has a long history. This is a resource from Mark McElroy from the Center for Sustainable Organizations, tracing it all the way back to Carl von Carlowitz with his Sylvicultura Oeconomica coining the term “sustainability” up to the present on the thresholds side of things, and then allocations of those thresholds being introduced much more recently, and I’ll say a little bit more about that in a moment.

So let’s first look at the thresholds and the idea of limits, if you will, which goes back at least to 1972 with The Limits to GrowthI’m sure most of you are familiar with this, but we really use this slide a lot because it introduces the idea of carrying capacity. That’s a term that had been around since the late 1800s, but really had been embraced by both the ecological field and system scientists.

The carrying capacity is the resource base that can provide for a population so long as that population lives within that resource base, if you will, and when it transcends the carrying capacity that leads to a drop in population, and then I give that very detailed figure on the right, which is where we were in terms of those resources back in 1972, and as you can see, where we’re at right now is where all of these problems are converging.

So we’re at the point of what the limits to growth called “overshoot and collapse.” So when you overshoot your carrying capacity, collapse is the outcome of that at a systemic level.

This is a slide that I pulled off the shelf, the main thing that I’m actually wanting to illustrate here is actually not illustrated in this slide, but essentially, the Ecological Footprint, which this is a representation of, was really the first instance of taking thresholds and applying allocations to them. So the first instance of let’s “slice the pie” into slices that make sense. But I’ll go ahead and say what you can also see from this slide, which is first that at the very time that the Limits to Growth [team] was conceptualizing the idea of overshooting our carrying capacity, the Ecological Footprint research from the 1990s went back and said, “Hey, we actually started overshooting [our biocapacity] — we entered Earth Overshoot — on December 25 of 1971, Christmas Day of 1971 — right as Limits to Growth was going to press, so to speak, is when we went into overshoot. We’ve been in overshoot ever since then.

And why haven’t we collapsed yet? That’s because of what William Catton calls “phantom carrying capacity”: “either the illusory or the extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a given life form or a given way of life.” So, we are in phantom carrying capacity right now. We are not operating within our carrying capacity. And as you can see here — I just I always find this this graphic funny, that the Global Footprint Network put this out — where they show us how we can get down to one and a half earths, but that’s still overshoot. We need to not get down to one and a half — we need to get under the carrying capacity dotted line there.

So just a quick notion of why we call this a “doughnut”. The initial thinking behind the doughnut was really seeded in 1974 (a couple of years after The Limits to Growth), where Barbara Ward voiced that, not only do we have to attend to these outer limits of ecological resource pressure, but we also need to attend to the inner limits of satisfying people’s fundamental needs. The inner limits and outer limits you can imagine where that goes a few decades down the line, which we’ll get to in a moment.

So here we go: The doughnut. Kate Raworth introduced this in 2012 where we have the “outer limit” of what she calls “Ecological Ceilings,” which we would be in overshoot.

Or the “Social Foundations” would be the “inner limit” where we would be in undershoot or shortfall. And this graphic is from her 2017 Lancet paper where she demonstrated that we’re actually short falling at a global level on all 12 of the Social Foundations that she articulated in 2012. So that’s why we think of it in terms of doughnuts.

Here’s where we start to intersect directly with the paper: the notion of Planetary Boundaries was introduced three years earlier, in 2009, by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Sarah was the point person for the Planetary Boundaries work for many, many years. It’s just this last instance that I first went on to the planetary boundaries landing page and didn’t see Sarah as the contact person. But as you can see here, when it first was articulated, there were nine Boundaries articulated, seven of those boundaries were assessed and three of them were crossed. In 2015, four of them were crossed, and now, almost in the present, nine boundaries have been finally assessed and six of them have been crossed. So this is continuing to confirm that we are in overshoot on multiple different dimensions. of planetary systems.

Now the pie: Why do we talk about a pie? So there’s a common saying, “a fair slice of the pie.” That’s what an allocation is. And here’s a graphic that we use a lot that’s adapted from McElroy’s Social Footprints dissertation. While Rees & Wackernagel set the foundations for applying allocations to thresholds [with the Ecological Footprint], McElroy’s dissertation is really where [thresholds & allocations] came fully together. The Global Footprint Network did this at a national level — McElroy brought it down to the organizational level.

And if you look at a water drop, essentially what it’s saying is all of this stuff up above is the allocation that you have to pull aside for regular use of water — for example, by terrestrial ecosystems, there’s this fancy term evapotranspiration, that’s, you know, water evaporates. So, even though it falls from the sky, you can’t allocate that you have to allocate that for the natural system uses — plants and animals need their water — and then humans have a core human right to water.

So it’s only at the bottom of this water drop that we start to allocate water towards commercial or industrial use, if you will, and then at the very bottom (it’s probably a much smaller slice than that) is a specific facility allocation. So this is some of the thinking behind allocations.

Here’s the 2019 UNRISD report I wrote called Compared to What? that looks at just how allocations were being actually employed in reality, and there were three primary dimensions of it: physical, per capita, and economic. And I’ll go into more depth on that in just a second. But one thing I do want to point out here is that “allocations are happening all the time” is one of the things that I said in this report — just not necessarily in fair, just or proportionate ways. So resources are always being allocated. But the line of work that this paper introduces is the idea of actually being conscious of how we’re doing that allocation, not just allocation of the resources, but also allocation of responsibilities for respecting the thresholds.

A physical [allocation] would be, if you’re in the cement industry, your market share of the cement that’s produced, for example. Per capita [allocation] would be, how many people work at your company, compared to the broader population. Economic [allocation] would be, what’s your share of GDP? And then finally, shared versus full. There are certain instances where there is no allocation — the organization has full responsibility: it’s not a shared resource, it’s a singular responsibility.

This is the Thresholds & Allocations page on the Impact Management Platform, I think is a great resource to wrap your head around thresholds and allocations quickly, and it gives a couple of quick examples of allocations for climate change and water use, as we just went through before, and then this notion of human rights where the organization doesn’t share that responsibility. They have a full responsibility for respecting human rights. So that’s a whistle stop through some very basic background information that I wanted to get out onto the table before we jump into the paper itself.

A little bit of background of where this comes from: the Earth Commission is part of the Global Commons Alliance. It is a global team of natural and social scientists who are primarily taking the responsibility of defining what these thresholds are so that’s the organization or the body that’s largely behind this paper — although not all of the co-authors are actually members of the earth commission. Now let’s jump into the paper itself. I hope that that background was helpful and I’m going to again, just this is my understanding of the paper — I may be wrong on some of this, but this is my interpretation.

So the first important thing I think the paper does is it lays out 11 Sharing approaches. Those are along the bottom line here and we’ll see a little bit more about those in the next slide. They include both backward-looking, current, and forward-looking sharing approaches. And so the author’s looked at 40 papers that address these issues in one way or another. This is where they sourced these 11 Different sharing approaches. And these are the various different elements of thresholds or Planetary Boundaries — or what they’re calling Earth’s System Boundaries — that these papers apply it to. And also, I’ll wait for a moment to mention this through another element here. So that’s just the background research the literature review, if you will, that the co-authors took to come up with these 11 Different sharing approaches.

Sarah, a question I have (see if you can put this in your hopper) is, why they call it sharing approaches as compared to allocation approaches? Is there an important difference in terminology there?

You’ll see that Economic Contribution is listed here. So that aligns with what we did in the UNRISD report. Social Contribution would be the per capita approach. The last line of that, you’ll see, measured [this allocation as the] number of people employed. And then the Basic Needs and Preferences is actually where I would say that the Social Foundations are encompassed, if you will. So even though we’re looking at Ecological Ceiling thresholds, Social Foundation thresholds intersect with that. So these are the 11 different sharing approaches.

This is a particularly interesting element of the paper to me, [where] they look at top-down allocation or a fair share approach where you take an overall resource and then you apportion it at say a global level, or even sub-allocated to a national, sub-national, sectoral or individual, individual business scale.

There’s also this bottom-up approach, where, if you’re looking at say water flows, that you would start at a Basin system scale and then scale up from there. So this is the first that I’ve really heard it framed in this way.

The other thing that they say is that essentially, the thresholds create an Earth system budget and then you have to allocate that, and they take a two-step process that involves scaling and adjustment. So you have to allocate in a way that scales it, for example, at the global scale, and then downscales it at the actual organizational or regional scale or what have you.

The authors identified 10 principles of translation, that include a Translation Process, and then Translated Shares and Targets. So essentially, you’re first translating and that cascades out into targets and shares and these are the various different elements or principles of that. And again, I’m not we’re not going to go into detail now on those actual principles. I’m just trying to say, here’s the approach that the paper takes and we can go into more detail on the actual principles in our conversation.

Finally, this is the first stab at putting all of this together, where you’ve got the Earth’s System Boundaries that are articulated at a globalized or at a systemic scale, and it requires first a transcription. Then you get to the ability to make that allocation where you’re applying that sharing approach. Then you’ve got those translated scale shares that flow through to an actor that might be a company, it might be a city, translating that into their actual targets. And that target takes into account the impact that that actor is creating in the world and their capacity to address that impact. In some instances, they may have additional capacity that they would need to make available to account for historic overshoot of that organization itself.

This is another element that I find to be very interesting about this paper is that it looks at the bioregional context, if you will. And that’s something that we at r3.0 have been focused on for a number of years, going back at least to 2015 when John Fullerton introduced bioregionalism onto our radar screen and 2019 when Joe Brewer spoke at our Conference and convinced us that we really needed to start applying our work at the bioregional level.

So this is one of the early instances that I’ve seen of the Earth Commission and this group of researchers tackling the bioregional approach — they may have before this, but this is the first time that it’s on my radar screen. And essentially what they’re saying here is that they’re validating the use of a bioregional approach, but they’re saying that certain things need to also take a Global Citizens’ perspective. So in other words, if you live in a bio region that’s particularly abundant in a certain resource, you can’t just sequester that resource to yourself, you have a responsibility for sharing that resource at a sort of Global Allocation perspective, and then from there take a bio regional allocation perspective. So this is a particularly interesting aspect of the paper in my mind.

Finally, this is a graphical illustration of a protocol for this cross scale translation. So we’ve got these five different earth system domains or Planetary Boundary domains. On the left, we’ve got the spatial construct of a global, sub-global or grid based approach. The status is: is this boundary transgressed or not? Is it sustainable or unsustainable? The next question: what is the regenerative nature? And this is one that Gil Friend asked a question about — sustainability is largely a question of, if it’s a finite resource, are you using that finite resource in a way that it can continue to be used into the future? And really, Herman Daly said that we need to be shifting from using non-renewable resources to only using resources that regenerate, but those that do regenerate we have to look at the rate of regeneration. Is regeneration happening quickly enough? Is it regeneration that can happen more rapidly or is it slower? The temporal perspective is obviously, backwards, current or forwards and then these various different sharing approaches, and essentially what it’s saying is that different sharing approaches can be used, they can be pulled together at all levels. They can use different sharing approaches at different scales. And that what this comes out with is sort of the social, economic and ecological equity context, that you then go to a final choice of sharing approaches, apply your metrics, and then you’ve got your translated shares. So not exactly simple but that’s basically the complexity of the systems that were acting with. So that’s their final graphic.

Here’s the last sentence of the paper: going forward, what do we need to address? So we need to: complete the state-pressure links for all ESBs to facilitate the transcription step;

integrate cities and businesses into the same translation framework to avoid leakage or double counting between cities and businesses — this is something that I haven’t really seen happening yet. We’re doing work on the city level. There’s work on the business level, but there’s not much at least on my radar screen happening between those looking at interweaving or the inter-connectedness across the various different thresholds. The data availability making it both comprehensive and comparable, developed concrete, concrete guidance and standards. The development of standards for applying these concepts is in its infancy, I will say in the most generous way that I can make that statement. Finally develop effective governance and accountability mechanisms to assess compliance and ensure that the Earth’s system boundaries are not transgressed — again here, I’d say that we’re in our infancy and that infancy is not necessarily very pretty. The governance and accountability mechanisms that are emerging right now are highly problematic. That’s my own opinion here. So that brings us to the end of a quick whistle stop tour of the paper itself.

I’m going to stop my sharing for a moment and then I’ll share again when we get to the questions but I just wanted to give an opportunity for Sarah to come in and share any thoughts that you’ve got before we go over to the question and answers.

Sarah Cornell: Thank you so much, Bill. Thank you first of all for convening this amazing debate. I’ve been sort of snooping to see who the participants are. Not many are familiar names, but a few are so I’m a bit nervous now, excited about the prospect, but thank you for the debate. And thank you so much for this really excellent contextualization of the issues, both in terms of the history of some of these ideas and also the institutions and the broader challenges around it all. I wanted to pick up on first of all, the Earth Commission itself. I mean, I think a lot of people are asking the question, what it is and what does it do? And more than that, why am I an author on a paper that is an Earth Commission paper?

On the Earth Commission, I really liked your slide, it sets up these various other alliances and coalitions that are campaigning for global sustainability in many ways and creating what I as an academic would regard as a new kind of science-business-policy interface, new kinds of platforms for the kinds of conversations and dialogue that many of us think are vitally important. When it was established, it contained various working groups and it’s now entering a second phase because the first round of publications has come out and the working groups are changing and transforming as we watch.

And this paper, led by one of the Earth Commissioners, Xuemei Bai, is one of a family of papers dealing with different aspects. So it is worth looking to see how some of the ideas are playing out. I’m not an Earth Commissioner, I’m not directly involved. I was one of the experts that they brought into one of the working groups because I work with the Planetary Boundaries framework and I have done for really the last decade or so as Bill pointed out. I still work with the original Planetary Boundaries framework that many of us are familiar with with its nine wedges, and these processes that we know are interacting. So one of the questions later I’m going to jump in on with both feet. But I’m very happy to be a co-author of this paper because I wanted to be on the record as a participant with my critical perspective in some cases and my academic perspective is a contribution to this paper.

And at the same time it is quite challenging to be a co-author on a piece of academic text — I always think of academic text as part of an ongoing debate. But in many cases, people take academic texts as if there’s some kind of ‘facty truthy’ thing rather than an object for debate. And this is again, why I really appreciate Bill’s perspective for bringing it back to the sense that, you know, we should be poking and probing some of the statements that come out in our academic texts, especially when they’re multi-author texts, where there’s not necessarily full multi-author full consensus on every aspect.

So I wanted to pick up on — well, I’ve got 1000 things to say! — Bill asked specifically about this fair-shares language. And again, I think that in various contexts, particularly where the Planetary Boundaries framework has been put into practice, the language of fair shares has been the way people talk about it. And it’s only actually in these last few weeks, as some of these things have come under particular scrutiny, that I’m realizing that the distinction between a fair share and an allocation is actually one about, who’s holding the allocation? Who are the actors, where’s the agency in that process? A fair-shares approach seems quite neutral, is it more like a point of principle? Whereas an allocation requires an allocator it requires some kind of active decision making. And so, I don’t have an answer for what the distinction is — I might have to sit with that situation for a while — but the language of fair shares is actually one stop short of an allocation approach proper. And I’d love some of your feedback on that idea.

And I’m also really interested that Bill’s picked out the bioregions thing. For many of us who work in a very abstract global modeling context — the system from a global perspective is different from the system viewed at regional and local levels. And so this comes back to one of the challenges from Bill’s final point — about the real difficulties of having global standards for a global system that are always going to encounter some kinds of challenges when you bring them to the other levels, the contexts, and their specific implementation situations.

And again, this is part of the reason I still work with the Planetary Boundaries framework from way back in 2009. Drawing on the global perspective, many of us would say we’re bringing this to be a complement to the local and the regional, not a substitute. So, back to the box in the paper [Box 1, highlighted in slide 19] — I’d almost look at that almost exactly the other way round, that we would expect local and regional decision makers to make sensible decisions. But now we’re in a fascinating situation where science can say something, it has predictive power, to say where in the world consequences of land use change will play out or what happens if we alter groundwater in terms of the consequences for local and regional climate. There’s a kind of a global perspective that says something that’s relevant to local decision making, that local decision makers might otherwise not know. So there is a logic for bringing a global system story into local and regional systems stories — and it goes both ways. And this is what many people would talk about of as cascading consequences decision making at the local level will play out somewhere else in the world, either biophysically or through socioeconomic pathways, which is why your three categorizations — physical per capita, and economic — we need all three rather than to substitute them I think. And that’s again something that came home to me as you were speaking and presenting this.

So sorry, I’ve gone rambling off already rather than answering questions, but I wanted to just summarize. Thank you! The Commission opens up debates and I’m very very happy to be part of those wider debates. Bioregions are global and local simultaneously, always and everywhere. And any conversation about fair shares for me opens up again, this question of who’s the actor who’s holding this responsibility for allocation? Thanks

Bill Baue: Thank you so much, Sarah. That’s really helpful background and some stuff that’s opening my eyes as well. So, let’s open things up. The whole idea of this was to be an open dialogue, if you will. And I see from the sidebar that there are some questions coming in, in particular from Lois Guthrie. Great to see you, Lois. I think that it might make sense, seeing as this is a real-time question that’s coming in now, to look at this one before we go to some of the questions that came in over LinkedIn. So Lois, do you want to go off mute and voice this.

Lois Guthrie: Yes, happy to and thanks so much, Bill. Lovely to see you again. And thank you. The question I had was whether there’s a step that could be taken before we get into the questions of allocation. And that is, should the approaches that you’ve outlined be used to determine whether there’s eligibility to cut into the pie at all? So for example, if you cannot satisfy the allocator that you are doing something that meets basic needs and can be done efficiently, then your use, your slice of pie would be precluded. So that would be step one.

Once you have established your eligibility to cut into the pie, the next step would be to determine how much of that pie you could have and the the way in which you use that pie and the way in which you have to re-bake a slice yourself and put it back in the pie, as Bill would say about rejuvenation. But the one other thing I wanted to add — I hear you Sarah about the difficulty of, what does fair mean? It’s very subjective, isn’t it? And who does it? In some disciplines where this question is so thorny, a body, a regulator will say, well, here’s an inaccurate and unfair solution, but because we’re going to apply it across the whole of the population, that will bring with it a sense of fairness. And I just don’t know if that’s one option around here. So the end of questions and thank you so much, both of you.

Bill Baue: So I’ll take a first stab at that because it actually intersects with some of our work at the Global Thresholds & Allocations Network and then I’ll hand it to you Saran, and see if there are others. My own sense on this is, it asks the question: what’s the the legitimacy of the allocator? Who are we to say what should be allocated and this is an issue that we’re contending with at the Global Thresholds & Allocations Network that we at r3.0 are serving as the Interim Secretariat, and that Sarah participated in last year for the Planetary Boundaries crew.

One of the things we’re looking at is that the thresholds and allocations aren’t exclusively determined by these top-down bodies. In a bioregional or even a municipality level approach, one would actually engage those who are impacted in the determination of the threshold itself. So obviously, there’s a whole body of physical or social sciences research that can inform that decision, but it’s really those who are impacted — including those who are most impacted — who should have a voice in this determination, both of what the threshold is, and, as we’re pointing to here, importantly, the allocation (if any).

I love your, “if you’re not respecting the threshold, you don’t get any more of the pie.” And that becomes significant in the sense that, for Global North regions who have been overshooting on ecological thresholds for more than half a century, it might mean that their slice of the pie has been “used up,” in a sense. So these are obviously profoundly significant determinations and whether we have a body such as the Earth Commission, or others making these decisions, is really a question that gets to a question of empowerment, I think, and agency that, I think you know, cannot necessarily be determined at a globalized level. So there’s my first level of thoughts, Lois, I really appreciate this question. It’s a great one. Sarah, do you want to chime in with any thoughts on your part, particularly from the paper perspective?

Sarah Cornell: Well, just really quickly, I love the idea of rights to pie. In a sense (and this isn’t particularly from the paper), for me one of the challenges with the paper is that it isn’t connected to real-world policy decision contexts, really, I mean, the literature review part isn’t just a literature review. It’s also kind of an experience review, but a very narrow review of people who have used the Planetary Boundaries framework. OK, it extends a bit beyond that. But it is not an assessment of everybody who has ever tried to do an allocation framework.

Now obviously, there’s a little bit of an overlap because many of the experts who were invited come from the research communities that do things like consumption-based footprints… I’m using “footprint” in the loosest possible sense of the word footprint here, but kind of consumption-based assessments of impact in some way or other. So these are really important.

I can’t believe I’m saying “do more research,” but in a way, we don’t ever have to be doing exactly that because we know that the way we assess impact of business action of social patterns of consumption and everything else, has been too narrow. They’ve put things into a carbon pot or, you know, some sort of particular kinds of material resources, but not others. So I mean, I think we do need much more research to understand what “rights to pie” means.

One concrete context, I think that would be interesting to explore right now is the European context, the discussions around green claims. So, the fact that there are policies emerging that are actually scrutinizing what a company says it is doing and, when it can say it’s doing something sustainable or not. That isn’t the same as saying only companies that are proven to be sustainable as if such a thing could ever exist, would have an allocation to pie. But I think that these are debates that are beginning to form and they’re not happening just from a top-down regulatory context. We’ve got this complicated interplay of markets, of the social norms of consumers themselves, of their messages from science — like “messages in a bottle,” and, of course, law, the regulatory machinery that plays out in these contexts. So we do have actors in this space, but perhaps part of the problem is that they’re not all speaking the same language. Yet, markets, law, and science struggle, to some extent, to be understood by each other. I’m still thinking…

Bill Baue: Yes, I don’t think we’re going to get final answers on any of these questions. The point of this is to start the dialogue, and I really appreciate you making the point that, the scientific process is an ongoing one with ongoing questions. I know that there’s some great questions coming in on the sidebar, but I do want to honor that there were some questions posed beforehand, and a couple of those came from Dennis Vegter. I wonder if you want to go off mute and just voice a summary of your questions for us and then next up in the queue would be Brett. So Brett, if you could think on summarizing yours.

Dennis Vegter: Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Sarah, for this opportunity. And I also see very interesting questions in chat. So thanks, everyone, for participating. And my question was that each sharing approach seems to promote a different outcome. And while I’m mainly looking for a practical application, either for a certain region or for a company where business wants to be sustainable, so I would therefore expect that there’s some priority of outcomes that must first be determined. Curious about your vision on that.

Bill Baue: Thank you, Dennis. Sarah, I’m glad to chime in but I just wanted to see if you had thoughts on that first.

Sarah Cornell: One thing I just want to say really loud and clear is, there is no pure scientific a priori basis for choosing among any of them. So there are many justice principles out there and they will always present dilemmas. So I want to echo a little bit that Ian Boyd’s comment in the chat about the fact that there will always be different experiences of what’s fair just or what was your other word? Proportionate.

It also means that we’re always going to have this sort of clash between, let’s say, the scholarly world, and the world of business, understood in its very broadest sense. And these questions of what’s legitimate, what’s democratic, how things play out, so, but for once I’m just gonna say there is no answer. It is a dilemma. And it’s, that’s again, part of the reason like I said in my comment just now to Ian on the chat — I think that’s why it is important to be promoting these kinds of public discussion. You know, rather than dropping science in from the roof into some hands that can’t catch.

Bill Baue: Thank you, Sarah. I will briefly add — or just maybe just reiterate — that thresholds always apply, that there are always boundaries in both ecological and social systems that are operating, whether we like it or not. Allocations — both of resources and actors taking responsibility for their fair share of respecting thresholds — is always happening. It’s a given. And so what we’re doing is trying to use collective human understanding to decide how we want to consciously reflect those allocations in our reality. So this is a way of saying, all allocations are problematic. There’s no such thing as an unproblematic allocation. But what we maintain is that doing some kind of conscious allocation and attending to the issues of fairness, justice and proportionality is better than believing that the invisible hand of the market is going to do the job, which is essentially what we’re operating with. Now, all allocation, or primary allocation, is happening by the invisible hand of the market. And we just think that that’s not a smart way of doing things since that first pass response to that question. I wanted to hand things over to Dennis, did you have a quick follow up on that before we go over to Brett?

Dennis Vegter: I mean, there’s still the focus on outcomes. I would say, based on my intuition that I would prefer to have to use, let’s say, a natural system in a way that benefits the human system as much as possible. So I think that it is a trigger, right? — so that we set our priorities in what is really important for the for the human system and determine our shares based on that

Bill Baue: Right — so, start to do some prediction or some assessment. The allocation is partly tied to what the potential outcome is. That’s an interesting line of thinking that I’m not aware of that being integrated yet.

Dennis Vegter: No, and I agree that’s not a scientific, obviously, rational decision. It’s a democratic decision. We as human beings decide what we think is and isn’t important.

Bill Baue: Right, right. Look, we could go way deeper on all these questions. We’ve got limited time and we do need to stop at the hour. So Brett, over to you. And Gil, I think you had some questions coming in over LinkedIn as well. So cue you up next. And I think, Elisabeth, if she’s online, I’ll check but Gil is next after Brett. Brett you now. Great.

Brett Jacobs: Right. Thanks, Bill. Yeah, my question is really from a capital markets perspective. So I’m interested in in understanding how we can actually make the translation of Earth’s systems boundaries to the multiple localized city and corporate level a reality based on lots of experience of seeing how long it takes for all of the theory to be translated into rules and regulations that ultimately end up getting stuck in companies wanting to really continue business as usual and so forth. So it would just be your thoughts on, from the experience of the way regulation in the market attacks these things so far, what do you think might be the traps to avoid in getting from Earth system boundaries to rules and regulations. Or to flip it around, what do you think the market might be able to do differently to fast track the adoption of something that is applicable to and workable for sustainability strategies at the corporate level?

Sarah Cornell: Bluntly, I do not think that the Earth Commission’s Earth system boundaries can be translated in practical, meaningful terms. I think that they’re, I know I’m getting really, I mean, I cannot understand that visualization in the Rockstrom et al 2023 paper. I can’t understand how they came up with the numbers. And I would say it’s almost the other way around. They found the numbers to meet the policy context for which there are already really effective translation processes.

I work with finance organizations, asset managers with specific companies — and every single context where I’ve been putting it into practice, the basics are: first define the system that you’re working with. There are some companies that are really working well. I’d highlight here some of the work that L’Oreal has been doing. And of course, they’re a mega corporation with horrible impacts and all kinds of things, but they are in conversations about what they can do to meaningfully to reduce and reverse the pressures that they’re placing. Those are conversations that I can engage with scientifically. And actually also in terms of the policy context that they know they must operate within, they know their carbon targets. Then there are commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, that are actually much more implementable than some notional global budget for livingness.

So you know, I think we have exceptionally good skills. There are companies that are not implementing them, but the ones that are really committed to serious mitigation of environmental impacts and harms kind of know what’s going on. Now the question about finance and financial disclosure, different kinds of environmental and social reporting and particularly also the issues around governance as well at the corporate level, that I’m actually one of the — I really hesitate to share a preprint that hasn’t actually been published, but I’m going to do that because there we go. I can’t even finish that sentence.

We run the risk if we present things as if everything were globally neat, globally quantified, one flat number will work for everywhere in the world, that we’re actually being part of the problem. Every single time somebody comes up to me and says, policymakers need a single number to make decisions — for me, that’s an extreme betrayal of the fact that that person has never actually engaged in a meaningful decision making process or a meaningful engagement with a policymaker who makes policy. Policymakers don’t need one number. I mean, they need this, the gritty conversation about what’s fair. What scenarios we’ve used what net zero by 2100 might even mean I mean, you know, the conversation will always get gritty. Now brief — thank you, Sarah. I’ve used up all the time!

Bill Baue: I’ll just say here, we’ve got a few more minutes. We’ll get maybe one or two more questions put in but the questions that didn’t get answered today, we can port back over to LinkedIn. I’m going to share all of the questions with the authors that I’ve been in conversation with and the degree to which they do their own responding. I’ll be a sort of conduit back, but Gil, and then Elisabeth if you’ve got time. So Gil, if you’d like to ask your question and then Elisabeth.

Gil Friend: Thank you, Bill. And thank you, Sarah, for the work. I’ll be brief. Sarah, where you’ve been going is sort of in the direction that my question was going. You know, the analytical work that you’re talking about is enormously complex. I wonder a lot about the mechanisms of the allocation, how these things would be allocated to actors, how they would be adopted by actors were some of what you were just talking about, and how they’re been tracked, and by whom. And I say this as someone who’s been working with corporates for decades, but had a stint as the CSO of a city that was grappling with these issues and the city council and the process of deliberation. So it’s not a contentious question. It’s more of like, how do we work this kind of question and listening to you and the others, it may be that this is more about a frame shift. A shift in the conversations, in the culture, in the boardrooms, in the legislatures, more than about the specific mechanisms of how it does, because if in the board, or the product council or wherever the city council, people are saying, What about our thresholds? How do we think about carrying capacity? What does that mean for what we’re doing? Generating that conversation may be an enormous piece of the work more important than how many decimal points of gallons of water we’re talking about? Because it gets worked out in the trenches over and over again, everywhere on the planet, if we’re lucky. Does that make sense to you? Or are you gonna put this into instrumental allocation systems?

Sarah Cornell: As you say, these are very active discussions right now. One thing I like about the paper that I’m a co-author on is actually that set of 10 principles. I think those principles are applicable to many, many contexts. I mean, you know, it’s kind of a synthesis of principles that people are already using, actually, for where we have global targets, either science informed or actually socially agreed targets about what needs to be done. A lot of the thing was motivated by the wider discussions of targets beyond climate, so the Science Based Targets Network, but that is by far, not the only sort of initiative really trying to grapple with these questions. And I think that it is important that you talked about the change in frame. I think it’s almost like a decision tree or a process guide for how these dilemmas can be dealt with more effectively. Because business knows that it is exposed to risk, as well. I mean, you know that there are opportunities in these frames as well. So the kind of the risk / opportunity balance is shifting, not just the biophysical world and the exposure to social harms that we’re talking about here. So very rushed answer I really would love to have a regular conversation like this. So use LinkedIn more guys!

Gil Friend: Thank you all — I’d like to continue this.

Bill Baue: Thank you,Gil. And we’ll bleed over maybe a couple of minutes but the line doesn’t have availability to go much longer than that. We will consider hosting another call. We’re doing this because r3.0, we see ourselves as a global common good. We’re not getting paid for this, as many of you aren’t so — if there’s funding that could certainly help but we do a lot of stuff without funding. And Elisabeth, it’d be great to at least get your question in before we drop off and we’ll see what kind of answers we can get. So over to you.

Elisabeth van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen: Thank you very much, Bill. Actually, my question is very much in line with what Brett and Gil asked and it is all about that translation to business because what I encounter a lot is that even the basic science may sometimes not be there, if we look at boardrooms, they may not be familiar with even some groundwork here depending on what phases companies are at, so as the topics advance globally, and as the urgency advances, I think the gap is growing in their understanding of what needs to happen and of what they understand. So that is something that I’m grappling with, because also as time has come along, I have more and more clients that are only latching on to current topics relatively late. So even discussing something like allocation you need to dig that so much deeper. You need to go back so much further into the context. So I think this is a fascinating conversation, but I really wonder how in what phases how do we need to slice this? Or how do we need to bring this in order to move the needle?

Bill Baue: Yeah, I’ll take a quick first stab at that, which is to in some ways echo what Gil was saying or maybe it was Sarah in response to Gil, which is the very grappling with these questions is I think a first step and Elisabeth, it is disconcerting to hear you say that the gap is growing but it absolutely matches my experience. I mean, Ralph and I have been working steadily on this for two decades now. And we’ve actually seen regress instead of progress in terms of really grappling with thresholds and allocations. That said, I’ll point to the city side of things. Colleagues of mine have been engaging with the city of Nanaimo, in British Columbia. That was the first city to comprehensively do the Doughnut Economics Action Lab approach. What they found is when they got to the end of that process, they actually didn’t have implementable indicators. And so they worked with these colleagues of mine through the Flourishing Enterprise Institute, and applied an approach that actually created indicators that were thresholds-based. And they found that the process of engaging with that creation of those indicators was the primary value. And so there is a kind of paradigm shift or worldview or mindset shift that I do think needs to happen. I think Gil mentioned something along those lines. So I’ll end on that and Sarah, open it up to you for the last words here.

Sarah Cornell: One thing I would really want to highlight, is just in a sense, this globalized perspectives that the Earth Commission has really been pursuing, I mean, we need it. And at the same time, the discussions and especially the comments in the chat, really show how enmeshed and intertwined our social and ecological worlds are across the scales as well. And so, you know, as scientists, we’re very used to speaking to governments because that’s what things like the IPCC was created for, and to some extent, the IPBES platform for biodiversity as well. So these conversations, where science and business actors of different kinds come together, they’re interesting because business works on different networks. It is a different system. It has different reach. And for me one of the unstated things in this translation — it is for cities and businesses, but the reach of these organizations is very different. So somehow we need to go back to the basics and say, what is it that we’re enmeshed in and how are we enmeshed? How does our action play out? Because it isn’t as simple with the allocation conversations that are dominating the academic literature at least, are about national negotiations. And so that takes a very much more territorial story. So all I can say is that, the urgency of these conversations is greater than ever. But that’s all the more reason why we shouldn’t just have flat answers, but we need these sort of deeper historical, institutional and organizational contexts, and transparent processes, too.

Bill Baue: Sarah, thank you very much. I’m glad that you’re ending with context, being that we’re such big fans of context, as most folks know. Thank you so much for sharing generously of your time and and representing (to the degree that you can) your co-authors, and really, thanks to all of you attending. We at r3.0 did this spur of the moment because there was demand so thank you for your interest in this. And let’s keep the conversation going. I’ll post on LinkedIn to start that process of keeping the conversation going. So thanks, everyone.




r3.0 is a pre-competitive & market-making non-profit delivering groundbreaking Blueprints, Transformation Journeys and Conferences for system value creation.