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See Inside April 2010

Boundaries for a Healthy Planet

Scientists have set thresholds for key environmental processes that, if crossed, could threaten Earth's habitability. Ominously, three have already been exceeded

For nearly 10,000 years—since the dawn of civilization and the Holocene era—our world seemed unimaginably large. Vast frontiers of land and ocean offered infinite resources. Humans could pollute freely, and they could avoid any local repercussions simply by moving elsewhere. People built entire empires and economic systems on their ability to exploit what seemed to be inexhaustible riches, never realizing that the privilege would come to an end.

But thanks to advances in public health, the industrial revolution and later the green revolution, population has surged from about one billion in 1800 to nearly seven billion today. In the past 50 years alone, our numbers have more than doubled. Fueled by affluence, our use of resources has also reached staggering levels; in 50 years the global consumption of food and freshwater has more than tripled, and fossil-fuel use has risen fourfold. We now co-opt between one third and one half of all the photosynthesis on the planet.

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