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See Inside April 2010

Living On a New Earth

Humankind has fundamentally altered the planet. But new thinking and new actions can prevent us from destroying ourselves

Forget banking and the automotive industry. Earth is the one system that is truly “too big to fail.” For centuries humans have used up the planet’s resources, saddled it with our waste and simply moved on when a wellspring dried up or the back forty became polluted. But now we’ve exhausted that strategy. Scientists, social thinkers and the global public are realizing that humankind has transformed the natural planet into an industrialized one, and we must transition again to a sustainable planet if we are to survive.

So what is the bailout plan? The first step is determining how close to “failure” the world is. Environmental scientist Jonathan Foley presents the results of a major international collaboration that calculated safe limits for pivotal environmental processes, such as climate change and ocean acidification, that could undermine sustainability if allowed to go too far. The numerical boundaries may need fine-tuning, but knowing which processes matter most tells us where to look for solutions. Scientific American invites eight experts to propose specific remedies.

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