As any self-help manual would tell you, keeping healthy boundaries is an essential life skill and an integral part of being a grown-up. Parents get a crash course at it as their kids rebel against the very notion of boundaries and relentlessly keep pushing against them. It can be truly exhausting.
Bad news for Mother Earth this week, I am afraid. Her unruly human children have just trespassed another one of the nine planetary boundaries, formulated on her behalf by Professor Rockström and fellow scientists back in 2009. According to a study published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology, chemical pollution has crossed the point at which human-made changes have pushed the planet outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years. There goes the Boundary for Novel Entities.
The scientists’ conclusions might yet be contested, of course. Unlike with climate crisis and the pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no clear baseline to help determine the exact point at which chemical pollution tips over. After all, we are talking about 350,000 chemical compounds registered for use, including plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals. And the researchers themselves humbly acknowledge that “no quantitative boundary has been defined for the novel entities boundary, although some specific chemicals are quantified under other planetary boundaries, such as greenhouse gases and CFCs.”
That said, the main message is quite clear. “There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050,” says co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez from the Stockholm Resilience Centre in a press release. “The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems,” adds another of the 14 scientists involved in the project, Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg.
“We are not naïve to the considerable challenge posed by reducing chemical and plastic releases in order to respect the NE-PB [novel entities planetary boundary],” conclude the authors of the report. Sounding the alarm is just the first step, as they remind us. The rest of the work is ahead of us, and it is high time we started taking it seriously.
How long can we keep pushing and testing the resilience of Mother Earth, I wonder? Deep down, even the wildest teenagers know that boundaries are good for them. They are there to protect them.
 The Novel Entities Boundary in the planetary boundaries framework refers to entities that are novel in a geological sense, defined as “new substances, new forms of existing substances and modified life forms”, including “chemicals and other new types of engineered materials or organisms not previously known to the Earth system as well as naturally occurring elements (for example, heavy metals) mobilized by anthropogenic activities”, according to Steffen et al.