Measuring the Social Boundaries: A Critical Imperative for Our World

It’s time to turn our attention to a different set of boundaries, ones that are just as vital to our future: Social Boundaries.

Ernesto van Peborgh
7 min readSep 17, 2023

In today’s rapidly changing world, we find ourselves at a critical juncture, where the need for sustainability and resilience has never been more apparent. For years, we’ve focused on measuring and addressing planetary boundaries — the limits to the impacts of human activities on the Earth system. Crossing these boundaries risks catastrophic environmental change and threatens the stability of our planet.

Planetary Boundaries

9 planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come

The Planetary Boundaries framework has served as an indispensable framework, enlightening our understanding of the environmental thresholds that underpin our ability to sustain civilization. Just as we’ve fervently acknowledged the need to respect these boundaries to avert environmental cataclysm, it is now incumbent upon us to concede that breaching social boundaries can usher in profound societal and economic challenges.

The Struggle of Our Time

Inequality, poverty, access to education, healthcare, gender equality, social cohesion, human rights violations, access to clean water and sanitation, food security, and cultural preservation — these represent the social boundaries that have, in many cases, been trespassed. Like planetary boundaries, these social limits have profound implications for our world, and we must recognize the urgency of addressing them.

Just as planetary boundaries delineate the “safe operating space” for humanity within Earth’s ecosystems, social boundaries should serve as the ethical and practical framework that defines the equitable and sustainable space for human society to flourish.

However, what becomes abundantly clear is that we stand at a perilous precipice, where we are at risk of transgressing these social boundaries in much the same way we have encroached upon planetary limits.

The fragility of our social resilience, just like the fragility of our planetary ecosystems, underscores the urgent need to act with unwavering determination. As we breach these boundaries, we put our collective well-being and societal harmony at risk.

Recognizing this dual challenge — of planetary and social boundaries — we must strive to restore equilibrium and build a world where both thrive in harmony.

A Call to Action

Addressing social boundaries serves not merely as a moral imperative but also as an existential prerequisite for a sustainable and resilient tomorrow.

As we stand at the crossroads of environmental and social challenges, the question arises:

How can we bridge the divide between these pressing social concerns?

These three guiding principles — Economic Resilience, Interconnectedness, and Inclusivity — illuminate our path forward in navigating the intricate intersection of social and environmental challenges.

Economic Resilience: In the same breath that we invest in fortifications against environmental risks, we must erect economic bulwarks to withstand shocks stemming from social predicaments. Mitigating inequality, eradicating poverty, and ensuring equitable access to healthcare and education constitute the linchpins of this resilience.

Interconnectedness: Embracing the interconnectedness of social and environmental predicaments emerges as a keystone to our survival. Remedies to environmental tribulations frequently pivot on our ability to tackle social issues such as poverty and inequality, for these inequities often underpin unsustainable practices.

Inclusivity: The adage that we are only as strong as our weakest link holds true in the realm of sustainable development. Championing inclusivity as a cardinal tenet necessitates ensuring that no one languishes beneath the social foundation as delineated by Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model. This constitutes a pivotal stride toward a world marked by justice, equity, and inclusiveness.

As we navigate the intricate labyrinth of sustainability, it assumes paramount importance that our purview extends beyond the confines of planetary boundaries. Our gaze must encompass the social boundaries we have transgressed. We must measure, comprehend, and redress these social quandaries with the same ardor and commitment that we lavish upon environmental concerns. Only through such a holistic endeavor can we embark on crafting a world that stands not solely as a paragon of environmental sustainability but also as an embodiment of social justice, inclusivity, and resilience. Our future hinges upon it.

Social Boundaries: A Call to Address Fragility and Inequity

To truly comprehend the urgency of addressing these social boundaries, we must delve into the ratings assigned to each. These ratings, ranging from 6 to 8, reveal a world where our social equilibrium is under immense strain.

This is a preliminary exercise aimed at illuminating the pressing need for in-depth discussions on the critical topic of social boundaries.

It offers a glimpse into the urgency of addressing these paramount issues. It underscores the interconnectedness of our global challenges and the fragile balance upon which our shared future rests.

Inequality, rated at 8, has seen wealth disparities reach unprecedented levels, fueling social unrest and political instability.

Poverty, not far behind at 7, persists despite significant strides, and the recent shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has further strained poverty reduction efforts.

Access to education and healthcare, both rated at 6 and 7 respectively, showcase the persistent hurdles that hinder personal development and access to vital services, particularly in marginalized and conflict-affected regions.

Gender inequality, with a rating of 7, underscores the obstacles women face in their quest for equal participation across societal spectrums.

Social cohesion, assigned a rating of 6, reflects how political polarization and societal divisions threaten cooperation and progress in varying degrees across different regions.

Human rights violations, another 7 on the scale, persist in numerous forms, from forced labor to freedom of speech restrictions, challenging the very essence of our shared humanity.

Access to clean water, sanitation, food security, and the preservation of cultural diversity, all rated at 6 and 7, demonstrate the persistence of fundamental challenges that jeopardize well-being, health, and our global cultural heritage.

These ratings unveil the fragility of our social balance, signaling a world where the pursuit of sustainability cannot be limited to environmental concerns alone. Our trespassing of these social boundaries is indicative of the interconnected nature of our global challenges. Inequalities, disparities, and violations can stoke tensions, exacerbate crises, and hinder our collective progress. Addressing these issues is not merely a matter of ethics; it’s an imperative for building a world that is not only environmentally resilient but socially just, inclusive, and harmonious. The urgency to restore this balance has never been more evident, and it’s a challenge we must confront with unwavering determination.

Are we on our way to a Social Collapse?

In the shadow of these social boundaries and their alarming ratings, the concept of “deep adaptation,” as articulated by Jem Bendell, takes on newfound significance (1). It is a stark reminder of the conditions that could pave the way for social collapse in our interconnected world. The widening chasm of inequality, the persistent grip of poverty, and the pressing challenges related to education, healthcare, gender equality, and human rights violations all contribute to a landscape of fragility. The erosion of social cohesion and increasing polarization further weaken the societal bonds that hold us together. When viewed alongside the pressing environmental issues captured by planetary boundaries, the prospect of cascading crises becomes all too real.

Bendell’s Deep adaptation and his recent book, Breaking Together, call for a profound shift in our systems, policies, and values to navigate these turbulent waters and build a more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable world.

Jeremy Lent’s final chapter of The Patterning Instinct serves also as a poignant reminder that, just as our relationship with the environment necessitates diligent stewardship to avert ecological catastrophe, our intricate social fabric demands an equal measure of attention and unwavering commitment.

A Precarious Path Ahead

Much like the delicate balance required to preserve our planet’s ecological integrity, safeguarding our social foundations and respecting social boundaries is paramount to fostering a resilient and harmonious world.

It highlights the pressing need to recognize the interplay between environmental and social issues, urging us to respond with foresight, compassion, and a united determination to secure a sustainable future for everyone.

It’s a call to recognize that just as our relationship with the environment requires careful stewardship to avoid catastrophe, our social fabric demands the same level of attention and commitment. The challenges we face at the social level are not separate from our environmental challenges; they are interconnected threads in the intricate tapestry of our global reality.

We need to embrace the truth that our collective strength lies in our ability to address both planetary and social boundaries with unwavering resolve.

It’s an acknowledgment that, at this fragile and risky threshold, we have the power to shape a future where humanity thrives within the safe operating spaces of both our natural world and our shared society, ensuring a legacy of resilience, justice, and harmony for generations to come.

(1) While mentioning Bendell’s work, it’s important to note that this does not necessarily indicate full endorsement of his theory regarding the inevitability of civilization collapse.

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Ernesto van Peborgh

Entrepreneur, writer, filmmaker, Harvard MBA. Builder of systemic interactive networks for knowledge management.