Today, more than ever, ‘Spaceship Earth’ is an apt metaphor as we chart the boundaries for a safe planet1. Social scientists both analyse why society courts disaster by approaching or even overstepping these boundaries and try to design suitable policies to avoid these perils. Because the threats of transgressing planetary boundaries are global, long-run, uncertain and interconnected, they must be analysed together to avoid conflicts and take advantage of synergies. To obtain policies that are effective at both international and local levels requires careful analysis of the underlying mechanisms across scientific disciplines and approaches, and must take politics into account. In this Perspective, we examine the complexities of designing policies that can keep Earth within the biophysical limits favourable to human life.

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We are grateful for funding from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and BECC (Biodiversity and Ecosystem services in a Changing Climate) as well as Mistra Carbon Exit. Comments from S. Barrett, P. Dasgupta and B. Groom are gratefully acknowledged.

Author information


  1. Department of Economics, School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Thomas Sterner
    • , Inge van den Bijgaart
    • , John Hassler
    • , Olof Johansson-Stenman
    • , Jessica Coria
    • , Gunnar Köhlin
    •  & Åsa Löfgren
  2. Department of Economics and School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA

    • Edward B. Barbier
  3. Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Ian Bateman
  4. The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Anne-Sophie Crépin
    •  & Gustav Engström
  5. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Anne-Sophie Crépin
    • , Johan Rockström
    •  & Will Steffen
  6. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany

    • Ottmar Edenhofer
  7. Technische Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany

    • Ottmar Edenhofer
  8. Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Berlin, Germany

    • Ottmar Edenhofer
  9. Resources for the Future, Washington, DC, USA

    • Carolyn Fischer
  10. Centre for European Economic Research, Mannheim, Germany

    • Wolfgang Habla
  11. Institute for International Economic Studies, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

    • John Hassler
  12. Department of Economics, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

    • Andreas Lange
  13. Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, USA

    • Stephen Polasky
  14. Centre for Environmental and Climate Research & Department of Biology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

    • Henrik G. Smith
  15. Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

    • Will Steffen
  16. Harvard University Center for the Environment, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Gernot Wagner
  17. Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, CA, USA

    • James E. Wilen
  18. Environment for Development Initiative, CATIE, Cartago, Turrialba, Costa Rica

    • Francisco Alpízar
  19. Department of Space, Earth and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Christian Azar
  20. Department of Geography, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Donna Carless
    •  & Amanda Robinson
  21. Facultad de Economía y Negocios, Universidad de Talca, Talca, Chile

    • Carlos Chávez
  22. Centre for Collective Action Research, Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Sverker C. Jagers
  23. Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Håkan Pleijel


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All authors met for a two-day workshop and have contributed in every phase. The editing was led by an inner circle of authors including I.B., I.v.d.B., A.-S.C., C.F., J.H., O.J.-S., J.R., H.G.S., W.S., G.W., J.E.W., T.S. and E.B.B. The work was coordinated by T.S.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Thomas Sterner.

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