Uninhabitable Futures on a Habitable Earth - Luke Kemp | Cyberseminar on the Habitability concept

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Marion Borderon

Mar 16, 2023, 8:38:00 AMMar 16
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Dear colleagues,

As we enter our fourth day of discussion on the concept of habitability, I am pleased to announce that today's position paper from Luke Kemp (Cambridge University) on Uninhabitable Futures on a Habitable Earth is available here and in attachment. 

Luke’s statement focusses on the relationship between habitability and catastrophic climate change scenarios. The paper argues that social habitability and societal fragility are key to understanding catastrophic risks and approaches that considers the complex interplay between physical and social habitability and explores how the fragility of societies may exacerbate catastrophic risks are needed.

To me, when Luke tells us that “: Social habitability will be compromised well before physical habitability is”, this resonates strongly with the notion of social tipping points, notably discussed by Maria Gavonel in our panel.

What is your take on this?

Looking forward to hearing from you!



Alex de Sherbinin

Mar 17, 2023, 9:12:17 AMMar 17
to Marion Borderon, PERNSeminars - List
Dear All,

I appreciate Luke’s focus on cascading risks rather than habitability, since it highlights fundamental uncertainties in the system.  A common thread in the presentations during Monday’s webinar was that habitability is socially constructed. I agree that this is the case on a local scale, and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest in any way that third parties should be responsible for determining the habitability of others’ territories (see Oliver Smith and de Sherbinin 2014), but what about at broader, global scales? As we were putting together the background paper for this cyberseminar and referencing earlier work such as Limits to Growth, I couldn’t help but sense that the Meadows, the Club of Rome, Paul Ehrlich, and dare I say Garrett Hardin (ugh), are (some from beyond the grave) uttering a collective “I told you so”.  Fifty years ago the concern of environmentalists was that population growth and scarcity of resources was going to lead to “overshoot” (a synonym of sorts for global uninhabitability). And here’s where uncertainty is so clearly illustrated: based on the understanding available in 1973, no one foresaw, at least not clearly, that climate change would present a major strain on the capacity of our planet to furnish the “goods” for humanity.  So how can we be very confident that we foresee how things will evolve in 2073 and beyond? A risk-focused, adaptive management approach is indeed warranted.

While ecologists and physical scientists are criticized (rightly) by social scientists for their simplistic assumptions (ignoring human behavior and adaptive responses, as well as vast inequalities and economic/power structures that have actually resulted in the current ecological catastrophe), the idea of freedom to choose and human agency (as posited by Sen’s capabilities) is predicated on relatively few constraints. What if indeed some of those constraints will be imposed from outside the social system (recognizing that they are anthropogenic and not really outside)? Can we say that people have agency (free will) when the various alternatives are equally horrible? In the migration context, Erdal and Oeppen (2018, p. 985) point out, “[A] starting point for understanding volition in migration is the range and quality of alternatives available to potential migrants if they just stay where they are. In other words, to what extent will they be able to enjoy a reasonable quality of life without migrating? We might consider the migration less voluntary when the answer is ‘not at all' rather than ‘to some extent.' The perception of suitable options and necessity of alternatives—and the notion of a ‘reasonable quality of life'—are subjective.”

Some propose an approach called “deep adaptation” (Bendal 2020), which essentially accepts that we’re approaching the “Endgame” (to use the title of Luke Kemp’s PNAS article), and grieves the loss while seeking to make peace with the inevitability and also protecting what is most important in human society (community, meaningful work, sense of purpose, etc.). This approach would presumably also imply a recognition that that in a “lifeboat earth”, rather than prying fingers off the gunwales (à la Hardin), we would allow freer entry to those who are forced to leave less habitable areas for humanitarian and ethical reasons.

In our review of Population & Environment in ARER (de Sherbinin et al. 2007), we state “It is important to note that population-environment theories may simultaneously operate at different scales, and thus could all conceivably be correct. At the global level, we cannot fully predict what the aggregate impacts of population, affluence, and technology under prevailing social organization will be on the global environment when the world’s population reaches 9 or 10 billion people.” In that same article, we quote Joel Cohen’s 1995 How Many People Can the Earth Support?, where he states that the world has “entered and rapidly moves deeper into a poorly charted zone where limits on human population size and well-being have been anticipated and may be encountered”.   In a manner similar to classical portraiture, where the artist would place a skull in the frame as a reminder of mortality, I believe it is important  to think about and come to terms with the implications of some of the more dire scenarios (even if “runaway climate change” is debated). Then we can reflect on our role in making the world a better place in light of this.


Bendal, J. 2020. Deep Adaptation. ILAS Working Paper. https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf

Cohen, J. 1995. How Many People Can the Earth Support? Norton.

de Sherbinin, A., D. Carr, S. Cassels, and L. Jiang. 2007. "Population and Environment." Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 32, Nov 2007, pp. 345-373.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792934/.

Erdal, M. B., and Oeppen, C. (2018). Forced to leave? The discursive and analytical significance of describing migration as forced and voluntary. J. Ethnic Migrat. Stud. 44, 981–998. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2017.1384149

Oliver-Smith, A., and A. de Sherbinin. 2014. Resettlement in the Twenty First Century. Forced Migration Review, 45: 23-25. https://www.fmreview.org/crisis/oliversmith-desherbinin

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Alex de Sherbinin, PhD   (he/him/his)
Deputy Director and Senior Research Scientist
Lecturer, Sustainability Science and Climate & Society masters programs
Deputy Manager, NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC)
CIESIN, the Columbia Climate School at Columbia University
Tel. +1-845-365-8936ORCID and web site

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