Systems thinking to link sustainability goals to chemistry education through the Planetary Boundaries framework
“Basic sciences are the sine qua non for sustainable development.” This compelling statement introduces the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) on its home page, outlining the necessary role for basic sciences in meeting global sustainability challenges.
And yet global practices of basic sciences education require re-orientation to equip learners at secondary and post-secondary levels to connect the often-isolated presentation of disciplinary science content. Sustainability is a concept that requires convergences of many disciplines, including the basic sciences. Sustainability challenges such as those described in the UN Sustainable Development Goals require multiple science disciplines to be addressed, and current, compartmentalized educational curricula are silent on how to help students participate in using basic science within these complex contexts.
Measuring Earth’s stability and resilience
The Planetary Boundaries framework, which measures Earth’s stability and resilience amid rapid global change, provides a unique meeting-point for these disciplinary convergences, with systems thinking providing the thread that ties them together into a holistic view of planetary sustainability. The science of chemistry plays a key role in the Planetary Boundaries framework, for the dynamics of Earth’s physical and biological systems are shaped and revealed through chemistry.
This initiative by a working group of an established International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) project team, aims to highlight and strengthen the centrality of chemistry as a sustainability science through chemistry education, engaging with the 2022-2023 IYBSSD to incorporate systems thinking as a fundamentally important approach to support integrating human needs and science in the service of planetary sustainability. The project has wide and deep support, jointly sponsored by three IUPAC standing committees, the Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE), the Committee on Chemistry and Industry (COCI), and the Interdivisional Committee on Green Chemistry for Sustainable Development (ICGCSD) and further contributions by a diverse group of international stakeholders, including key senior leadership of the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD).
Compelling interactive visualizations
The IUPAC project team will create and disseminate compelling interactive visualizations and accompanying materials to introduce the chemistry and chemistry education communities to the powerful Planetary Boundaries Framework, which measures the stability and resilience of the Earth system that is undergoing exceptionally rapid global change. The Planetary Boundaries framework’s nine earth system processes (climate change, novel entities, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus, freshwater use, land-system changes, and biosphere integrity) and their dynamic interactions describe the biophysical state, stability, and resilience of our planet. Control variables for each of the earth system processes, many of which are directly related to the production and measurement of chemical substances in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, or lithosphere, have been identified and quantified for seven of the nine earth system processes. As the figure from an interactive electronic version of the framework created by the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS) shows, the numerical value of the control variable indicates with a green/yellow/red colour scheme whether that earth system process is still in a safe operating zone (below the planetary boundary), a zone of increasing risk, or a zone of high risk because of human activity.
Developing a new version of the tool
The IUPAC project team is working closely with team members Peter Mahaffy from the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science (KCVS) and Sarah Cornell from the Stockholm Resilience Centre to create powerful interactive visual maps and accompanying educator resources to guide chemistry and cross-disciplinary science educators in connecting the topics they teach in chemistry to understanding challenges and proposing solutions to the dynamic and complex challenges of sustainability. The interactive Planetary Boundaries learning tool has been published by KCVS and is already freely available to the education community around the world. As an initiative linked to IYBSSD the project team is developing a new version of this learning tool, in which force directed graphs reveal the interconnections among the web of earth system processes in the Planetary Boundaries framework. The “switch view” menu on the top of the tool takes the user back to the planetary boundaries learning tool. A second version of this interactive tool is also being developed by the IUPAC working group and will feature centrally in resourcing basic sciences educators during IYBSSD, in the form of an interactive curriculum map showing how topics in traditional chemistry curriculum can be connected using a systems thinking approach to the earth system processes in the Planetary Boundaries Framework.