“Our challenge is not to save Earth, but to save ourselves,” writes Swedish scientist Johan Rockström in his new book, The Human Quest: Prospering Within Planetary Boundaries. “We believe this is the most important journey mankind has ever undertaken.”

The book, which was first distributed at the Rio+20 conference in June and is now available in a digital version, is not the first to call for urgent action in sustainability. However, it is somewhat unique in attempting to take a wholly comprehensive (though abridged) look at the environmental problems we face in 2012, and potential solutions to those problems. The book is also filled with gorgeous photographs from National Geographic photographer Mattias Klum.

Ice forms fantastic shapes in Grey Lake on the edge of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Photo credit: Mattias Klum

The Human Quest begins with the idea that we are the first generation to understand that humanity has the power to destroy the Earth’s ability to support us. For 10,000 years, humans thrived in the interglacial age known as the Holocene, with stable temperatures that allowed the human population to swell from a few million people to seven billion. Now, according to many scientists — including the authors of this book — we’ve entered a new era called the “Anthropocene,” from the Greek word for human. People have influenced the planet so dramatically that we have pushed the Earth into a new geological age.

Surrounded by reefs and lagoons, the island of Ovelau is part of the Fiji archipelago in the South Pacific. Photo credit: Mattias Klum

Rockström, who heads the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, lists the many environmental tipping points converging before us: climate change, ozone depletion, disappearing fish stocks, loss of tropical forests and woodlands, and global mass extinctions. More than 9,000 plant species and more than 10,000 animal species are now endangered. The author continually stresses that the loss of this biodiversity isn’t only critical because our children or grandchildren will miss the privilege of seeing these animals, but because they are a fundamental part of our support system as humans. The “ecosystem services” that nature provides — like clean drinking water and pollination — possess a financial value worth more than the GDPs of 196 countries in the world.

The book suggests that there are nine “planetary boundaries” that humans must respect in order to preserve Earth’s capacity to support human life. To stay within a “safe operating space,” we need to move back within three “big” boundaries: climate change, ozone depletion, and ocean acidification, which each have catastrophic tipping points. For climate change, we have already passed beyond the boundary, and need to bring atmospheric greenhouse gases back within safe limits. Rockström also lists four “slow” boundaries that are critical for nature’s resilience: freshwater use, land use, biodiversity loss, and nutrient cycling. Last, he includes two human-made boundaries: chemical pollution and particulate air pollution. Each of these boundaries is being tested as global consumption swells exponentially.

Tebaran, a blowpipe hunter in Sarawak, Malaysia, sees a difficult path ahead for indigenous people in Borneo, as logging operations and palm oil plantations rapidly engulf the land of his ancestors, rainforests that were abundant in plants and animals. Photo credit: Mattias Klum

Though Rockström’s words and Klum’s stunning photographs make it clear how urgent and immense the challenge is, the book ends with optimism. “We have the intelligence, the creativity, the technological know-how, and the power to steer clear of a disastrous future,” Rockström writes. “Our Human Quest is no utopia; it is an achievable dream.” The book shares examples of necessary steps toward sustainability, including a shift to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. Most critical, they say, is a change in mindset. We need to stop thinking of the environment as something “out there” and separate, and realize that it is a part of us; we also need to understand how quickly we must act.

The book is worth reading. Unfortunately, printed versions were limited to those given out at Rio+20 and the digital copy doesn’t seem optimized for all web or mobile devices. Here’s hoping the publisher improves on the current offering so more people read this important message.

All photos courtesy Mattias Klum