Human activities have exceeded safe boundaries for sustaining Earth’s life support system with respect to climate, nitrogen inputs to ecosystems, and biodiversity loss and are pushing the limits of safe functioning of the earth system in several additional dimensions. In general, movement toward and beyond the safe operating limits for humanity is accelerating rather than being constrained. Given the time lags and numerous positive feedbacks in Earth System dynamics, it is imperative to initiate actions that reverse these trends.
Building on the design principles of Elinor Ostrom and colleagues for sustainable management of common-pool resources, I suggest a set of design principles that can foster transformation from unsustainable to sustainable use of resources and a set of actions that might move society toward a more sustainable trajectory. These include fostering a sense of connection to places that are valued, effective engagement of all key stakeholders, near-zero discounting of long-term costs and benefits, developing consensus on sustainability goals, monitoring to assess progress toward these goals, opportunities to renegotiate sustainability goals to allow adaptation to changing conditions, and emergence of facilitators or leaders that are skilled in conflict resolution and maintain focus on sustainability goals. Ecologists can foster planetary stewardship at local to global scales through education and outreach that fosters appreciation for and commitment to local and global places, monitoring threats to and progress toward sustainability, improved understanding of threshold behavior of social-ecological systems, and leadership in defining and pursuing sustainability goals.