Changing Planet

At Stockholm Gathering of Minds: Planet Earth vs. Humanity

Over four days in Stockholm this week, the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability has convened dozens of thought leaders to address the theme of “Transforming the World in an Era of Global Change.” John Francis, the Vice President for Research, Conservation, and Exploration at the National Geographic Society, is an inside observer. In this second dispatch from the proceedings, Francis reports on a mock trial: Planet Earth vs. Humanity, and the verdict rendered by the jury of intellectuals.

Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, Judge during the Nobel Court Case: Planet Earth vs. Humanity. The hearing was arranged at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with a jury of Molina and other Nobel Laureates. The verdict will be handed over to the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


By John Francis

Stockholm–I came to the challenges of this convention with a bias, especially concerned about how effectively laureates and academicians might generate the Great Transformation proposed for the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability.  The objective was to gather in Stockholm some 20 Nobel laureates and, as it turns out, another 40 experts who care deeply about global sustainability.  They have three days to seek solutions.  Many have already devoted a lifetime.

The mood through the first day varied, and the conceit was to put the human species on trial, literally.  In the opening press conference,  Johan Rockström (Symposium Chair and Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University) set the stage.  He and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of Potsdam Institute of Climate Action Research, talked about how business as usual will no longer suffice and common sense must prevail to carefully manage the Earth in this new “Anthropocene” or age of man.

Johan Rockström, Chair of the Nobel Laureate Symposium and Executive Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stockholm Environment Institute. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


The Swedish Minister for the Environment, Andreas Carlgren called attention to our natural capital being used up as though we could rely on multiple planets, and Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate and chemist, took on the practicalities of effectively presenting scientific evidence to this effect.  Indeed, the debate began on what is tractable, and knowable, and indeed sensible, in climate change and other effects on our diverse life systems.

All agree at this symposium that the evidence is firm on what is happening.  Humans are impacting the Earth and profoundly.  The question is how badly and what can be done about it.

Gretchen Daily, of Stanford University, provided some hope, with details of China and Costa Rica investing in a healthy planet by protecting forested land, replanting, and mitigating costly flooding and downstream calamity.  Crises have precipitated large investments, planting orchards on highly erodable slopes, vegetation can be managed to prevent loss of carbon to the atmosphere and such lessons can travel worldwide.

Gretchen Daily, Professor in biodiversity, Stanford University. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


More effective land use is now empowered through Google Earth and other global systems.  Kroto placed faith in innovation through information access, positing a distributed network of students who could compete for the best solutions to our common maladies.

Finally, Mario Molina, a Nobelist in Chemistry from the University of California, San Diego, emphasized that the time is limited and the greatest challenges were in accurately assessing and communicating the risks at hand.

On this dramatically cloudy, but intensely beautiful spring day, the amassed minds carried a potent, deliberate optimism.  HRH Crown Princess Victoria envisaged us receiving a “911 call” from the future and, key to the day, expected that the seeds must take root to allow for this winter to be followed by spring and summer.  In Stockholm, where an international discussion in 1972 first raised a discussion of global sustainability, we were feeling that very course.  “Optimism is the most valuable when the challenges are overwhelming,” she declared — and the body assembled was up for no less.

Crown Princess Victoria meets Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


Despite such grand objectives, I worried that the discussion on how much human enterprise has dominated our planet would be a snore.  But the proceedings were designed otherwise.  A mock civil trial ensued testing various propositions:  that humanity has pushed Earth to a new age, that we risk passing catastrophic tipping points, that we cannot continue with business as usual, and that we can still prosper within our earth systems.  Rigorous cases unfolded for Earth as the plaintiff and humanity in defense, with a conclusion that all is not lost and that though we are not sure about how close we are to tipping points there is confidence that humans are up to the challenge.

Part of the solution is embedded in the enterprise, that of designing a Stockholm Memorandum to present to a UN High-level Panel serving as a roadmap for change.  The group identified high level points of concern on the draft document, focusing on length, tone (too alarmist), hot buttons (is 1.5 degree cap on climate change too rigorous, should cap and trade language be avoided), the posture of science and imposing adequate humility, the links between poverty and inequalities in the solutions, highlighting consumption and waste, developing more trust between nations and people, the need for drastic change and the need of bridging science and policy — and I would add communication.  The tone was surprisingly agreeable with substantive and positive direction to increase the efficacy of the document.

Jury members discuss the verdict during the Noble Court Case: Planet Earth vs. Humanity. Jury members (from left): Nobel Laureates James Mirrlees, Werner Arber, Carlo Rubbia and Peter C. Doherty. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


At the center of the afternoon dialogue was the need for innovation.  Examples of the Chilean loco fishery, where collapse in 1988 created a need for elevating preexisting local solutions and led to fisheries stability.  And the Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia which enjoyed a perfect storm of local entrepreneurs, cooperating with government and extractive industry, and during an economic turning point to lead to increased resource protection.

Presenters recommend promoting creative settings to predispose creativity and design and this was not lost on a body of people recognized for their remarkable achievements in science and literature.  Beyond this, cooperative enterprise in response to the SARS epidemic encouraged a rapid discovery of the responsible virus.  Delegates also emphasized that  innovation has to reach governmental and policy positions.  The inventive interface which at the heart of this symposium, including a trial, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit encourage even more inspiration in the time to come.

I happily note that day did not end in panels and discussion rooms at the Swedish Royal Academy, but rather on the water and then in the Eric Ericson Choral Hall Though rain descended in the late afternoon the clouds then glowed and rainbows graced a trip around a National City Park, with it’s wild nature square in the middle of the Stockholm. Perhaps this is symbolic of the enterprise on Global Sustainability altogether too unique on this planet.

In the concert hall the community of Stockholm enjoyed with conferees a delightful and inspiring juxtaposition of the arts and sciences.   Matthias Klum’s photography of challenge and optimism in the natural world played duet against Johan Roskstrom’s perspectives on global sustainability, Nobel prize laureate Nadine Gordimer read from her stories of human challenge and change, and choral performances including a special composition by Sven-David Sandström based on Nobel Laureate Seamus Heany”s poem entitiled the Human Chain provided emotional, ethereal and for me, tearful portrayals of the beauty of nature and the complexity of human plight in this difficult time.

Eric Ericssonhallen, Stockholm, location for the Nobel Laureate Choral Concert. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate in Literature 1991, reads her short story The Ultimate Safari on the challenges facing a family fleeing Mozambique for South Africa, as told by a young black girl. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)


The laureates, many scientists, the convenors, and their partners in the community certainly have the right elements in place.  And I think in the right place.

As I made my way back to the hotel in the late evening, again struck but the gorgeous high-latitude light and sculpted sky, I await the final day of hopeful innovation.

The third Nobel Laureate Symposium, which follows from previous meetings in Potsdam and London, is focusing on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change. The meeting is taking place at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm May 16-19.

John Francis serves as Vice President for Research, Conservation, and Exploration at the National Geographic Society, directing funding of these disciplines through the Committee for Research and Exploration, the Conservation Trust, and the Expeditions Council, Young Explorers, and Waitt grants programs. Francis also serves on boards for the National Park System, UNESCO, and the IUCN. John received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz and spent five years as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate at the Smithsonian Institution studying the behavioral ecology of marine mammals. Since his beginning roles as grantee and then producer of wildlife films for National Geographic, he has worked to enhance connections between the scientific/conservation community and the public -- made possible through the Society’s funding of path breaking projects and global media reach.
  • Dee

    It’s a novel idea to put humanity on trial for crimes against planet Earth, and it helps to make the point that the environmental offenses committed by our species are not just dangerous, but also profoundly immoral. However, the one single taproot of all ecological problems created by human impact on the environment is sorely missing here, utterly neglected and ignored — as if pretending it does not exist will somehow make it irrelevant.

    That root problem is, of course, the tragic and horrible fact of human overpopulation.

    The idea that all these environmental experts could convene and discuss humanity’s negative impact on the planet, while assiduously avoiding the ONE single issue that is most to blame for ALL our environmental damage — that goes beyond mere negligence. It is thoroughly unconscionable.

    Is this the price of political correctness?? Then political correctness has got to go, when it comes to attempts to solve environmental crises. The situation is already far too dire, and holding back from confronting the single biggest problem — human overpopulation — is totally unacceptable. For too long now, overpopulation has been the elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to see. Conservatives refuse to acknowledge overpopulation due to their archaic views on abortion and even contraception. Progressives refuse to acknowledge overpopulation due to their insistence on blaming technologically developed nations for everything, and underdeveloped nations for nothing.

    But this hypocrisy — this willful irresponsibility — will not do. Not when the life of our only planet is at stake. The problem of overpopulation can be solved, and it must be solved — and soon. There is a limit to the carrying capacity of the Earth, and we are already well beyond that limit. We need to restrict population growth and then start decreasing the human population. It obviously must be done eventually, as there is no possible reality in which human population can continue to grow unbounded.

    We can limit population growth now, or we can limit population growth later — after the Earth becomes far more devastated than it already is. WHY WAIT?!?

    Kindly ditch the hypocrisy, and start addressing the REAL problem: HUMAN OVERPOPULATION.

  • NikFromNYC

    Old Headline: At Stockholm Gathering of Minds: Planet Earth vs. Humanity

    Only eleven are physics/chemistry prizes. Three are medicine, one literature, and two economics.

    Of the hard scientists, we have work on ion channels, decomposition of ozone (two of them), elementary particles, theory of the strong interaction, magnetoresistance, computational quantum chemistry, fullerenes, superfluidity, W and Z particles.

    Lots of very highly specialized eggheads, which these days is what leads to hard science awards.

    So they have rounded up 10 of the 137 living chemistry/physics Nobel Prize winners.

    New Headline: 93% of Hard Science Nobelists Decline To Sign Alarmist Manifesto

    -=NikFromNYC=- Ph.D. in chemistry (Columbia/Harvard)

    P.S. Here I present The Quick Glance Guide to Global Warming:

  • […] è riunito il terzo simposio di premi Nobel sulla sostenibilità globale. Il fatto che sul sito di National Geographic tale evento venga presentato come un processo giudiziario in cui le cui parti in causa sono il […]

  • […] a metà maggio 2011 (al 3rd Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability) per un “processo” (“Planet Earth vs. Humanity”) che ha visto sul banco degli accusati addirittura la nostra specie, quasi che anche W.Arber […]

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