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In Our Hands, the Whole Wide World

Wrapping up the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability, in Stockholm, Sweden, thought leaders from the worlds of science, art, business, and politics reflected on the words of Martin Luther King: There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will. And as President Bill Clinton told the gathering, synthesis is...

Wrapping up the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability, in Stockholm, Sweden, thought leaders from the worlds of science, art, business, and politics reflected on the words of Martin Luther King: There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will. And as President Bill Clinton told the gathering, synthesis is the solution to the challenges of sustaining our planet’s ability to provide.

In speeches, discussions, music, and poetry, the message in essence from Stockholm is that Earth is ours to keep — or lose.


By John Francis

Stockholm–When you’re trying to change the world, it’s clearly not enough to have just a well informed memorandum, even if it is drafted with the help of Nobel Laureates. The information is only as good as the people who can use it. Today large numbers of the Stockholm public, including business leaders and concerned individuals, were drawn to the The Royal Dramatic Theater to hear about the previous two days of discussion at The Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability. And by the end of the day, replete with workshops and a final intellectual and artistic extravaganza in the Opera House, I felt there was every effort to make the hard won messages of the week sing for those who might listen.

The Mayor of Stockholm, Sten Nordin, opened “The Science and Art of the Possible” in a nod to the opulent venue with drama as the activator of feelings. Symposium Chairman Johan Rockstrom referred to T.S. Eliot’s “Between the motion. And the act. Falls the Shadow.”  Panelists shed light on the recently drafted Stockholm Memorandum and encouraged all to not be daunted by details as the principles in science are elegant and simple.

Welcome speech by Sten Nordin, Mayor of Stockholm. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability.)


Sunita Narain, Director General for the Center for Science and Environment, about as common sense and motivating as they come, said we have to “stop cars in Delhi,” that the developing world must step beyond the food and fuel consumptive histories of the developed world for their own and their planet’s good.  And she underscored the pressures of climate change with the phrase “the monsoon is the finance minister of India.” “We need to look at not wealth, but well being” if we are to live well on this planet, she implored, pointing to Bhutan’s innovation of Gross Domestic Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product as a critical metric.

While the call of the day was for long-term change in mindset and structure, the audience took good note of the many examples from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) where significant changes can occur right now at local levels. Pavan Sukhdev of Yale University gave a particularly valuable banker’s view (more than 200 businessmen identified by a show of hands) of the economic values in working green:  organic farming in Japan yielding higher revenue, saving an endangered white stork population and yielding new tourism dollars; hidden costs embedded in destruction of mangroves for shrimp farming.  He named corporations thriving under green policy–Caterpillar, with its remanufacturing; HP with recycled product packaging; Mars, Cadbury, Unilever, as guiding models for a win/win approach to sustainable living.

Pavan Sukhdev, Yale University and UNEP’ s Green Economy Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability.)


With new approaches, technology and innovation at heart, the crowd tweeted and texted three members of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability on stage. Gunilla Carlsson, Minister for International Development Corporation of Sweden, pressed for the remarkable in the Stockholm Memorandum, noted an effective marriage of environmental and social factors. Freund Stuart, Prime Minister of Barbados, highlighted the tasks ahead, quoting Martin Luther King, “there is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will.” The effects of his panel are expected to be acute for his low-lying island nation. And Luisa Dias Diogo, former Prime Minister of Mozambique, had the crowd laughing with her reflections on the import of good governance, and the former lack thereof in her country.

The flip side of inspiration is action, and in this proposed Great Transformation, this was the agenda for the afternoon of the final day. Two workshops, one on creating sustainable cities and the other on sustainable beef and dairy industries, charged the attendees to be part of a drama.  Kaj Torok of Futerra threw an inflated globe into the audience, putting the Earth in their hands.  After four hours of detailed presentations and breakout sessions, with enough good ideas to make my head spin, business cards flew between 50 business, science, and NGO experts. Results actually seemed at hand.   MAX, the family owned, award-winning sustainable hamburger chain, will use its influence to pull other restauranteurs and producers together to establish new guidelines for encouraging sustainable food production and promotion in related industries, says its Chief Sustainability Officer, Par Larshans.

Stina Ekblad and Ylva Ekblad read poetry from Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability.)


For a high-level, Nobel-laureate-laden, scientific symposium embracing the arts, it seemed to me odd, but then entirely appropriate, that the capstone gala be held in Stockholm’s resplendent Opera House. The head of the Swedish Postcode Lottery, inspired social benefactor Niclas Kjellstrom-Matseke, and his team pulled together a star-studded constellation of musicians (including Melody Gardot), dancers, and singers alongside interviews with Nadine Gordimer, and a panel of select Symposium and local leaders, all capped by a lecture from President Bill Clinton.  I thought only in Sweden could you pull this off, a wild combination where education, too, was entertainment.

President Clinton, in full command of a holistic world view, summed it up as the need for not dichotomies, not zero sum games, but synthesis as the solution. Lectures and soul music? Why not.  It is all about opening up, after all, and allowing a different mindset to reign.

Not only Nobel laureates have the license to cross between sciences, literature and the social good. We can all drink from this same well, and should if we are to conceive a better place in this limited world.

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

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Meet the Author

John Francis
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.