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Symposium themes

The Symposium discussions was concentrated to three themes – all participants took part in all three.

The themes are:

1. The human dominated planet

This theme focused on the great acceleration of the human enterprise and on recent attempts to identify the safe operating space for humanity to continue to develop within a stable planet Earth.

Comprehensive syntheses of global change research reveals that for the first time in the planet’s history humans are a major force, not only locally and regionally, but also globally, influencing critical Earth System processes. Human actions have the capacity of pushing the planet out of the 10,000-year Holocene environment within which human civilizations have developed and flourished. We are moving rapidly into the unknown world of the Anthropocene, where the potential for irreversible and abrupt changes to major features of the Earth’s environment pose serious challenges to our well-being.

A central challenge for the 21st century is to respect the dynamic environmental boundaries that define a safe planetary operating space for humanity and to guide the human enterprise onto trajectories that develop within these boundaries. Collective action, flexible institutions and active stewardship of our globally interconnected social-ecological system is required to ensure a prosperous future for humanity.

Chair: Professor Will Steffen, The Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University

2. Reconnecting to the Biosphere

This theme focused on the role of ecosystems and the services they provide as the basis for societal development and human well-being.

Considering the growing human influence on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, nature can no longer be understood without accounting for the influence of humanity. Furthermore, in spite of immense technological development and progress, our economies and societies fundamentally depend on life-supporting ecosystems that provide us with a hospitable climate, clean water, food, fibres, building material, storm and flood protection and numerous other goods and services.

It is time to fully realize that our societies and economies are integrated parts of the biosphere, and start accounting for and governing natural capital. This is central to resilience thinking and represents a shift in how we view the relationship between environmental issues, economic development, and human well-being.

It provides a new perspective on stewardship of interdependent systems of people and nature through building resilience and adaptive capacity rather than attempting to control for stable optimal production and short-term economic gain.

Chair: Professor Carl Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre, The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics

3. Tipping towards sustainability

This theme explored the links between crisis, opportunity, and innovation for navigating shifts and large-scale transformations towards global sustainability.

A key question is the role of social innovations in transforming multi-level governance and management regimes and reversing the current trends that challenge critical thresholds and tipping points in the Earth system.

There are ongoing large-scale transformations in society, influenced by such things as information technology, nano- and biotechnology, and new energy systems. Such innovations have potential to significantly improve our lives, but if our globalized society fails to incorporate the capacity of the biosphere in framing their development there is a risk that they may reinforce unsustainable development pathways.

Alternatively, social innovations that hold the promise of changing unsustainable trajectories need to be nurtured and connected to broad institutional resources and responses. The recent global financial, food and climate change crises illuminate the need for global stewardship of ecosystems and of the innovations that open up new, transformative trajectories of sustainability, avoid lock-in traps, and steer away from potential earth system thresholds and tipping points.

Chair: Professor Frances Westley, Waterloo University, Canada.