To address climate change and other societal challenges like rising inequality, human migration, and biodiversity loss, humanity must consider the ecological, economic, and political constraints of our planetary system. 

In late July, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, hosted a workshop to discuss these considerations and foster collaboration across research communities. SFI co-hosted the workshop in partnership with ICTP and the Fondazione Internazionale Trieste. Co-sponsorship is provided by the U.S. Mission in Italy. Titled “Quantitative Human Ecology,” the meeting focused on three key sustainability challenges.

The first challenge is that the timelines of policy and nature are out of sync. Policy solutions, both internationally and domestically, do not operate at the same time scales of the physical and ecological processes being transformed by human activity.

“This leads to all sorts of tragedies of the commons,” says SFI President David Krakauer, one of the workshop organizers. “It’s hard to ask someone to make a decision that hurts them economically but will benefit the planet in 100 years.”

Krakauer alludes to the second major challenge: human agency. Individuals tend to make decisions that benefit themselves and their families. This can create tension when collective needs run counter to individual wants, especially when sustainability is not the affordable or convenient option. One example is the continued use of plastic bags in grocery stores despite their known role in polluting both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. 

Lastly, it remains difficult to integrate across multiple dimensions of society and ecology. For example, economic inequality and biodiversity loss both strongly impact sustainability, but they function under different theoretical frameworks and require unique solutions.

To address these challenges, the workshop will integrate methods from economics, ecology, physics, epidemiology, social science, and more. “The point of this conversation is to try and come up with interoperable standards — or a science-based consensus — for sustainability,” adds Krakauer. “Sustainability is not the domain of any one discipline.”

Krakauer is organizing the workshop with SFI Science Board member Simon Levin (Princeton University), Matteo Marsili, a research scientist at ICTP, and several other Italian scientists. The organizers’ intent is that the workshop will spur new cross-disciplinary collaborations. 

“We are trying to build partnerships among scientists, humanists, and decision-makers who wouldn’t normally be talking to each other,” says Levin. “The nature of the problems has changed, so the nature of the solutions has to change too.”