There are big-picture jobs, and then there’s Peter Schlosser’s mission.
He has the whole world in his hands.
One of the world’s leading earth scientists, with an expertise in the Earth’s hydrosphere and how humans affect the planet’s natural state, Schlosser has been tapped to head Arizona State University’s new Global Futures Initiative, announced this week by ASU President Michael M. Crow.
The initiative will look for ways for humankind to manage the planet as a whole and extend habitability. Schlosser will act as an orchestra conductor, linking related research at the university and forming partnerships with prominent scientists domestically and internationally. As University Global Futures Professor, he will look at the planet from a systems approach.
“The world, the planet, and its subsystems are all complex systems, and we really take the systems approach,” said Schlosser, whose formal title will be vice president and vice provost of Global Futures at ASU. “We might hone in on parts of that system to solve a particular problem, but once we have solved them we have to bring it back into the context of the overall earth system.”
Schlosser defined what he means when he uses the word “planet”: “the physical, bio-geo-chemical, social, economic, cultural domains, all integrated because they can’t really be separated.”
The effort will tackle more than climate change. Water scarcity, food security, population growth and degradation of soils are all serious sustainability issues.
“We are pushing the limits on many fronts,” Schlosser said. “It’s a very fine-tuned planet. You turn one knob, and you are sure to see the ripple effects throughout the entire system. Some react very fast — it’s what we call resonance points. If you hit some of these resonance points, by a little nudging, you might have a huge effect.”
We talked to him about the new initiative, his role, what needs to be done, and what the biggest problems are.
Question: In your words, what is the mission of the Global Futures Initiative?
Answer: What I’m looking at is a way to get a feeling for where the planet might head — there are different trajectories — and find out which state might be the most favorable for life in the future, for societies to thrive, and for us not to exceed the boundaries of what the planet has to offer; in other words, not to puncture through too many of the planetary boundaries, which means resources the planet has to offer, living conditions, etc.
As we are looking for these possible future states of the planet we also have to consider if we know how to get there. If we imagine different states, some that are shaped by aggressive development, some shaped by less-aggressive development, we have to explore which possible trajectories we have and to which extent do we have to manage the planet, and — more fundamentally — how well can we manage the planet?
Q: What is your role with the initiative?
A: My role will be to bring together the talent pool from within — and there is already a large talent pool at ASU — get them grouped around this question, and some of the bigger subquestions, but also reach out beyond the boundaries of ASU to form a national and international network of scholars who can contribute to these questions.
These questions are big. They are so big that no single university, no single small alliance of universities can really fully solve them. We might expand existing networks to a more global level, to more involvement of prominent scholars who are working on these and similar questions, so that we really have access to the full talent pool that is around and can help move these questions forward and find answers to them.
Q: What will have to be done first?
A: We really have to dedicate academia to accept that we are already engineering the planet in many random fashions. We have to commit to move toward what I would call planetary management, which means a more structured, strategic, thought-out management of our resources, of the way we use the planet, of the way we live on the planet, and on the way we shape the environment for a future that is in sync with what the planet actually offers us and does not exceed all the boundaries and thereby destroy our foundation. ... This is not something we can solve like the moonshot, and then it’s done. We are in the Anthropocene, and this will be with us for as long as we can think forward.
Q: What’s the biggest problem, in your view?
A: The biggest problem in my view is the time scale. The problems are evolving so fast that we have trouble to catch up. For example, take the Paris Accord. By 2050, 2060, within the next three or four decades we have to be carbon neutral, which means we cannot increase the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. That’s a very short time. Right now we still burn significant amounts of fossil fuels. That’s just one example of what our challenge really is.
It is of course based on looking at things in fundamental ways — that is what academia has done in its entire history. What is added in the area of sustainability, of global futures, as an additional, specific and defining factor is that the timelines are really short for us to act. I see that as one of the major challenges.
Top photo: University Global Futures Professor Peter Schlosser talks about his goals and transdisciplinary commitments in his new position at ASU on Jan. 4. While his primary research focuses on hydrologic systems, specifically oceans and groundwater, he will direct research at ASU on planetary challenges from a systems perspective as vice president and vice provost for Global Futures. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now