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The Context

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The unsustainable trajectory of the Earth System

Humankind has become a quasi-geological force on planet Earth. Our species is the most successful ever. The human population continues to grow in numbers whilst absorbing more and more natural resources for its industrial metabolism, which is largely based on fossil fuels and other dwindling stocks. As a consequence, societies around the world are currently witnessing severe crises that call for a “Great Transformation” toward sustainability.

Climate change is just one manifestation of the emerging entanglement of problems. Many other challenges such as the decreasing of ecosystem services, loss of biodiversity, degradation of land, urbanisation, increasing water scarcity, disruptions in terrestrial and marine food chains or ubiquitous pollution of all environmental domains also have to be taken into consideration.

At the same time, the gains of the human enterprise are distributed with extreme inequity: pervasive poverty, lack of education, insufficient access to health services and other social disparities persist worldwide despite dramatic economic growth in many countries. The UN recognized this unprecedented challenge and responded by defining the Sustainable Development Goals and working on many fronts to reach them by 2030. Our critical task must be to secure the well-being for all people while maintaining essential functions of the Earth system for future generations to thrive on a healthy planet.

The Role of Science

Science has to play an unprecedented role. Among the many reasons for this, two stick out:

First, modern civilisation is practically a brainchild generated by the Enlightenment and the consistent application of reasoning through the scientific method. From an evolutionary point of view, it would be foolish not to harness research and innovation for overcoming the problems that those cultural forces keep on creating. Therefore, the best possible science should be employed to identify pathways and means for perpetually improving the human conditions. Truly transformational strategies may be needed to overcome the climate crisis and global demographic change.

Second, the scientific community as distributed across the planet is arguably spearheading the eventual development of a cosmopolitan paradigm for humankind. This is so, because the generation of genuine knowledge is based on community-wide best practices, which reflect the universalities of reality as epitomized by the laws of physics or genomics. For instance, quantum mechanics governs the development of modern electronics, irrespective of politics, culture or religious belief. Thus scientists, wherever they work, have “the truth” as a common reference point.

Such a unique calibration is able to transcend national interests which continue to dominate multilateralism in a world composed of some 200 sovereign states. In summary, the knowledge enterprise has both the capacity and responsibility to find and propose global solutions for global problems; yet, this will require new forms of self-organization and novel concepts for the dialogue between science and society.