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Description Participants Agenda

DySoC/NIMBioS Investigative Workshop

Extending the Theory of Sustainability

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Topic: Extending the Theory of Sustainability

Meeting dates: December 5-7, 2018

Location: NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Peter Richerson, Environmental Science & Policy, Univ. of California, Davis
Eli Fenichel, Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale Univ.
Sergey Gavrilets, Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity (DySoc)/NIMBioS; Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics, Univ. of Tennessee

Objectives: The long term persistence of our human dominated global system requires meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Threats to sustaining our societies include climate change, anthropogenic extinctions, depletion of non-renewable resources, deteriorating ecosystem services, potential failures to maintain infrastructure, educational and health achievements, and security threats posed by unstable political systems. Sustainability is a major intellectual challenge in addition to being a practical policy challenge. Answering these challenges requires a true multi-disciplinary approach.

The complexity of the earth system makes precise forecasting of the future impossible, so any decisions we take to favor (or not) sustainability are taken under great uncertainty. Future technological tools to manage human impacts are uncertain. Thus we don't know the possibilities for substituting human capital for depleted natural capital. The response of global temperature to greenhouse gas forcing, perhaps the most intensively studied sustainability issue, is estimated with coupled ocean-atmosphere climate models that give a large range of predictions. They also have to leave out many feedback processes that may be important due to computational and data limitations. The political institutions to manage global scale sustainability issues are weak, with nation-states being the strongest actors. Nation-states themselves often are not particularly stable or competent to manage their own commons issues. Issues of intra- and international inequalities can vex decision-making. Many social scientists, natural scientists and mathematicians are actively working on theoretical and empirical topics related to sustainability. For example, recent mathematical modeling suggests that the natural-human capital substitutability problem is more tractable than thought a few years ago. Cultural evolutionary modeling and empirical work to understand the processes of social and political change has advanced quickly in recent years and can potentially provide useful tools to understand the human dimensions of sustainability.

Building on earlier efforts, including NSF's workshop Toward a Science of Sustainability (2009), and DIMACS' workshop Mathematical Challenges for Sustainability (2010), this workshop reviewed the state of sustainability theory. Major themes of the workshop included the role of cultural evolution, the role of evolving technology and R&D investments, diffusion of technology, uncertainty in ecosystem management, models of institutional change, and non-autonomous dynamics of important socio-environmental processes, e.g. climate change. We convened 36 participants drawn from a broad range of active scholars from the fields of economics, socio-political evolution, the natural sciences and mathematics to present the latest developments in their fields. Based on these presentations, the participants discussed where the most promising areas for new research lie. We looked for gaps in the modeling enterprise, particularly ones opened up by disciplinary divergences and new empirical findings.

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NIMBioS Investigative Workshops focus on broad topics or a set of related topics, summarizing/synthesizing the state of the art and identifying future directions. Workshops have up to 35 participants. Organizers and key invited researchers make up half the participants; the remaining participants are filled through open application from the scientific community. Open applicants selected to attend are notified by NIMBioS within two weeks of the application deadline. Investigative Workshops have the potential for leading to one or more future Working Groups. Individuals with a strong interest in the topic, including post-docs and graduate students, are encouraged to apply. If needed, NIMBioS can provide support (travel, meals, lodging) for Workshop attendees, whether from a non-profit or for-profit organization.

A goal of NIMBioS is to enhance the cadre of researchers capable of interdisciplinary efforts across mathematics and biology. As part of this goal, NIMBioS is committed to promoting diversity in all its activities. Diversity is considered in all its aspects, social and scientific, including gender, ethnicity, scientific field, career stage, geography and type of home institution. Questions regarding diversity issues should be directed to You can read more about our Diversity Plan on our NIMBioS Policies web page. The NIMBioS building is fully handicapped accessible.

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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