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New Global Futures leader on people, the planet and the task we have ahead of us

January 23, 2018

Leading earth scientist Peter Schlosser to head ASU center, launched with the goal of planetary management

Editor's note: The Global Futures Initiative at ASU changed its name to the Global Futures Laboratory in July 2019.

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 ProfessorSchlosser will have joint appointments in the School of Sustainability, the School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering., 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

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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New Global Futures Initiative asks how humankind can extend Earth’s habitability

January 23, 2018

The ASU initiative's new leader says we’ve entered the era of planetary management

Editor's note: The Global Futures Initiative at ASU changed its name to the Global Futures Laboratory in July 2019.

More than a decade ago, ASU declared its intent to become the world leader in sustainability research and education, taking the first steps in 2004 with the launch of the Global Institute of Sustainability and, two years later, with the charter of the School of Sustainability, the first in academia.

Since then, courses, degrees, programs, institutes and collaborations designed to help humans take better care of our planet have spread across the university, and today there are few corners of the institution this thinking doesn’t reach.

Researchers in engineering are designing renewable-energy microgrids that provide power to remote areas. Scholars in the law school are designing more equitable and sustainable water-rights agreements. Experts in the business school are testing product characteristics that influence how much consumers waste.

Programs can be found in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society, the Center for Science and the Imagination, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and more. Many of these programs cross college, institute or disciplinary boundaries, too, such as research programs looking at the future of food, water and energy systems.

Things are more urgent now.

“We did what we said we were going to do,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. “We have dozens of centers and hundreds of faculty members involved in this. We have built a global laboratory. It’s distributed, but it’s here inside the university.

“Now we need to focus on the future of the planet. Not only fixing problems we have created but also using knowledge and innovation to secure its habitability. This is urgent, and this is how what we have built here can have the biggest impact on the world.”

This week, Crow announced the launch of the Global Futures Initiative at ASU. Its goal is to harness the innovative capacity of academia and develop options for sound management of our planet.

Peter Schlosser

To lead the effort, ASU has appointed Peter Schlosser of Columbia University to serve as vice president and vice provost of Global Futures at ASU. He joined ASU Jan. 1, 2018.

READ MORE: Q&A with Schlosser about the new inititative and his role

“Peter is one of the world’s experts in how the world works as a physical system,” Crow said. “As much as any human being alive, he understands the intricacies of the planet we live on.”

“ASU is making major contributions to helping prepare human society for the challenges it will face in the Anthropocene,” Schlosser said. “Global Futures is a platform from which to take a broad look at the trajectory of our planet and the role of global society in shaping it, to gather and synthesize knowledge from many frameworks and to fundamentally alter how we manage the planet in ways that achieve sustained habitability.”

In the near term, Global Futures will focus on achieving a balance between creating new ideas and knowledge and zeroing in on outcome-driven problem-solving, Schlosser said.

“I hope we can take the pieces ASU has already created and fuse them together more tightly, synthesizing what is already there while breaking new intellectual ground,” he said.

It also will build new and bigger collaborations; find untapped opportunities that lie between disciplines, schools and existing projects; and amplify ASU’s global impact.

Schlosser serves at least three roles, Crow said.

The first is “to be a big-ideas thinker and public intellectual on behalf of ASU,” Crow said. “His voice in this is enormous.”

The second, on the academic side: “We want him to be a ‘green thread’ through all of these programs, connecting them, providing for maximum intellectual creativity, and leading and finding the best faculty,” he said.

And third, to be the senior research officer in global habitability, “helping us to drive all of these research initiatives forward together and at the same time,” Crow said. “What we’re after is for Peter to be the architect of this knowledge enterprise, a world-class intellect devoting all his energy to Global Futures at ASU.”

As one of the first steps, Schlosser will work to establish an international network of partnerships and collaborations. He envisions ASU as the world headquarters of an international alliance of prominent scientists working together to address the most critical issues related to human society and the future states of our planet, including, for example, new energy systems, food security and land degradation, environment and public health, depletion of natural resources, water scarcity, and new economies (such as a carbon economy) needed for a rapidly changing world.

In his role, Schlosser reports to Crow, to Provost Mark Searle and to Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Development.

He also has been appointed the University Global Futures Professor, with joint appointments in the School of Sustainability, the School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering .

In joining ASU, Schlosser is leaving behind an endowed professorship at Columbia University, as well as his role as the deputy director of the renowned Earth Institute, headquartered there. (Crow designed and established the Earth Institute in 1991.)

Schlosser’s own research has focused on water systems, especially oceans, continental surface waters, and groundwater with emphasis on the system-wide challenges introduced by human activities. He is one of the world’s experts on water circulation patterns and the exchange of gases between oceans and Earth’s atmosphere and its relationship to climate.

He is a member of the German National Academy of Science and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the Explorers Club.

For Crow, Global Futures is the next step in the evolution of solution-focused research and education at ASU related to planet Earth.

“We academics made a mistake a long time ago in getting too political about this,” he said. “This is not just about climate change or the Paris accord. This is about what we’re doing as an institution to be more valuable, to produce more ideas, to produce more solutions, to think broadly about global outcomes and to consider opportunities.”

While there is no way to avoid the policy discussions associated with sustainability and climate, added Schlosser, academia’s most important contributions must be grounded in understanding the basic functions of the earth system, exploring how humankind impacts those functions, finding solutions to disruptions, and building alliances across virtually all disciplines and partisan divides to implement these solutions.

“We need to understand that there are limits of our planet of which we are a part,” he said. “We have pushed and exceeded some of those limits. We have the capacity to shape a sustainable future. But we cannot afford to be complacent any longer. We can’t wait until the picture is fully put together. We have to respond now.”

In doing so, he said, “we have to get input from the very start from the people it affects most, because we don’t often enough take the time to explore the future with them.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now