Helping society develop in a way that preserves the environment is one of the major challenges facing the human race today, and a top priority for the world's political leaders.
The importance of the challenge was underlined when UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon appointed a High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which is composed of senior politicians from around the world. The panel, co-chaired by Finnish President Tarja Halonen and South African President Jacob Zuma, has been asked to find new ways for societies to grow and prosper in a sustainable way.
Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University is among those leading the quest to find answers to these seemingly intractable problems.
As its name indicates, the centre's work is based around the concept of resilience. This is the term used to describe the capacity of a society or an ecosystem "to take a shock without tipping over a threshold that leads to irreversible change," says Johan Rockström, executive director of the centre.
In May, the centre was one of the organizers of the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability, in which about fifty of the world's leading thinkers in sustainable development came together to talk about how the world can promote development while taking care of the world's ecological systems.
Eighteen of those attending the symposium were Nobel laureates, including chemistry laureate Paul Crutzen, formerly of Stockholm University, fellow chemistry prizewinner Mario Molina, Economics laureate Amarya Sen and Literature winner Nadime Gordimer. Other guests included politicians and government ministers from around the world.
Inaugurating the conference, Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria said the Nobel Laureates had been charged with educating the world about the need for change:
“Mankind faces tremendous challenges if we are to hand our future generations a healthier mother earth, a planet more sustainable than it was when we received it from our parents," she said.
The symposium concluded with the publication of the ‘Stockholm Memorandum', in which the laureates announced that human action had caused the planet to enter a new geological age, the ‘Anthropocene Age' or the Age of Man.
The memorandum calls on world leaders to keep global warming below two degrees celsius, to recognize that “environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development and social justice.”
Achieving this will be a tall order, but not acting will have a big financial cost. According to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 60 percent of things we take for free from the ecosystem - air and water purification, crop pollination and fish production - are exploited in an unsustainable way.
This is why the Stockholm Reslience Centre's work at Stockholm University is so crucial.
The centre is a joint initiative between Stockholm University, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It was founded with a grant of 205 million kronor ($30 million) from the Foundation of Strategic Environmental Research.
It is interdisciplinary, bringing together the expertise of researchers in all disciplines with something to add to research into The centre uses its research to advise policymakers from around the world on ways to put development on a more sustainable footing.
“Our hope is that the Stockholm Resilience Centre will contribute the essential knowledge that is needed to steer development onto a sustainable course,” says Johan Rockström.
Photo (l-r): Staffan Normark, Permanent Secretary, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Gunilla Karlsson, Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation, President Tarja Halonen of Finland and Johan Rockström.