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The University of Michigan Energy Institute and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems hosted the Science of Sustainability Colloquium in February, where the U-M Community was invited to hear three distinguished speakers address sustainability from the viewpoints of economics, physics, and coupled social-ecological systems.



About the Talks

  • Introduction- James Allen, Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter, and Mark Barteau, Director, Energy Institute
  • The physics of sustainability- Peter Littlewood, Argonne National Laboratory & University of Chicago
    • Watch the lecture
    • Until about two centuries ago, before the industrial revolution was powered by fossil fuels, we lived on this planet supported by the energy resources of the sun. Within another century or so we may have to return to the sun as our principal source of energy. Can we do that, while supporting continued improvement in our standard of living? In a recent international poll 71% thought their country "could almost entirely replace coal and nuclear energy within 20 years by becoming highly energy- efficient and focusing on generating energy from the sun and wind". Unfortunately, this optimism is not justified by the state of current technologies, either in terms of their efficiency or their cost. However, a review of the fundamental principles suggests that there are modest grounds for optimism in the long term, as long a host of inventions can be brought to fruition.

      This talk will take a physicist's perspective on some of the energy and sustainability challenges faced by the planet. I will stress the need for thinking using robust principles to guide the investigation. These include: to realize that global sum rules are much more reliable than addition of small scale phenomena; to understand thermodynamic and other equilibria in the large; to be aware as a scientist that economic, geographical, and social forces set boundaries; to understand that a "kilowatt hour" is actually a unit of reserve currency.

      To the extent that technology rather than conservation can play a role, efficient and low-cost materials technologies for energy capture, storage, transmission, and use will be key. Can we rely on iterative improvements in what we have now, or do we need breakthroughs? If we are to have such breakthroughs, what is possible within the constraints of fundamental physical laws? How much headroom is there for new technologies? Are there then strategies for stimulating the "right kind of invention"?

  • Feedback systems and sustainability: robustness-fragility trade-offs in coupled social-ecological systems- J. Marty Anderies, Arizona State University
    • Watch the lecture
    • Social-Ecological Systems (SESs) are fundamental building blocks for complex human societies. Ecological systems provide critical resources for human well- being, and social infrastructure (rules, norms, organizations) enables groups to effectively manage a large array of ecological resources. Management policies are collections of rules that translate system information (e.g biophysical information, information about actions of agents, etc.) into actions that feed back into the system itself. Thus most, if not all, SESs are examples of complex regulatory feedback networks. Such feedback regulation is an extremely powerful tool that humans have exploited to reduce their sensitivity to varying resource abundance and adapt to a wide range of environments. However, feedback systems are known to exhibit inherent robustness-fragility trade-offs. So, in becoming tuned to increase robustness to a particular disturbance regime, an SES will become fragile to novel disturbances. I will use several examples to explore robustness-fragility trade-offs in SESs and discuss their implications for the capacity of present-day SESs to adapt to novel disturbances associated with globalization processes now underway.

  • Economics and sustainability: the energy case- John Byrne, University of Delaware
    • Watch the lecture
    • His talk will draw on his international career experience with economics and sustainability. He is chairman of the board of the Foundation for Renewable Energy and Environment (FREE), an international organization established to promote a better future based on energy, water and materials conservation, renewable energy use, environmental resilience, and sustainable livelihoods. He is co-founder and co-executive director of the Joint Institute for a Sustainable Energy and Environmental Future, an innovative research and policy advocacy organization headquartered in South Korea with the mission of promoting sustainable policy options in East Asia. He is also a founding member of and served as the first research chair for the International Solar Cities Initiative – a pioneering program to assist cities around the world in building sustainable futures.

About the Speakers

  • Peter Littlewood is the Associate Laboratory Director of Argonne National Laboratory, whose mission includes inventing new energy technologies for the nation. He is a physicist who formerly directed the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, is a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a Professor at the University of Chicago.
  • J. Marty Anderies holds associate professor appointments in both the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research interests focus on developing an understanding of how ecological, behavioral, social, and institutional factors affect the robustness/vulnerability characteristics of social-ecological systems. His work combines qualitative insights from present-day, historical, and archaeological case studies of social-ecological systems with formal mathematical modeling and experiments with human subjects to study how individual decision-making processes interact with governance regimes to influence social and environmental outcomes. Other areas of interest include complex systems as they relate to economics and theoretical.
  • John Byrne is the Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) and Distinguished Professor of Energy and Climate Policy at the University of Delaware. He has contributed to Working Group III of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1992 and shares the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Panel’s authors and review editors.

Sponsored Lecture: Sponsored by the Energy Institute and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems.

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