Artwork by Jan Gerrit Schuurman is currently displayed at SFI’s Cowan Campus. In describing his work to SFI, Schuurman wrote, “Each of my drawings and paintings is a renewed effort to extend oneself, to differentiate novel qualities. To rebel against conformity, to persist without fate — to disrupt the cycle, any cycle.” (image: “Pregnant Light.” charcoal, graphite, and pastel on canvas by Jan Gerrit Schuurman)

In 2015, the United Nations published its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, setting aspirational and interconnected targets for economic, environmental, and health well-being to be met by 2030. The intent for these goals was simple: to “provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” The agenda included 17 goals comprising 169 target conditions.

As we enter 2024, however, it is increasingly clear that the global community will fall woefully short of the U.N. targets. The numbers from a 2023 progress report paint a bleak picture: only 15% of the 169 targets are on track; half are at least moderately off-track while over one-third are stagnating or regressing. For a pair of SFI External Professors, the lack of progress on biodiversity goals is particularly troubling.

“We are concerned about the sloth with which the environmental agenda is proceeding — it is way too slow,” says SFI External Professor Andy Dobson (Princeton University). Dobson is organizing a “Biodiversity Protection" working group at SFI alongside SFI External Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder (UC Davis). “People do not appreciate the magnitude of environmental damage and underestimate the speed at which things are changing,” he adds.

The meeting, scheduled for February 12–15, will convene biologists, economists, and social scientists to explore the probabilities and consequences of falling short of the U.N. goals for biodiversity. The working group will use advanced statistics to model ecosystem and socioeconomic conditions — biodiversity, climate, vegetative cover, human behavior, and more — based on the magnitude by which each biodiversity target is expected to fail (e.g., 10%, 20%, 50% below expectation). The intent is to bring clarity to complex interactions among economic, social, and conservation forces. “Our model, or set of models, will assume a final ecological collapse,” says Borgerhoff Mulder.

Based on their modeled outcomes, the participants will envisage scenarios representing varying shades of environmental dystopia resulting from significantly reduced biodiversity. With this inhospitable future mapped out, the group will reverse engineer development pathways and identify critical logistical problems in attaining the development goals.

“From these models, we can identify key junctures where action could or should be taken to avert these dire outcomes,” says Borgerhoff Mulder.

Initially, the group will focus on a single geographic region as a case study, scaling to a global perspective once the concept is proven. Potential outcomes from the meeting include a short documentary about the proposed solutions, a series of podcasts, and a scientific publication, all geared to changing public perception of the environmental problem.

“The Santa Fe Institute is one of the places we can bring an eclectic mix of people together to address these questions,” says Dobson. “Hopefully, we produce a different level of creativity that has been missing.”