In 1972, the report Limits to Growth showed that business as usual on a planet with limited resources and a rapidly expanding human population can only end up in unsustainable growth and collapse. The report was inspired by systems science, a precursor to today’s complexity science. Now it’s time to update that work using the tools developed over the last half-century, as SFI External Professor Ricard Solé (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and Science Board member Simon Levin (Princeton University) write in the introduction to a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The themed issue explores the role that complex-systems science will play in our understanding of the crucial changes facing Earth’s biosphere in the next three decades.

We can now develop far more granular models, incorporating geographical variation, with scales ranging from soil-microbiome networks to plant-water interactions to coupled human–environment systems. And the development of complex-systems science allows us to better model tipping points, a key feature of climate change and environmental collapse, as well as potential intervention scenarios.

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