New York City at night, 1935 (U.S. National Archives)

Fifteen Nobel laureates and dozens of other luminaries from the world of science and policy, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, discussed the global challenge of sustainability during an interdisciplinary Nobel Laureates Symposium in Potsdam, Germany, in October.

SFI President and Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West and SFI Distinguished Fellow and Trustee Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1969) participated in the meeting along with several German ministers including chief climate advisor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Merkel addressed the participants on Day 1, calling for an international crash effort led by scientists and policymakers.

Presentations and panel discussions during the three-day meeting focused on climate stabilization, energy security, and sustainable growth for developing nations.

Both Murray and Geoffrey spoke. Murray’s talk focused on a complex systems approach to understanding sustainability issues. Geoffrey says he attempted to broaden the definition of sustainability.

“My pitch was that this needs to be thought about in broader terms,” he says. “It’s not just climate and energy and pollution. It’s related to economics and financial markets and investment and society and human history. We’ll never solve global warming until we begin to think about the big, integrated view of sustainability.” 

He says he sees from SFI’s current work several points of departure toward an integrated effort around sustainability – among them working on a theory of the dynamics of cities.

“I would argue that we would not have this problem if human beings did not live in cities,” he says.

Of Merkel’s talk, he says: “It’s clear she sees herself and Germany as playing a leading role,” and that she believes the U.S. should be playing a greater role.

“It’s great we had some input into the Potsdam meeting,” he says. “It’s often difficult to get science into the political agenda.”

One tangible result of the meeting was a manifesto, the Potsdam Memorandum, which begins: “We are standing at a moment in history when a great transformation is needed to respond to the immense threat to our planet. This transformation must begin immediately and is strongly supported by all present.”

The Potsdam Memorandum is available in its entirety at 

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