Rocket Science for a Sustainable Future

We can predict the trajectory of a rocket to Mars with great precision, but have difficulty predicting the precise trajectory of our car ride to the airport. What is the difference? The unpredictability of human behavior. Where will other drivers be on your way to the airport? What routes will they choose to get to the airport? Will there be heavy traffic on the way? If we want to reach a sustainable future for the human experience on Earth, we must adjust the course of human society. Due to the complexity of social organization and human action, we cannot rely only on environmental milestones like greenhouse gas reduction in the same way scientists planning a mission to Mars do. In a new article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, ASU Professors J. Marty Anderies and Marco Janssen collaborated with Jean-Denis Mathias to present a new approach that combines the strengths of the science of control systems with insights about human behavior. Human activities have a measurable impact on the global environment, including ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and a warming climate. Continuing current trends could lead to an unlivable planet, or at least one on which the human experience is far less fulfilling than it could be. Environmental scientists have defined “planetary boundaries” for a number of environmental indicators, like atmospheric CO2 levels, freshwater use, and ocean water pH levels, that should not be crossed if we want to sustain a high level of human fulfillment on Earth. However, we need to take into account the ways people perceive the environment, and how they use those perceptions  in designing and implementing policy. Anderies et al. focuses on the role of knowledge in environmental policymaking and uses an illustrative example to explain how more knowledge does not always increase our chances of sustaining the human experience. The proposed approach could be applied to various environmental problems and explore possible solutions to meet both environmental and  social constraints. The interactions between knowledge, the way we use it in policymaking, and outcomes for society are very subtle and deserve more research attention. Read the published study here.