Dean Lisa Graumlich
Dean Lisa Graumlich

We are squarely in the age of the Anthropocene, the first time in the history of our planet where humans are driving major environmental changes. Researchers in our College are at the leading edge of uncovering the fundamental changes occurring in the Earth system with implications at local to global scales. This research, the science of the Anthropocene, is both exceedingly exciting and profoundly important work. We are in unique position to be fully aware of humanity’s global potency as measured against the backdrop of geologic time.

Yet, I often hear comments from people ranging from political leaders to friends and family that ask quite directly, “How can you bear to do your work? Isn’t it disheartening to think about all the impacts humans are having on the Earth?” That is what the science of the Anthropocene feels like to most citizens. To the public, we are all too often the oracles of disaster: some unfortunate combination of Chicken Littles and impenetrably wonky geeks. This is not a way to start a productive dialog about our collective future.

What is the conversation about the Anthropocene that we need to have whether at family dinners or in our UW hallways and beyond? And how do we turn a seemingly dim future into a bright one? Science is key, but that goes without saying. It will play a critical role in the larger societal conversations about our future by grounding us in an understanding of past changes and current trends. By doing so, we, as scientists bring to the table a range of plausible futures, larger society brings desirable futures. We need both. And we need to find the meeting ground between plausible and desirable. Now.

How do we get there?

First, as a research community we need to expand our toolkit and our thinking. We are extremely good at measuring trends and defining trajectories in all aspects of the environment. This is true of our College and of the scientific community as a whole. As one of many examples, we routinely measure the global exchange of carbon dioxide in parts per million and can precisely characterize the uptake and loss of carbon in ecosystems that range from the Arctic tundra (Tom DeLuca) to temperate rivers (David Butman) to the oceans around Antarctica (Steve Riser). These data are the foundation on which we build the big picture understanding of how the Earth operates as a system, including the all important role of feedbacks that can accelerate rates of change (Cecilia Bitz).

Here’s the big challenge:

Our future depends on what emerges from the outcomes of natural system processes and—critically important—the collective choices of people. Nowhere is this more clear right now than at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21). As I write this, world leaders are grappling with how to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius. I am cautiously optimistic on this front for two reasons that have to do with people, not science.

We are seeing major players step up to invest in innovations to wean us from fossil carbon. Equally important, the human dimensions of climate change are coming into sharp focus. Whether it’s Pope Francis’ exhortation that climate change is an ethical and social issue or prestigious medical journals calling for climate solutions that protect the health of people, rich and poor. For the first time in a long time, I find myself thinking less about catastrophic future scenarios to imagining a sustainable future spurred by system innovation and changing attitudes and behavior.

What role does the College of the Environment play?

We can’t make progress alone. To imagine desirable, novel futures, we need to get even better at working at the boundaries between science and society. Now more than ever we need to build bridges with thinkers, who are shifting the political and cultural dialog, and doers, who are leading innovation in technologies, policies and practices. As scientists, we are acutely aware that no matter what, we are facing a novel future. As such, our role can no longer be confined to informing decision making which is based in the way the world worked pre-Anthropocene. We need to be at the table in designing and producing solutions-oriented science, which demands a deeper, ongoing collaboration between scientists and stakeholders.

I see the role of the College of the Environment as accelerating our efforts to convene and nurture the collaborations that imagine plausible and desirable futures. We have a jump start on this through the efforts of people and groups that build bridges between UW and the public. The list is long and growing including the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, Climate Impacts Group, Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest, M9 earthquake early warning project (part of UW’s Natural Hazards work), and more. We embrace innovation, as exemplified by EarthGamesUW, which designs and builds games to engage youth in actions to address climate change. We have momentum, and it continues to build.

As always, I am grateful for all of you who are engaging in the science of the Anthropocene—from giving presentations to the Rotary Club and explaining how clouds work to kids, to spending long nights in the lab untangling thorny problems without the benefit of knowing what new understanding will mean for society. This is the way we will create a future that our children deserve.

Lisa graumlich signature



Lisa Graumlich
Dean, College of the Environment
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor

This Dean’s Letter was inspired by Will Steffan (Australian National University) who early in my career suggested that the most important work for a paleoecologist was to imagine a sustainable future.