Policy Brief #02, December 2007, IIASA Conference '07. At its thirty-fifth anniversary conference, in November 2007, IIASA brought together scientists, policymakers, and thinkers to discuss Global Development: Science and Policies for the Future. The aim was a wide­-ranging discussion of what a sustainable and equitable future might look like, and how to get there. Foremost were research priorities and how IIASA might contribute. 

Key Points

  • The world faces two fundamental challenges in the twenty-first century. One is to root out the persistent and entrenched poverty of the “bottom billion” of humanity. The other is to prevent economic growth from overwhelming the global commons – the atmosphere, oceans, water cycle, and biodiversity.
  • Both, while often still seen as secondary to the goal of worldwide economic growth, have the potential to destroy that growth and undermine the well?being of all. The first through triggering conflicts; the second by wrecking the ecosystem services, including a stable climate, on which economic activity and livelihoods depend.
  • But there was disagreement about whether these goals can best be secured through better management of the existing political and economic systems, or whether more fundamental changes were needed. Put simply, can continued economic growth be made sustainable or not?
  • There was antipathy between the two sides on this. Those who favored fixing the existing system accused those demanding fundamental change of diverting the world’s attention from practical solutions. They in turn accused the fixers of ignoring fundamental problems, particularly of over-consumption.
  • Agendas for improving human and social capital and for maintaining natural capital were laid out. But there was a lack of integration between the two – suggesting an important focus for future systems research. Likewise the competing threats of over-consumption and over-population were often discussed rhetorically rather than analytically.
  • Competing demands for land and water resources threaten future supplies of the “3Fs”: food, fiber, and fuel. The boom in biofuels amplified the risks.
  • More positively, there was discussion of potential no-regrets solutions that addressed both social and environmental problems. Finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels, for instance, addressed human health problems from smog and climate change. And the benefits of good governance in solving problems were illustrated.
  • But there was much pessimism. One speaker concluded: “Do we know what to do? Probably yes. Will we do it? Probably not.”