Princeton University Professor Simon Levin—IIASA council chair 2003-2008–has won numerous awards for his interdisciplinary research in environmental sciences, economics, and evolutionary biology. On 10 November, Levin gave a public lecture at IIASA, at which he was named an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow.
IIASA: Your research explores issues such as environmental degradation, human inequality, and climate change. Why are global problems such as these so difficult to address?
Simon Levin: To a large extent, many of these are problems not well addressed in market-based systems. The problem is that for public goods and common-pool resources, the incentives for individual actions are misaligned with the interests of society. Equity gaps and discounting of the future add to these problems, and make it difficult to achieve consensus, especially at global levels for which the feedback loops associated with individual and local actions are weak.
What kinds of approaches are needed to understand such complex, global environmental and social problems?
Certainly we need systems approaches to deal with the linkages and scaling problems within these complex adaptive systems. We need interdisciplinarity, and we need more study of how to achieve cooperation at national and international levels. These are all problems central to the agenda of IIASA.
What new insights has your research brought to these problems?
I have long been impressed with the power of using what we learn in one set of systems to address analogous problems in others, and have benefited greatly from what I have learned from colleagues in other disciplines. I feel that I have been able to get a great deal of mileage out of translating and adapting those lessons to environmental problems, and feel that my ecological and evolutionary perspective in particular, and what I have learned from how evolution has dealt with challenges, has allowed me to bring useful perspectives to the management of coupled biological and socioeconomic systems.
How can models of complex environmental systems inform our understanding of human systems such as the economy?
We learn from such systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse; the importance of diversity, redundancy, and modularity to the ability of systems to adapt in variable environments; the importance of flexible and adaptive governance.
What can studies of cooperation in nature tell us about cooperation in human societies?
Cooperation in nature is strongest in small groups; and as those groups become larger, agreements, social norms and institutions become increasingly important. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom led in adapting those principles to the management of small societies, and I agree with her on the importance of polycentricity—building up from smaller agreements—in addressing global environmental problems.
How can we apply such findings to find practical solutions for the problems we face?
We need research, but we also need partners outside of science. Increasingly, business leaders have looked to biological systems for models as to how they can deal with challenges; we now similarly need to partner with government leaders if we are to address the grand challenges in achieving a sustainable future.
Watch the full lecture