Reflections on the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative

SBI + 20 Celebration; ESA Annual Meeting, Portland, Oregon 6 August 2012


Figure 1.


Thank you, Deborah Goldberg,2 for organizing a celebration of the accomplishments of the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (SBI)! It's my pleasure to be here with SBI authors, ESA leaders, staff, members, and guests to celebrate 20+ years and to reflect on the history and future of the SBI. As Paul Risser said, “Telling the SBI story is important, as it re-emphasizes the lessons we learned and empowers future leaders to accept the challenge of moving forward in an ever-changing environment.”


The SBI is a terrific example of the power of leaders working together to bring about change. Its creation was a collaborative effort spanning multiple Presidencies—Presidents who shared a common vision and passed the baton from one to another, starting with Hal Mooney (President) and me (Vice President), with handoffs to Dennis Knight (P), Simon Levin (P), Ron Pulliam (P), and me (P). It benefited significantly from insights of a former President, Paul Risser, who contributed to the vision, then shepherded the effort as Chair of the Public Affairs Committee during the formative years. The incorporation of the SBI into ESA's DNA was later supported by a plethora of successive Presidents, officers, and staff. Of the 16 authors of the SBI, 2 were Presidents when the activity was initiated, and an additional 7 later became Presidents.3

Sparked by President Hal Mooney, supported by Bill Robertson of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and infused with a balance of wisdom from experience and energy from naiveté, the Research Agenda Committee channeled the ecological community's frustration with meager funding for ecological research into a powerful case statement for ecology and its relevance to the world. The SBI said in no uncertain terms that advances in the scientific discipline of ecology were essential to making progress with multiple environmental issues. In short, the SBI declared that “relevance is not a 4-letter word.” What's shocking now is the very idea that “relevance” was a shocking concept 20+ years ago.

Travel back in time with me to the late 80's. The ecological community was transitioning from a sole focus on scientific discovery for its own sake to a dual focus on scientific discovery and relevance to society. Even though a few decades had elapsed since The Nature Conservancy broke away from ESA (in 1951) because ESA deemed relevant, applied work inappropriate for a professional scientific society, the tension between “basic” and “applied” ecology remained palpable and divisive.

That tension came to a head when ESA's Research Agenda Committee wrestled with our charge of articulating priorities. Should the criteria for setting priorities be simply advancing the science, or helping solve problems facing society, or some combination? Twice, the Committee chose a sole focus on the former, reflecting the pervasive view of “cutting edge above all else”; and twice the Committee rejected that path because it didn't “feel” complete. We painfully threw out earlier science-only drafts and began again. In the end, the Committee chose the dual criteria of cutting-edge AND relevant research, cognizant of the richness and diversity of possibilities that met both criteria. We saw an opportunity for our science to be helpful in finding solutions, not just learning how the world worked. “Cool science” and “relevance” were both possible simultaneously. The SBI described exciting examples of scientific frontiers in biodiversity, global change, and sustainable ecological systems, where new knowledge was urgently needed to both advance understanding and address critical societal challenges. It connected the dots between specific (seemingly esoteric) research topics and real-world problems and solutions that could benefit from knowledge emerging from that research. SBI authors knew the real world was the cutting edge of science, and they proposed focal areas that would advance both intellectual frontiers and societal solutions. But, they worried, would the rest of ESA agree?

The watershed moment arrived when it was time for the Research Agenda Committee to deliver its first-year report in a specially convened plenary session at the ESA Annual Meeting. The year was 1990; the place, Snowbird, Utah. The Committee members were so anxious about whether their dual criteria would be accepted that none of them was willing to even be on the stage with the Research Agenda Committee Chair (me) to help deliver the verbal report to the membership, much less to help present the report. (“You don't need us! You'll do just fine!” they postured as they abandoned me.) But, despite our fears, and to our collective relief, the report was received enthusiastically. No one threw rotten tomatoes at us—and to our amazement, the Committee received a standing ovation! Members embraced the dual focus and instructed us to finalize after one year what had been designed to take two. Our community was coming of age.

The SBI was influenced by numerous ecologists, but none more than Hal Mooney. Hal initiated the activity that became the SBI. I recall meeting with him in 1988 at the annual meeting in Davis, California, shortly after I was elected Vice President and just before he took office as President. Explaining that the VP usually took on a special project for the year, he began to pitch some ideas for “my” project. With no hesitation, I chose to work on “a research agenda for ecology.” Hal had recently listened to Frank Press, President of the National Academy of Sciences, who in his address to members on the 125th Anniversary of the NAS, suggested that the scientific community should begin discussing priorities for research and be prepared to influence funding decisions that would otherwise be based solely on agency and congressional priorities, not scientific ones. Hal thought it would be smart for ESA to initiate a discussion about its research priorities so we would be prepared when the time came for a broader examination of scientific research priorities. Most ecologists felt that funding for ecology was abysmally low; here was a chance to help change the funding picture and make better use of ecological knowledge. And so the Research Agenda Committee was conceived.4

As President, Hal appointed a Steering Committee of Simon Levin, Gordon Orians, Paul Risser, and me (as Chair). With Hal, we set about choosing members of the ad hoc Research Agenda Committee. We sought stellar scientists who would bring a diversity of ecological perspectives and be able to work together. We could not have asked for a more thoughtful and dedicated committee, but the task before us was difficult. The broader ecological community did not have a common vision; each tribe thought its work was the most important. We were told by almost everyone that we could never produce anything useful, so why bother?

And it was difficult. The SBI was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and one of the most rewarding. The Committee was a stellar group of individuals who could check their egos at the door, wrestle intensely with big problems, find humor when the going got tough, and create a new vision for our future. Having world-class scientists on the Committee was key, but so, too, was their ability to work together and on behalf of the Society.

I can't emphasize enough what a group effort the SBI was. Members of the Committee laid out a vision for new science that was needed and why it was relevant. They highlighted new areas, such as disease ecology, that gained traction and have since flourished. The efforts of Marge Holland (Executive Director of the Public Affairs Office) to keep the membership informed at every step along the way helped ensure that the Committee was connected to our colleagues. We benefited from their input and feedback throughout the process—which was no mean feat with the cumbersome electronic communication tools available at the time.

The SBI—published in Ecology in 19915—set ecology on a new path: stellar science in support of society. But the SBI was about much more than just the relevance of ecology to society. It emphasized the importance of sharing knowledge with the broader world and of using scientific information in management and policy-making. The Borromean Knot of the SBI logo (suggested by Les Real), depicted on SBI reprints (Fig. 1), symbolizes this tripartite emphasis on discovery, communication, and use of fundamental knowledge as well as the triad of interdependent concerns of global change, biodiversity, and sustainable ecological systems. In this Knot, if any single ring is broken, the whole structure comes apart.

Figure 1.

Sustainable Biosphere Initiative logo (Borromean Knot suggested by Les Real) as depicted on reprints.

The SBI goes global

Fellow ecologists in other countries immediately realized that the SBI was relevant to challenges they and their nations faced. With funding from a variety of sources,6 ecologists shared and adapted the ideas in the SBI with and for international audiences. Hal Mooney, Paul Risser, and José Sarukhán (Rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), convened an international workshop in Cuernavaca, México that resulted in the International Sustainable Biosphere Initiative7. One of the Cuernavaca workshop participants, P. S. Ramakrishnan, adapted the SBI for India.8 Juan Carlos Castilla (Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile) organized and oversaw a Spanish translation of both the SBI and ISBI and their publication in a Latin American journal, along with a commentary.9 Rusong Wang (Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences) organized the translation and publication of the SBI in Chinese.10 With assistance from INTECOL, ICSU, and SCOPE, the main ideas of the SBI and ISBI were incorporated into ASCEND 21, the scientific input into the Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992.

Interestingly, one of the biggest language challenges turned out to be translating the most important word in the documents: sustainable. In Spanish, for example, “sostenible” or “sustentable” both roughly translate into “sustainable,” but the two words mean different things, reflecting the numerous international discussions about the meaning of “sustainability.” Nonetheless, the concept that ecological knowledge was relevant to grand societal challenges was unambiguous and gaining resonance.

ESA embraces the challenge: 1992–2012

The SBI was delivered to ESA under Simon Levin's tenure as President. He and his successor, Ron Pulliam, deserve special recognition for ensuring its success. At pivotal moments, they signaled strong support for new directions and facilitated broad dialogue within ESA that resulted in a new framing for ecology.

The creation of an SBI Committee, followed by the SBI Office and later the Office of Science Programs within ESA, ensured mechanisms to continue breathing energy into the concepts and implement recommendations of the SBI. Initial funding to establish the SBI Office signaled keen interest by federal agencies in this timely effort.11 Strong leadership by Paul Risser as Chair of the SBI Committee, Tony Janetos as Chair of the Public Affairs Committee, Jim Gosz as the first Executive Director of the SBI Office, and Presidents Jerry Franklin and Judy Meyer laid the groundwork for realizing the potential of the Research Agenda Committee's vision. Without these efforts, the SBI would have become just another paper.

Numerous ecologists who were graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, or young faculty when the SBI emerged have told me that their research programs and views of ecology were strongly influenced by the SBI. Scientists in other disciplines said they perceived new possibilities for collaboration. New funding, new awareness, and new research fields emerged.

Over the past 20 years, ESA has led the development of committees, workshops, reports, and initiatives to sustain and advance the work of the SBI. I thank Paul Risser, Jim Gosz, Rick Haeuber, Stephanie Cirillo, Bob Woodmansee, Chris D'Elia, Tony Janetos, Marge Holland, Mary Barber, Cliff Duke, Katherine McCarter, and Nadine Lymn for their significant contributions. The chairs of the SBI Committee (Paul Risser, Pam Matson, and Cathy Pringle) and later the Vice Presidents for Science (Steward Pickett, Jim Clark, Gus Shaver, Rob Jackson, and currently Deborah Goldberg) and an ongoing succession of Presidents deserve special recognition for their tireless work to enable the ideas to evolve, stay relevant, and become synonymous with ESA itself.

Ecology and ESA evolved to embody the ideas expressed in the SBI. What seemed revolutionary in 1990 is now taken for granted by ecologists: Of course science serves society. Of course societal challenges should influence our research agenda. Of course our work is both relevant and cutting edge, fundamental science. As Jenny Talbot, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, said in her remarks tonight, “I don't know an ecology without the SBI.”

But renewal is key to sustained relevance. The ideas of the SBI are now being refreshed, updated, and energized by the new Earth Stewardship Initiative,12 led by another succession of ESA Presidents: Mary Power, Terry Chapin, Steward Pickett, and Scott Collins. And so, the baton continues to be passed from leader to leader—to our collective benefit. Vision. Design. Execution. Renewal.

Collateral benefits: the Leopold Leadership Program

The emphasis on communication of our science to the broader world—one of the three interlocked circles of the Borromean Knot—led directly to a spinoff of the SBI: the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. As Hal, Paul, Simon, Tony Janetos,13 and I made the rounds to congressional and executive branch offices in Washington, D.C. to talk about ecology and the SBI, it became painfully obvious that we needed many more ecological voices willing and able to share our science with decision makers in the worlds of policy, management, and funding, and the broader public. We devoted quite a considerable amount of time to this, but we could not begin to meet the demand for ecological information that the SBI had triggered.

Moreover, even our scientific colleagues in other disciplines understood little of what we did. “I thought you just recycled cans and bottles; I had no idea ecology was a forceful, exciting, and relevant scientific discipline,” said the president of another scientific society. Clearly, we ecologists had a lot of communicating to do!

The outcome was the Leopold Leadership Program, initially called the “Spring Green” project because the idea gelled on a field trip to Spring Green, Wisconsin, following the 1993 ESA meetings in Madison. The resulting Leopold Leadership Program was embraced by ESA14 and flourished. Today, nearly 180 Leopold Leadership Fellows have been trained and are now sharing their knowledge broadly.15 They, in turn, have created new courses for their students to share their newly acquired skills, perspectives, and networks. And a sister program, COMPASS,16 provides training and networks to Leopold Fellows and a wealth of others.

Progress over 20 years

Over the past 20 years, the SBI has stimulated improvements in understanding and in advancing connections between ecological knowledge and society. We now have a more comprehensive understanding of the drivers, mechanisms, and consequences of global change, patterns and benefits of biodiversity, and characteristics of ecosystem resilience and stability. Ecologists are sharing their knowledge. Solutions based on this knowledge are being implemented at a variety of scales. Through programs like the Leopold Leadership Program and COMPASS, we've trained scientists to communicate with policy makers, the media, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and their communities about their science and why it matters. The ESA Public Affairs Office connects ecology and decision making by organizing congressional visits, developing policy statements, and supporting the Graduate Student Policy Award. Opportunities such as Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships and AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships give ecologists real-world experience and entrée into the world of policy. Mid-career and senior ecologists sit on advisory boards for Federal science, policy, and management initiatives. And scientists—ecologists among them—now occupy key government leadership positions. As a result, the culture of agencies is changing—and Federal policy and management efforts are beginning to shift toward more holistic, integrated approaches that better reflect ecological knowledge and the inextricable links between human and natural systems.

Looking ahead

Despite substantial progress, these changes are not keeping pace with the accelerating rate of environmental changes. In the 20 plus years since ESA committed to the SBI, the global population has grown from 5.5 billion to over 7 billion, putting even greater strain on the sustainable use of natural resources. CO2 levels were 350 ppm in 1991; today, they are close to 400. Land-cover change is accelerating, oceans are becoming more acidic, food security and water supplies are threatened, and crippling extreme-weather events are on the rise. We, and the planet, are becoming more vulnerable.

Approaches must be broadened to better incorporate social sciences, take advantage of social media, recognize drivers of change, understand bases for decision making by individuals and institutions, and comprehend leverage points for transitioning to more sustainable practices and policies. For example, compared to the late 1980s when the Committee wrote the SBI, we are now more aware of the importance of institutions and their cultures, the interconnected nature of coupled human and natural systems, the power of belief systems, the complex intersection between demography, development, and stewardship, the importance of tight feedback loops, the characteristics of complex adaptive systems, and the nature of resilience. And we have a stronger sense of our responsibilities to contribute to solutions.17

The challenges are greater than we appreciated because coupled human–natural systems are inherently complex. Challenges are exacerbated by the current anti-intellectual, anti-science sentiment in the country; downward pressure on science budgets, especially use-inspired research in mission agencies with a stewardship mission; disproportionate impact of environmental changes on the poor and underrepresented communities; and poor ecological literacy. Fortunately, ecology is becoming more mainstreamed in high school, university, and graduate curricula and in government agencies and businesses. Enter the Earth Stewardship Initiative, whose goal is to enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being, to protect nature for human welfare—in short, to achieve a sustainable biosphere.


  1. 1 My thanks to Laura Petes and Sandy Honda for their assistance in assembling materials for these reflections and for SBI/ISBI co-authors and leaders who graciously commented on drafts: Hal Mooney, Paul Risser, Simon Levin, Les Real, Steve Carpenter, Tony Janetos, Cliff Duke, Mary Power, Jenny Talbot, Nadine Lymn, Juan Carlos Castilla, Terry Chapin, Mary Barber, Marge Holland, and Pam Matson.

  2. 2 ESA's Vice President for Science, 2011–2013.

  3. 3 When the SBI activity began in 1988, Hal Mooney was President, and Paul Risser had been President four years earlier. Simon Levin took the reins in 1990, Ron Pulliam in 1991, Jane Lubchenco in 1992, Jim MacMahon in 1997, Steve Carpenter in 2000, Pam Matson in 2001, and Jerry Melillo in 2004.

  4. 4 The SBI was yet another of Hal's significant but unsung contributions. He has an unparalleled track record of perceiving the need for a synthesis of knowledge or development of a new field, creating the venue for the effort, lining up funding, identifying a leader (usually a young scientist), staying engaged to ensure success, but then giving all of the credit to the leader. Other efforts reflecting his MO: the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) project on invasive species, SCOPE's biodiversity and ecosystem functioning program, ecosystem services more broadly, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that grew out of those efforts, sustainable aquaculture, environmental consequences of industrial meat production, and the concept of global ecology, to mention but a few. A powerful legacy indeed: thanks, Hal!

  5. 5 Lubchenco, J., A. M. Olson, L. B. Brubaker, S. R. Carpenter, M. M. Holland, S. P. Hubbell, S. A. Levin, J. A. MacMahon, P. A. Matson, J. M. Melillo, H. A. Mooney, C. H. Peterson, H. R. Pulliam, L. A. Real, P. J. Regal, and P. G. Risser. 1991. The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative: an ecological research agenda. Ecology 72(2):371–412.

  6. 6 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL), the International Council for Science (ICSU), and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

  7. 7 Huntley, B. J., E. Ezcurra, E. R. Fuentes, K. Fujii, P. J. Grubb, W. Haber, J. R. E. Harger, M. M. Holland, S. A. Levin, J. Lubchenco, H. A. Mooney, V. Neronov, I. Noble, H. R. Pulliam, R. S. Ramakrishnan, P. G. Risser, O. Sala, J. Sarukhán, and W. G. Sombroek. 1991. A Sustainable Biosphere: the global imperative. Ecology International 20(5):1–14.

  8. 8 Ramakrishnan, P. S. 1992. The International Sustainable Biosphere Initiative: a participatory research agenda for India. Current Science 63(3):127–131.

  9. 9 Introduction to SBI and ISBI: Fuentes, E. R. y J. C. Castilla. 1991. Cambio Global, Desarrollo Sustentable y Conservación de la Biodiversidad: ¿Qué podemos hacer? Revista Chilena de Historia Naturel 64:171–174.Spanish translation of the SBI: Lubchenco et al. 1991. Iniciativa para una Biosfera Sustentable: Una agenda de investigación ecológica. Revista Chilena de Historia Naturel. 64: 175–226. Translated by E. Rho under the direction of J. C. Castilla, J. Lubchenco, and S. Navarrete.Spanish translation of the ISBI: Huntley et al. 1991. Una Biosfera Sustentable: el imperative global. Revista Chilena de Historia Naturel. 64:227–235. Translated by E. Rho under the direction of J. C. Castilla, J. Lubchenco, and S. Navarrete.

  10. 10 Chinese translation of the SBI: published in four consecutive issues of a journal: Lubchenco et al. 1992 and 1993: Ecological Society of China Newsletter, 1992 (4):7–11; 1993 (1):12–15; 1993 (2): 8–11; and 1993 (3):11–12. Translation by Zhiyun OUYANG.

  11. 11 National Science Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

  12. 12 Chapin, III, F. S., M. E. Power, S. T. A. Pickett, A. Freitag, J. A. Reynolds, R. B. Jackson, D. M. Lodge, C. Duke, S. L. Collins, A. G. Power, and A. Bartuska. 2011. Earth Stewardship: science for action to sustain the human–earth system. Ecosphere 2(8):art89. doi:10.1890/ES11-00166.1

  13. 13 Tony Janetos became a strong champion of the SBI when he heard the Research Agenda Committee's presentation at the Annual Meeting in Snowbird; he provided keen insights into federal agency perspectives and brokered meetings with relevant agency officials in Washington, D.C. Later, as Chair of the Public Affairs Committee, he played a key role in transitioning the SBI into ESA affairs.

  14. 14 The idea was proposed to the Executive Committee at its mid-year meeting in January 1994. A workshop at the Annual Meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1994 confirmed the need and generated a plethora of ideas about how such a program might be structured. A Spring Green ad hoc Committee was subsequently established by the Council and funded in part by my Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment fellowship, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, to design, test, and launch a program to train ecologists to communicate their knowledge to non-scientists in the worlds of media, policy, business, and civil society.

  15. 15 Thanks to sustained funding from the Packard Foundation, and more recently from the Woods Institute for the Environment, is now at Stanford University, directed by one of the first Leopold Leadership Fellows, Pam Matson.

  16. 16 COMPASS, the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, is a transboundary organization initially funded by the Packard Foundation in 1999, to connect marine science and scientists to media and policy makers. COMPASS provides communication training for the Leopold Leadership Program. After over a decade of highly successful efforts, and with diverse funding from multiple sources, COMPASS is expanding its repertoire to a broader array of environmental issues.

  17. 17 Lubchenco, J. 1998. Entering the Century of the Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science 279: 491–497.