Collegium Helveticum
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Fellow Project 2023–2024

Smarter Than the Phytoplankton?
A Personal Perspective on Climate and Sustainability

Each spring, an amazing explosion of life occurs in the subpolar oceans as unicellular plants grow exponentially for a few months. Then, almost as suddenly, the phytoplankton die away because they have exhausted their critical nutrients. In a similar manner, humans have expanded their resource use exponentially over the last 200 years. Can we, the human species, avoid exhausting our environment and crashing down? Can we use our unique gift of rational thought to achieve balance on this limited Earth?

Innumerable lines of evidence show the strain on Earth’s capacity to provide energy, food, and fiber and to absorb our carbon waste—thus, we have the climate and sustainability crises. Humanity has arrived at a critical juncture where the options are to either redefine economic growth as “reducing inequality and returning to balance with nature” or to resign ourselves to increasing conflict and suffering.

The thesis that Galen will be pursuing during her fellowship at the Collegium is that, yes, we can be smarter than the phytoplankton and avoid catastrophe—but only if we learn to share within the limits of Earth. We can look to a range of promising recent trends that may herald the start of our needed transformation.