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Can We Defy Nature’s End?

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Everyone, including Microsoft, suffered from the effects of the recent global financial crisis. Yet a recent influential report by the less-than-tree-hugging Deutsche Bank made clear that the economic impact of this “once in a century” global financial crisis is completely dwarfed by the economic impact – every year – of the loss of nature’s resources. We depend upon a highly interconnected/inter-dependent biological system (from the microbial community to forests to mammals) for our food, water, wellbeing, our economic prosperity and ultimately out survival. Almost every part of this system is either disappearing and / or under threat. We are consuming the resources that make up this system at rates that arguably constitute it as the sixth mass extinction of life on earth (certainly in geological time). This is not an ‘environmentalists’ problem. It is an urgent problem for every government, every business (including Microsoft), and every individual.

In my talk, I will focus on my research into: 1) how many species there actually are and what’s happening to them (in order to better understand the scale and direction of the problem); 2) how we can value and prioritize species and areas in terms of the threat their loss poses; 3) how we can protect those species and areas most at risk; 4) species interactions and how alterations to species interaction networks might have systemic consequences for the persistence of natural ecosystems.

A central theme of this talk will be a discussion of the novel computational approaches and tools needed to address these questions. This last point is crucial for transforming the science-policy interface through the kind of data we can and need to collect, the kind of models needed to predict outcomes under various scenarios, and communication of the science and potential / necessary policy interventions. This is imperative if we are to defy nature’s end.

This talk is part of the Microsoft Research Cambridge, public talks series.

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