Will Steffen’s legacy for History and Environmental Humanities

Will Steffen, a world-leading earth systems scientist and a major voice in the public sphere in Australia and globally on climate change, died on 29 January 2023. One of Will’s collaborators and colleagues, Professor Libby Robin, gathered other friends and collaborators in Bern in August 2023 at the European Society for Environmental History conference to reflect on his work and legacy.

The speakers were:

  • Libby Robin was a colleague of Will’s at CRES and Fenner School and also at the Stockholm Resilience Center. Libby and Will co-authored a paper in 2007 about the implications of the Anthropocene concept for History. She is a historian of science, with particular interest in interdisciplinary environmental studies.
  • Sverker Sörlin, from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, worked with Will on many projects, particularly at the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Stockholm Resilience Center. In the session he explored the foundations of the IPCC and IGBP.
  • John McNeill, from Georgetown University, in Washington DC, is the environmental historian that Will worked with most closely. John will tell the story of the Great Acceleration – an important connection with environmental history. The Dahlem Conference in 2005 where the Great Acceleration emerged, also gave rise to the IHOPE (Integrated History and future Of People on Earth) project, one of the many organizations working together in the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO).
  • Jan Zalasiewicz, geologist from Leicester University in the UK and Chair of the Anthropocene Working Group from its inception in 2009 until 2020, spoke via video about the impact of the Anthropocene idea on Earth science and stratigraphy.
  • Helmuth Trischler, co-Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and Director of Research at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, will tell us about Will’s involvement in Anthropocene initiatives in museums – including Deutsches Museum and HKW (Berlin), particularly two major projects in 2014.
  • Family friend and climate activist, David Finnigan, an actor and script writer, has sent a short video about Will as an influence in his work and his life. David hails from Ngunnawal country – that is Canberra Australia, where Will lived for five decades. David is based in Europe this year and beaming in from the Edinburgh festival in Scotland. He writes plays, performs, and has a great blog, if you are interested. He also develops games at the intersection of science and art.  David’s reflection reminds us again of the personal energy of Will, and how he has shaped the creative arts as well as science.
  • Carrie Steffen has kindly provided some words from Will’s unfinished autobiography which Libby presented to conclude the panel presentations. Note that Carrie picked out Will’s passion for visualising the planetary, for making the planetary personal. This was the subject of the chapter Will wrote for Julia Adeney Thomas’s book, Altered Earth: Getting the Anthropocene Right (Cambridge UP, 2022). Julia had hoped to come and speak about this in Bern but was unable to make it.

Ruth Morgan, director of the Centre for Environmental History at ANU was chair of proceedings, and Alex Vlachos, Secretary, International Consortium of Environmental History Organisations (ICEHO), kindly took photographs.

Libby Robin, Introductory Remarks

Libby Robin opens the session.

Will Steffen (1947—2023) was best known as an interdisciplinary Earth System scientist and world-leading climate activist, but he was also influential in expanding the discipline of history into the planetary scale and introducing the concepts of the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration, which have shaped history, art, music and museum practice.

Will was an environmental humanist in the broadest sense of the term. He explored questions of social justice, of Indigenous understandings of climate, he wrote about the GINI index of inequality, and selections from some of his technical papers became lyrics for songs and inspirations for environmental art and museum projects. He was a warm and supportive colleague and strong mentor for younger scholars.

In the 1970s Will came to the Australian National University from the United States as a postdoctoral scholar in the Research School of Chemistry. He and his wife Carrie adopted Canberra as their home. He died on January 29th 2023, as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer.

Will undertook many senior roles at ANU and for the Australian Government, including founding the Fenner School of Environment and Society, where I worked from 1999-2018, and am now emeritus professor.

In his “retirement” Will played a major role in the Climate Council, which became a philanthropically funded organisation when the denialist Australian government cancelled its funding. His second home was Stockholm, where he was director of IGBP (1998—2004) and continued his work for the IPCC and related bodies through the Stockholm Resilience Center. He was founder of iHOPE (Integrated Histories and futures Of People on Earth), a judge for the Volvo Environmental prize and worked with many European museums and climate centres. He was still writing collaborative papers with people all over the world throughout his final illness, and helping the Gomeroi people of northern New South Wales defend their Country against new coalmines. His loss is widely felt: there were obituaries for him in the Guardian, in the Washington Post and even in Nature. The Gomeroi people marked his passing with a special smoking ceremony, which embraced Carrie and Sonja Steffen.

In 2013, the conservative Australian government scrapped the Climate Commission as part of a systematic denial of global warming by vested interests. Will, ever positive, spearheaded a new, community funded Climate Council, to continue the important work of providing evidence-based climate advice to governments and public servants “in the public interest”. He worked tirelessly – he was an extraordinary media presence, calm and considered, but uncompromising too. Amanda MacKenzie, the Climate Council’s CEO, who is about the same age as Will’s daughter Sonja, was astonished by Will’s energy and capacity to deal with Australia’s hostile media, and just remain calm and keep the information flowing, despite media and other pressures towards disinformation. Amanda commented that when he returned from big European meetings about climate issues, he would use the long-haul flight to write all the way home, and then step straight into media requests, sometimes standing up to questions from up to 80 media outlets before going home to rest. Between 2016 and 2021, he authored or co-authored an astonishing 38 reports for the Climate Council, reporting on global trends and initiatives all around Australia.

The ACT, where Will lived and worked most closely, is way ahead of every other state and territory in Australia, with massive renewable farms and the most advanced emissions management in the country.

This panel bring together some of Will’s international friends who are also historians and creative artists. We remember Will the humanist, who used his science widely and generously to offer evidence-based advice to governments, to artists, to young scholars, and to historians – and encouragement to all who might help re-route human behaviours toward a “Good Anthropocene”, to avoid the Hothouse Earth option that is staring us in the face.

On the Edge of Silence

Will Steffen was a long-time supporter of the Chorus of Women in Canberra. This excerpt from their 2007 performance of Glenda Cloughley’s “On the Edge of Silence” – part of their larger campaign for climate action – was offered by Dr Janet Salisbury.

Libby Robin, Will the Humanist

The opening presentation put together by Janet Salisbury includes the words of Judith Wright, Australian poet and environmental activist, who said that “the choice of real responsibility and real understanding is a fearsome prospect”. The words of science itself – of Will’s 2004 IGBP book, Global Change and the Earth System – become lyrics, poetic and inspiring of song in the hands of A Chorus of Women, a Canberra-based choir that regularly sings in Parliament.

The choir is led by Glenda Cloughley, a composer, conductor and lyricist.  In her day job she is a psychotherapist. She has spent the last two decades exploring what we now recognise as climate anxiety. Will Steffen was an early inspiration in this work. And she gives back to the scientists her humanist insights – “listen once more to the scientists, to feel the burden of the love of the world” that Will and other scientists have been carrying for all of us.

This performance came about nearly 2 decades after the IPCC was formed and scientists had been alone in talking about global warming, in trying to steer the course of the future away from the dangerous cliff.

Will’s important work at the nexus of probable futures and possible responses to them is “science” – but it is also deeply human, historical and relevant to all of us here in Switzerland at a conference on environmental history and the humanities. In this short introduction I provide a brief bit of background about how a man who began as an American chemist followed an extraordinary career-path that also made him an Australian-Swede, and that opened up opportunities for transdisciplinary thinking and practical climate action over four decades. Will’s inclusive scholarly style has created openings for historians and other creative scholars to join in on the action.

When Will and his wife Carrie came to Canberra to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the ANU Research School of Chemistry. Will was an X-ray crystallographer. He was, however, also a traveller.  Will and Carrie had volunteered in Fiji. Will brought skills as a published travel writer, having written about his Pacific travels for American news outlets.

In 1980, they were contemplating reluctantly returning to the USA for another chemistry gig, when Carrie spotted an opportunity for Will to take up a new position as “communications officer” for the Pye Field Environment Laboratory at CSIRO. This enabled them both to stay in Australia.

The F. C. Pye Field Environment Laboratory was a ‘unique concept in field research’ when it opened in 1963, funded by a generous gift from a private citizen. Fred Pye, a wealthy grazier with international business interests, donated his property ‘Geraldra’ in western New South Wales as gift for the further development of agricultural research. At the time, it was the largest private gift ever made to CSIRO. The Pye Lab became an essential link between practical agriculture and the controlled research of the CSIRO Phytotron.

Fred Pye’s gift funded the laboratory building included workshops and offices, and was built in 1966.  It also funded major items of equipment, and a fellowship scheme that enabled international scientists to participate in its research programs. By 1980, the Pye Lab required a communications officer – someone who could speak directly to the farm people it aimed to support, but also understood the complex science that was at its heart, and who could serve its other clients, the scientists from many fields who researched together to support the ‘national interest’ – primary industry being the focus of the early years, but with increasing diversity in later years.

“The environment” of the field station in the 1960s was a project of the whole of CSIRO.  In 1970, Max Day, a member of CSIRO’s senior executive, undertook an international fact-finding mission as part of CSIRO’s preparation for the UN Stockholm conference on the Human Environment in 1972. On this trip, Max met Buzz Holling in Canada and learned of the importance of the idea of resilience in ecological thinking, a concept that fitted well with the CSIRO’s mission. While CSIRO did not have a division for the environment, they partnered regularly with the global resilience community and took a leadership role in systems and transdisciplinary thinking as it developed. 

Resilience pioneer, Brian Walker moved from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to Australia in 1985, to take up the job as Chief of the Division of Wildlife and Ecology (later CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems) from 1985-1999. He became a key link between CSIRO and the IPCC, serving as the Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee of the IGBP core project on Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems (GCTE), from 1990–1997 and Chair of the Board, Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1999-2002).

In 1990, Will joined the GCTE team, and in 1992 was invited to head up the new International Geosphere Biosphere Programme – IGBP.

Sverker Sörlin will take up the Swedish and Resilience story from here. But just to fill in the Australian end, I should mention that Brian Walker still works in his retirement with me at the Fenner School of Environment and Society. Like Will and many others in CSIRO over the years, Canberra became his home. And of course, Will himself was Director in 2006 of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies – established 50 years ago in 1973 by virologist Frank Fenner. It was under Will’s steady hand that CRES expanded its remit and became the Fenner School of Environment and Society.

Sverker Sörlin, Memorial Session Remarks

Sverker Sörlin reminisces about his collaborations with Will Steffen.

Dear friends and colleagues, and friends of Will,

We often tell ourselves, and others, that the academy is a community. But what we mean is that it is also a virtuous community. We do this with good reason. We cherish the argument, and we put facts first. Perhaps above all: we listen, we hear each other out. We seek to understand rather than seek flaws. We are open to new ideas, always prepared to give up our own if someone else has a better one. We don’t use foul language.

We are basically always kind to each other. If there were angels on this planet, they would surely be scholars!

We also know that this is an unattainable ideal. In reality, it is otherwise.

But, there are exceptions – and Will Steffen was one of them. If there were ever a person who lived up so fully to all the noble entries of the scholarly code of conduct he was the one. He did so without ever referring to any such principles. He lived this community, embodied it with his deeds. Gently, softly.

That is the most important thing with Will. I have enjoyed the privilege of working with many, many wonderful people from literally all over the world. Some are here today.

Will stood out – in his own unique way. He had earned a position, and an authority, that was respected by everyone. Of course, because of his science and his ingenuity. But also as a result of his diplomacy and gentle manners. He was the quintessential co-author, always wanted on a team because he managed to glue together, in spirit as well as in content, something that all the others could agree on. He had that rare kind of wisdom that makes everybody else feel a little bit wiser.

I think these were among the key properties he owned in being always at the right place at the right time. An effect of the sheer fact that – where he was, was the right place! And since he was always wanted around, the best way was to make sure he occupied a central place.

He was American and made a career in Australia, but he also helped define modern science-based global environmental governance – one of the major policy achievements of the modern world – through his long relationship with Stockholm, which is where I first met Will.

He became the leader of the IGBP office in Stockholm in 1998 and stayed for seven years. That was a critical phase of the then ten-year old Global Change program, when all the various fields of science were increasing their collaboration. Will became a leading spokesperson for such integration, that had already begun being called Earth System science, but which still lacked a stabilizing narrative and secure institutional platforms.

He used Stockholm very actively in this process, connecting with Swedish scientists and scholars and using ongoing work at the Beijer Institute, which like the IGBP was hosted by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He built relations with the government founded Stockholm Environment Institute. He managed to absorb and give voice through the IGBP Newsletter to Paul Crutzen’s idea and concept of the Anthropocene and has told and retold many times the magical moment in Cuernavaca, Mexico when Crutzen actually said the A-word in February 2000.  

Being in Stockholm in the late 1990s meant that he was in contact with Bert Bolin, the grandseigneur of Swedish science diplomacy, founding director of the IPCC and a major reformist of the Academy of Sciences in the early 1970s. A reform, which turned the Academy into a quite environmentally leaning institution – at a period of economic crisis and lack of direction in the Academy.

It was the time of the Stockholm UN conference, the founding of Ambio, the journal, and a confluence of impulses, political, diplomatic, scientific and activist that led to Stockholm assuming an oversize role in the rise of global environmental governance in the following decades.

It was to this sub-Arctic beehive of environmental and climate science and politics that this Nebraska born, antipodean chemist arrived, with multiple ambitious people and actors from Sweden and the whole world, all convinced that they had something important to contribute. What Will managed to do in Stockholm was to serve as an e pluribus unum of all these energies, strengthen cohesion and to expand further the international connectivities of Stockholm as a major green and progressive centre.

One word here is crucial: interdisciplinarity. Many talk about it, they say they find it necessary. Will practised it. He was restlessly knitting together knowledge and practice. One new institutional player arrived on the scene just after his IGBP years. The Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, a truly interdisciplinary place.

Will was among the many supportive partners as a team of us worked on putting the necessary proposal together, it took a full year. He was immediately turned into a long-term guest professor, dividing his time between the Fenner School at ANU and the Resilience Center in Stockholm.

One of the major projects in the first years of the Center was what resulted in the “Planetary Boundaries” article in Nature 2009. The process started more than two years earlier with just a few of us, Johan Rockström coordinating. We came quite far in the process until there was a moment, when Will was connected to the writing team. He became a structuring force in the final composition of the paper, putting in all his diplomatic and editorial skills.

I have a very personal memory connected to what later ensued. As we know, the article caused a huge debate, mobilizing eco-modernists for a “good Anthropocene” with Divinely pre-ordained nuclear power plants in Illinois and everywhere, and provoking some human- and social scientists to make important remarks on the necessity not to dehumanize humanity into a single-headed species collective.

I opted not to engage much in these debates. But I told Will that I thought it had been not so very tactical to disregard some of the humanist critique and, in particular, to take the sociology and ethics of the Anthropocene so lightly in the Nature-piece. After all, large parts of humanity didn’t cause any harm to the planet while rich minorities punched the planet well above their weight.  

Will being Will, he sent me a paper he had just co-authored with an economist addressing some of these issues, and he mentioned Kate Raworth’s important work that had then started to come out on doughnut economics. But, still being Will, not long after he also sent me the second Planetary Boundaries paper in an early draft version intended for Science. And said he thought I should see what I could do with it, based on the conversations we’d had. I wrote a full section and it survived all the edits.

In a sense this also speaks to his Stockholm achievements, they crossed deep into the humanities. I had surely been going repeatedly to ANU, to work with Libby Robin and her husband colleague Tom Griffiths, in fact since the 1990s. When I was in Canberra, I noted that Will often came along, heard our talks, listened to our seminars. He kept a keen interest in what historians were doing and how we thought, because we thought differently and he was always interested in the differences because he realized he could learn from them. I think we made him think, too. He co-authored, with Libby, what was one of the very first attempts to bring out the implications of the Anthropocene for historians. “History for the Anthropocene”, is the title, 2007.

A few years later Libby came to Stockholm as a guest professor of our History Division at KTH and could meet with Will in the Swedish capital. Libby in that spirit of Earth System science collaboration made sure that Will’s ideas were kept alive among us historians. As the Anthropocene theme grew, we kept using it. This summer we received news that the Swedish Research Council bestowed on our History Division including the KTH Environmental Humanities Lab, the honor of becoming a Centre of Excellence for Anthropocene History, supported by some of the leading scientists of the Anthropocene Working Group. It will be a Centre for exchange, a hub for the world, really, and for training new generations.

I can only say one thing. This would not have happened, if Will had not been. If Will had not opted to spend so much of his time and passion and work for the academic community – international, yes, but in Stockholm. He was a major presence of what was for a long time an unbroken Stockholm story of environmental progress, up there with Olof Palme, Anna Lindh, Bert Bolin and the others who made Stockholm and Sweden part of a truly meaningful global transformation.  

There are thousands of reasons to thank Will for doing what he did, and for being Will. This is just one of them.

In Stockholm, he is as missed when he is gone as he was loved when he was around.

From all of us – thank you, Will!

Video of Sverker Sörlin’s talk

John McNeill

John McNeill delivers his remarks.

Video of John McNeill’s talk

Jan Zalasiewicz

Helmuth Trischler

Helmuth Trischler explores the place of the Anthropocene in museums.

The video of Helmuth Trischler’s talk

The slides from Helmuth’s speech.

David Finnigan, Reflections

Libby Robin, Final Reflections, including words from Will’s unpublished notes towards an autobiography

Video of Libby’s closing remarks.

Carrie Steffen spoke to me about the various ways that Will visualised his work, and used metaphor and images to explain complex ideas to people who were not versed in natural sciences.

She spoke of the Blue Marble image from NASA that was and remains such a powerful reminder that the earth is a solitary refuge of life in an otherwise black and cold space. Will’s interest in the work of space agencies was fuelled by their capacity to ‘look in’ on Earth from outside was a powerful way to re-imagine its future.

Some of the newest work is being done from Lagrangian Points – equilibrium points in space.

Will was moved by the new view on earth which he saw, nearly live, at a meeting at the European Space Agency headquarters in Paris.  

Carrie didn’t know the exact date, but guessed it was around 2016. This is what Will himself wrote about the experience (in the materials left for his autobiography):

We took a break in the intense meetings and the ESA officials guided us to a room to brief us on one of the most recent ESA projects – one still very much in progress. The room darkened and we were shown a screen that was completely black. Some gentle, lilting music slowly provided an appropriate background. Then, we saw a small orb appearing in the centre of the black screen, just large enough to show the blue-green colouring that is typical of an image of the Earth from space. I had seen many such images of the Earth as a blue-green dot in the vastness of space, but as I gazed at this one, there was something different about it. A careful look at the blue-green orb showed that it was very slowly rotating, just fast enough to be discernible to the human eye.

One of the ESA staff explained what we were seeing. The image that we were watching was being streamed from an ESA satellite as it began to send visual signals back to Earth after having been successfully positioned at the ‘Lagrangian point’ between Earth and the sun. The Lagrangian point is a position in space where the combined gravitational forces of two large bodies equal the centrifugal force of a much smaller third body. This combination of forces allows the small third body to be ‘parked’ in space to make observations from what appears to be a stationary point relative to the two large bodies. In this case, the two large bodies are the sun and the Earth, the much smaller body is the ESA satellite, which was parked at point at which the Earth is in continuous sunlight. (Footnote: there are five Lagrangian points associated with the Earth-sun system, and the ESA satellite was orbiting at point L1, about 1.6 million kilometres from Earth.) 

The image we were seeing was about 24 hours old, and the speed of rotation of the Earth had been increased so that it becomes just discernible to the human eye (in real time, the Earth would appear to be stationary, even though it would be very slowly rotating, completing a full rotation in 24 hours). In essence, we were literally looking back at ourselves, in near-real time, as we sat in this small room in ESA HQ in Paris, itself a speck on this tiny orb set against the vast blackness of space

The combination of the absolute beauty of this blue-green orb, the elegance of its silent, stately rotation, and the mesmerising cadence of the background music was overwhelming. When I fully absorbed that I was looking at myself – and all of the rest of life in its magnificent diversity and complexity – in near-real time, I was overwhelmed emotionally. I forgot that I was an Earth System scientist and simply reacted as a human to this extraordinarily moving experience of viewing the Earth in near-real time – this tiny spec of life in the black vastness of space. It was an unforgettable experience in my life as I tried to absorb the sheer beauty and elegance – and vulnerability – of our planetary home.

This is the video Will saw.

***

There are many people to thank in developing this special panel. First of all Will’s family and close friends and all the colleagues who spoke today or whose work was invoked.

From the European Society for Environmental History, I would like to thank Wilko Graf von Hardenburg and the local organising committee for this conference. Wilko and the team worked to accommodate a late panel in Will’s honour, added in March 2023 after Will’s sudden death.

I want to thank Ruth Morgan and Alex Vlachos for their technical support today. This will make it possible to create a website of the event for posterity. Cameron Muir in Australia and Alessandro Antonello (Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand Environmental History Network) are also working behind the scenes on this.

Finally, I want to make a special mention of Verena Winiwarter, craftivist extraordinaire, and founding light in the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations. Verena and I were planning a gift for Will from ICEHO, in recognition of his contributions to history and the environmental humanities. ICEHO brings together many who “do” environmental history – but would not call themselves environmental historians.

Verena has supported World Congresses with her knitting – and many other leadership initiatives – since the first one was held in Copenhagen in 2009.

If you would like to see more young and emerging scholars, more voices from silenced places, more people from non-western cultures in Oulu next year at the fourth World Congress, please come to Verena’s table in A17 and buy her beautiful garments.

You can’t buy this one though: it is a climate beanie, knitted with the stripes of Australia’s climate story for me, a wonderful surprise gift from Verena when our plans for Will were curtailed. Verena is an excellent historian: the gift includes the archival pattern that she knitted to – starting in 1955 with the many climate events that have featured in the decades since.

To find out more about ICEHO and the ICEHOUSE organisation that is its “Friends Group”, talk to President Graeme Wynn and Secretary Alex Vlachos – both here in this room.

There are many national and regional environmental history organisations – but very few that are global, planetary and international in scope – this is one and needs lots of support from us all. The idea of planetary histories is relatively new, but the many sessions at this conference that build on it shows how important Will’s work has been for us.

Thank you.

The audience included many distinguished environmental historians, including Verena Winiwarter (“craftivist extraordinaire”, pictured here knitting in support of bringing young scholars to the World Congress of Environmental History in Oulu in 2024), Christof Mauch (the co-Director of the Rachel Carson Center, LMU, with Helmuth Trischler who spoke) and Graham Wynn (UBC, Vancouver, President of ICEHO, https://www.iceho.org/ ).