The habitability concept in the field of population-environment studies: relevance and research implications
13 March 2023 to 20 March 2023
Invited Experts

Aliyu Barau (Bayero University)

Carol Farbotko (Griffith University)

Maria Gavonel (University of York)

Luke Kemp (Cambridge University)

David O’Byrne (Lund University)

Harald Sterly (University of Vienna)

David Wrathall (Oregon State University), Alex de Sherbinin (Columbia University), Michael Oppenheimer (Princeton Univerity), Radley Horton (Columbia University),


Organizers : Marion Borderon, Harald Sterly, Patrick Sakdapolrak, Francois Gemenne, Caroline Zickgraf, Alex de Sherbinin, Susana Adamo, Radley Horton
Co-Sponsor : HABITABLE Project, Columbia Climate School: Managed Retreat Conference Series

PERN held a webinar on 13 March to kick off the cyberseminar in which each of the panelists presented their concept notes.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 marked a turning point in global concern about the environment. In the same year, Limits to Growth was released by the Club of Rome, projecting overshoot of global carrying capacity by the end of the 21st century in two of its three scenarios.  Fifty years later, the climate crisis, rapid species loss and land cover change, and renewed anxieties about disease and nuclear warfare have revived concerns about global environmental insecurity and given them a renewed urgency. Recent scientific literature suggests that we have entered a period in history characterized by systemic, global and existential risks that threaten the future of the planet. Even if concerns over global existential risks are considered by some to be exaggerated, there remain concerns over the sustainability of production systems, climate impacts, cascading risks across increasingly interconnected systems, and other pressures on the environment in given localities, all of which touch on local habitability. Given past critiques of concepts like carrying capacity and concerns over environmental determinism, are there new approaches that acknowledge human agency and the potential for locally and globally creative solutions while recognizing that we live in a world of finite resources with limited ability to absorb the vast amounts of pollutants generated by modern consumer society. This seminar will engage in a discussion on the relevance of the concept of habitability, its use in the field of population-environment research and its theoretical and practical implications.

Jointly organized between the HABITABLE project, Columbia Climate School’s Managed Retreat conference series, and PERN, the cyberseminar will address the following questions:

•    Do we need a new concept that brings together environmental and social realities and their co-evolutions? What is the added value of researching the population-environment interaction through the lens of habitability?
•    Defining habitability means being able to measure habitability thresholds and tipping points: Are we equipped to do this? What does it imply empirically to study the habitability of a place or a Socio-ecological System? Can we establish thresholds that underline that the system under study is or will no longer be habitable?
•    How do we take into consideration teleconnections and place connectivities when defining and measuring habitability (and avoid similar shortcomings to that of the notion of carrying capacity)? How to make use of existing research on trajectories of livelihoods, populations and places?
•    Are social tipping points real, and if so, how do we go about identifying when they are happening?
•    What are the implications of habitability for human mobility?
•    Would conceptualisation and operationalising habitability contribute to research on catastrophic scenarios, adaptation limits and existential risks?

The cyberesminar will provide input for a session at the 2023 Managed Retreat Conference at Columbia University from 21-23 June.