On the passing of Will Steffen

This morning, I learned, through the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), that Will Steffen had just died. I just had to pause and think about him, and this is my spontaneous Monday morning reflection.

Will’s body of work and many accolades will testify to his formative and ongoing influence on the fields of global change and Earth system science. In fact, my career began with much inspiration from his work and leadership of IGBP, and he was so central to the subject for so long, that to me, he seemed more than human at times. But in person, Will Steffen was no superhuman. Rather, Will was such a humble human being, always focused on listening. He really cared what everyone had to say.

I first remember meeting Will in 2010, as a speaker in a symposium at the Ecological Society of America meeting. As always, he gave a presentation to remember, and I felt honored to be speaking in the same room. But over dinner that evening, I realized that Will was far more than a giant in the field. Will was an exceptionally kind and helpful person- a mentor and friend to all he met. In various settings over the years, especially in regular meetings of the AWG, I always enjoyed and learned from my interactions with Will.

More than a decade ago, we came to disagree on a variety of critical concerns. But our relationship never reflected this. Thanks to his gentle personality, there was never anything but collegiality and genuine respect every time we met . Will was never anything but kind, thoughtful, helpful, and professional, and I continued to learn from him as a scientist and a person.

In terms of the Anthropocene, in my view, he was the “Huxley” to Crutzen’s “Darwin”. He was there from the very beginning – shaping the discussions at IGBP within which Crutzen’s proposal emerged. And with his work on the IGBP synthesis “Planet Under Pressure”, he used the Anthropocene to frame Earth system science in general – inspiring the first generation of Anthropocene scholarship. And as anyone who knew him knew – he was tireless!

Anthropocene scholarship owes him a great debt, as do all of us working to better understand and address the planetary challenges of the human age.

Will was a great human being and I will truly miss him.