2016 Mitchell Lecture on Sustainability
Ruth DeFries, Columbia University
Pessimists argue that too many people chasing too few resources is leading to catastrophic consequences for civilization. Optimists counter that technology will come to the rescue. A long-term view of humanity’s quest to produce food – the most basic need for civilization – tells a more nuanced story. Based on the book, The Big Ratchet, the lecture will trace the long journey of our species from hunters and gatherers to shoppers in the aisles of grocery stores. Through technologies, innovations, and quirks of fate, people over millennia have manipulated ecological processes to propel our species to the current day of abundant food amidst myriad environmental and social consequences. From this long-term view, the pattern shows neither collapse nor technological supremacy. Rather, our tenure on the planet reveals cycles of crisis and growth, with each innovation leading to a new set of ecological problems that in turn spur new innovations. The next step in this long cycle is science-based, non-ideological solutions to the problems that our success has created.
Dr. Ruth DeFries is Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development and University Professor at Columbia University, New York. She uses images from satellites and field surveys to examine how the world’s demands for food and other resources are affecting climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, as well as human development. She has also developed innovate education programs in sustainable development. DeFries was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, received a MacArthur “genius” award, and is the recipient of many other honors for her scientific research. She is committed to communicating the nuances and complexities of sciences to popular audiences, most recently through her book “The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.” She is also engaged in linking science with policy.