Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment.

Over the past 200 years, humans have progressively used less carbon-intensive fuels, spared more land for nature, and continue to decouple economic growth from negative environmental impacts. Furthermore, our continued use of technology will allow us to construct an environment that is better for humans and better for biodiversity.

To honor the achievements of this visionary ecomodernist, Breakthrough Institute recently bestowed Ausubel with the 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award, awarded to individuals whose work accelerates the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.

Since the 1970s, and long before ecomodernism was a coherent movement, Ausubel has supplied clear-eyed analyses on energy transitions, land use, climate change, and technology and innovation. Ausubel was one of the first to initiate a study into the subject of dematerialization – the decrease in the amount of material resources per unit of economic activity or GDP. In 1991, he was one of the first to publish a paper on decarbonization. And in his provocative paper “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies,” Ausubel posits that because of their low density, renewables are hardly green, taking up land from other species. By contrast, nuclear energy uses up less space, leaving more room for nature.

More recently, Ausubel has been looking at land use. In a daring, but reasoned move, Ausubel and his colleagues speculated that in 2012 that the world has reached “peak farmland” – a phrase playing on the Malthusian notion that population growth might outpace food production. Instead, the report shows, by 2060 an area 2½ times the size of France could be no longer be used for agriculture and thus returned to nature.

Ausubel’s interests extend well beyond energy, climate change, and land use. In 2000, he initiated the Census for Marine Life, which accounted for 6,000 new species of marine life, including “dinochelus ausubeli” – a lobster named in his honor.

Ausubel currently serves as Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University and as program manager for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He is also an adjunct faculty member of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Journalist Will Boisvert presented and interviewed Ausubel at the 2014 Breakthrough Dialogue on June 22.


Photo Credit: Gabriel Harber