Ruth DeFries Announced as 2015 Paradigm Award Winner

How Humans Thrive in the Anthropocene

The Breakthrough Institute will honor Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, with the 2014 Paradigm Award in recognition of her exceptional research on how humans transform their environments.

Breakthrough’s Paradigm Award is bestowed annually to individuals whose work has made major contributions to realizing a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients include environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel; journalist and author Emma Marris; and author and environmental researcher Mark Lynas.

Ruth will accept the Paradigm Award at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue – aptly themed “The Good Anthropocene.” Meera Subramanian, editor and writer for Nature and the New York Times, will interview Ruth onstage during the opening night dinner.

Millennium after millennium, humankind’s remarkable ingenuity and resilience have allowed us to triumph over natural resource and environmental challenges, even if it leads to new obstacles to contend with. From slash-and-burn agriculture to chemical fertilizers, it is the endless cycle between crises, experimentation, and survival that has fascinated DeFries.

Her latest book, The Big Ratchet: How Humans Thrive in Face of Natural Disasters, takes a long view of human history, documenting periods of scarcity – called “hatchets” – alongside the technologies humans developed that catalyzed periods of abundance – called “ratchets.” Predictions of calamity, such as those made by Thomas Malthus in the 18th century, were averted because unforeseen solutions came to the fore. “Based on that pattern of history of ingenious solutions,” DeFries said in a recent interview, “I take from that an optimistic story.”

Without downplaying environmental challenges or overemphasizing silver-bullet solutions, DeFries embraces a more nuanced view that history does not ensure we can recreate our successes. But understanding how we have done so is absolutely necessary for proceeding in the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans.

The Big Ratchet is the capstone of several decades of cutting-edge research in the field. One of DeFries’s earliest, and perhaps most notable projects was the use of satellite imagery to track changes across the tropics as humans built cities, cleared forests for industry, and expanded agriculture to feed growing populations. By mapping large areas over repeated intervals, DeFries and her colleagues provide a much broader and, at the same time, more concrete view of how humans transform landscapes, with consequences ranging from deforestation to climate change to habitat destruction.

Awareness of such dramatic, human-driven alterations could lead some to despair and apathy, but that isn’t the case with DeFries. In their paper “Planetary Opportunities,” which has greatly inspired Breakthrough’s work, DeFries and coauthors argue that those concerned with the future of the planet should focus less on biophysical limits that, if breached, will have dire consequences, and instead focus more on a solutions-based approach based in the middle ground between meeting human needs and minimizing destructive environmental impacts on the planet.

“Paradigmatic to a focus on planetary opportunities is the view that although Earth’s life-support systems set the broad envelope for human survival, societies evolve, adapt to, and sometimes alter this broad envelope to overcome many biophysical constraints and to correct environmental consequences,” the authors write.

The “planetary opportunities” approach partly rests on the recognition that increasingly prosperous, modern societies may increase demand for resources, but they are also better able to correct environmental ills by using land, energy, and other services more efficiently or switching to new ones. India provides a great case study. As people in India moved from rural areas to cities, they relied less on traditional biofuels – which can cause several deadly health issues – and switched to liquefied petroleum gas. This switch, in turn, was correlated in some places with increased forest cover. At least at the state level, “urbanization may foster forest regeneration” given certain conditions, argued DeFries in a 2009 paper.

One-size-fits-all solutions must be viewed with a degree of skepticism, DeFries reminds us through her work. Sparing land by intensifying agricultural production is one such proposal that has attracted conservationists and policy makers alike. But in her study of palm oil production in the Amazon, DeFries provides two counterintuitive scenarios. In the western Amazon in Peru, high-yield industrial-scale plantations tended to move into old growth forests, which actually consumed more forest than low-yield, small-scale palm oil farms that expanded into already cleared areas. In Mato Grasso, Brazil, deforestation rapidly declined when soy production moved to already cleared lands instead of clearing new forests. But the latter is moving toward high-yield, industrial-scale palm oil production (mostly for export) that could change deforestation trends. The progress made through technological solutions, therefore, is highly dependent on the social, political, and cultural contexts.

Investigating the messy particulars of each case may raise more questions than answers, but that hasn’t dampened DeFries’s optimism about the future. “I don’t think the doomsday scenarios take us where we need to be” she said in regards to apocalyptic narratives of climate change and extinctions. “I think where we need to be at this point…is to think about what the next steps are, to think about the solutions, the amazing ingenuity that we have, and this amazing planet we have.”