Ruth DeFries


On her book What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times

Cover Interview of January 27, 2021

In a nutshell

What Would Nature Do? is unabashedly human-centric. It is about strategies that humans—the big-brained, ingenious animal that we are—can learn from nature’s experience to improve our prospects of prospering on this dynamic planet.

Both life on earth and human civilization are complex systems, meaning that when they are perturbed the repercussions ripple through the system in unpredictable ways. In our modern hyper-connected civilization, as we have seen in this pandemic, for example, a tiny virus in an obscure market can ricochet around the world and bring down the global economy. In nature, when oxygen-producing plants evolved two-and-a-half billion years ago, life could have been doomed. But new forms of life flourished—sponges, corals, and jellyfish followed by insects, reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals. Life has persisted through asteroids crashing into the earth, wild swings in climate, extinctions, and diseases.

The book’s premise is that nature has a lot more experience than humans do with surviving potentially disastrous, unpredictable shocks. Without intent or pre-planned design, the process of trial-and-error in evolution has led to some key strategies. These strategies might have some applicability to our complex human-created world. As I was researching for the book, I came across many examples where engineers, investors, and businesses have learned that these strategies help their prospects of survival, although they were probably unaware that nature already uses these strategies.

These strategies are: built-in, self-correcting features, a stabilizing strategy pervasive in nature and adopted by the stock exchange to catch a free-falling plunge in the market; diversity, the hallmark of both financial investors and the natural world, to buffer against an unknown future, keep options open, and safeguard valuable knowledge and ideas from coalescing into a homogenous stew of culture, cuisine, and ways of viewing the world; the architecture of ubiquitous networks, patterned on tiny veins in a leaf, to keep the flow of goods, food, information, and ideas safe from cascading failure and, conversely, to prevent lethal diseases from spreading; and leaders who enable decisions based on bottom-up knowledge of local conditions, the way ants and termites build their fabulous structures, rather than top-down impositions from faraway authorities that inevitably backfire. These are nature’s time-tested tactics that maintain life through unknown future.