Ruth DeFries


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

Cover Interview of January 27, 2021

The wide angle

The motivation for the book comes from the uncertain future that faces humanity. The twentieth century, as I wrote in my previous book, The Big Ratchet, was an extraordinary time of great technological feats. Human ingenuity figured out how to produce copious amounts of food, extract abundant energy from long-buried dead plants and animals, extend life-expectancy, reduce infant mortality, and bring many people out of poverty. We have been lulled into complacency that any problem humanity might face has a technological and efficient solution.

The twenty-first century is proving otherwise. Human societies have never before been as urbanized as today, with more than 70% of the world’s population predicted to live in cities in the coming decades. This urbanization makes us all more intertwined and dependent on faraway places than ever before. Our highly connected world is a new way of living for our species, as big a transition as when people started to farm rather than hunt and forage about twelve thousand years ago. Moreover, climate change brings another layer of uncertainty with unprecedented fires, storms, pests, and unforeseeable outcomes.

As a collective human society, we have no manual or roadmap to navigate this uncertain world. The twentieth-century notion that ever-more efficient ways to produce food, pump water, and get other resources is proving to be a dangerous path. Because the world is so interconnected, human society is more vulnerable to shocks in our food system and disruptions in supply chains.

With these ideas in mind, I started writing this book more than five years ago. I had no inkling that, just at the time I was sending in the final manuscript, the world-changing pandemic would prove the point that human civilization is indeed very vulnerable. And now we can see very clearly that our human institutions are not up to the task of dealing with such unexpected events.