Ruth DeFries


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

Cover Interview of January 27, 2021

A close-up

The book has separate chapters for each of the four strategies. My favorite chapter is the one about the fourth strategy, titled “One Size Fits No One.” It’s about how nature deals with collective action when a task is too great for a single individual.

Nature’s solution rests on each individual following rules based on its local surroundings. No blueprint or mastermind is required. The strategy gives rise to zebra stripes, ant trails, and termites’ architectural marvels. No central command is directing traffic or commanding the ants and termites where to march or what to do, despite the “queen” misnomer.

In human societies, collective action comes into play in rules and institutions to share water, make laws, trade, and nearly every aspect of organized society. Top-down, central authority with someone setting the rules seems like the logical way to organize society. But nature’s experience suggests otherwise. Bottom-up solutions, organized and implemented by people closest to the ground and the most interest at stake, are messy but can be more effective in the long run than top-down control from a distant authority.

The reason I like this chapter is because the person who brought these ideas to light, although without reference to zebra stripes and ant trails, was about 5 feet tall, treated everyone like she was their grandmother, and went head-to-head against late twentieth-century conventional dogma. The notion of the “tragedy of the commons” dominated development circles and resource managers at the time, inspiring central control and top-down regulations to manage forests, fisheries, and other resources. Elinor Ostrom countered that people can effectively manage their own affairs if given authority and information. Based on decades of on-the-ground work, she showed many examples, from decentralized community policing to water management, where people self-organize. Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her path-breaking work and died at the age of 78 in 2012.