Ruth DeFries


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

Cover Interview of January 27, 2021


My aim for the book is to give people some different, perhaps non-intuitive ways of thinking about how we organize ourselves as human societies. I do not mean to be prescriptive and pronounce what “should” or “must” happen. Rather, by thinking about the potential parallels between the two complex systems—nature and human civilization—we might be able to integrate some time-tested examples from nature into our human-constructed institutions.

We live in a time when many people are anxious about the future. Of course, the pandemic is very anxiety-producing. But even without the pandemic, with climate change, political upheavals, and blatant displays of the social inequities that the twentieth century created, people might welcome new ways of viewing the world.

Inventors and architects have highlighted many wonderful examples of biomimicry, such as Velcro inspired by burr spikes and cooling towers pattered on termite mounds. The strategies discussed in the book are more at the level of systems. That means an individual alone can’t unilaterally act on these strategies. A single person cannot build a seed bank, save dying languages, or build redundancy into the global food trade network. I’m afraid this book will not satisfy those who want answers to what they can do individually.

But everyone can be part of a society who chooses its leaders and contributes to decisions about its priorities. We can embrace those leaders who think beyond short-term efficiency, appreciate the power of bottom-up organization, and otherwise might work to implement the strategies from nature that apply to human societies.

When I was researching the examples and stories for the book, I was struck by how many times people have learned through trial and error that nature’s strategies pay off. Most of those examples relate to finance, where portfolio diversity and redundant supply chains are clearly in the interest of stakeholders. But even some examples at a more systems-level, such as the 100-year U.S. Forest Service’s backtrack on Smokey Bear’s message that all fires are bad, show the power of human ability to learn and adjust.

I hope that this book brings optimism and hope that inevitable disruptions need not lead to disaster if society builds nature’s time-tested strategies into its human institutions.