2016 Keynote Speaker
Ruth DeFries, Columbia University
Pessimists argue that too many people chasing too few resources is leading to catastrophic consequences for civilization. Optimists counter that technology will come to the rescue. A long-term view of humanity’s quest to produce food – the most basic need for civilization – tells a more nuanced story. Based on the book, The Big Ratchet, the lecture will trace the long journey of our species from hunters and gatherers to shoppers in the aisles of grocery stores. Through technologies, innovations, and quirks of fate, people over millennia have manipulated ecological processes to propel our species to the current day of abundant food amidst myriad environmental and social consequences. From this long-term view, the pattern shows neither collapse nor technological supremacy. Rather, our tenure on the planet reveals cycles of crisis and growth, with each innovation leading to a new set of ecological problems that in turn spur new innovations. The next step in this long cycle is science-based, non-ideological solutions to the problems that our success has created.