Oliver Morton in conversation with Ruth DeFries
Chaired by Safwan M. Masri
Not long ago, the future seemed predictable. Now, certainty about the course of civilization has given way to fear and doubt. Raging fires, ravaging storms, political upheavals, financial collapse, and deadly pandemics lie ahead—or are already here. The world feels less comprehensible and more dangerous, and no one, from individuals to businesses and governments, knows how to navigate the path forward.
Ruth DeFries argues that a surprising set of time-tested strategies from the natural world can help humanity weather these crises. Through trial and error over the eons, life has evolved astonishing and counterintuitive tricks in order to survive. DeFries details how a handful of fundamental strategies—investments in diversity, redundancy over efficiency, self-correcting feedbacks, and decisions based on bottom-up knowledge—enable life to persist through unpredictable, sudden shocks. Lessons for supply chains from a leaf’s intricate network of veins and stock market-saving “circuit breakers” patterned on planetary cycles reveal the power of these approaches for modern life. With humility and willingness to apply nature’s experience to our human-constructed world, DeFries demonstrates, we can withstand uncertain and perilous times. Exploring the lessons that life on Earth can teach us about coping with complexity, What Would Nature Do? offers timely options for civilization to reorganize for a safe and prosperous future.
Ruth DeFries is a University Professor and Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. She is a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Her books include The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis (2014).
Oliver Morton is a senior editor at The Economist. He has also been Chief News and Features Editor at Nature and editor of Wired UK and has contributed to a wide range of other publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Hollywood Reporter. Oliver is an honorary professor in the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University College London.
Safwan M. Masri is Professor and Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University. He is also a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Masri is the author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 2017). He served as Vice Dean of Columbia Business School from 1993 to 2006. Masri is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and an honorary fellow of the Foreign Policy Association.
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Organized By: Columbia Global Centers