A Conversation With Shahid Naeem, Biosustainability Scientist

An increasing trend encourages us to restructure environmental thinking around the idea of ecosystem services, a trend that I'm not entirely comfortable with. One reason our current way of living is unsustainable is that our economies are only tied to goods and services that we value and market. Most of our income, for example, no matter who we are, is used to pay for goods, like food, wood, and fresh water, and services such as electricity, telephone, banking, education, government, religion, and health, to name just a few. We do not recognize, however, that breathable air, potable water, equitable climate, fertile soil, productive fisheries, pollination, and many other services provided by ecosystems are critical to our well-being, yet they are simply not part of our economies. Economists and ecologists around the world are trying to change this by building ecosystem services into our economies. To illustrate the issue, I often ask that we imagine sorting through our mail at the end of the day and seeing that, in addition to bills for Internet services, gas and electric utilities, magazine subscriptions, and tax forms, there is, for the first time, a bunch of bills for air, climate regulation, pest control, and a dozen others that add up to tens of thousands of dollars per month, all sent by the fungi, bacteria, plants, and animals who somehow incorporated themselves and started charging us for their services. That would really shape how we spend our money and what we do in life and start us on a path of sustainable use of the natural resources that provide us the goods and services we depend on. My reservation about this trend is that it tends to view the whole world as a system designed only to serve one species -- us. I have a gut feeling this is not a good idea.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Biofuels. Look, thousands of years ago we cut and dried wood or dung and burned it to keep ourselves warm and cook and light the walls of our caves so we could paint. Later we would use the combustion of biologically produced organic matter, or biofuels, to power steam engines using wood, but eventually switching over to coal, oil, and gas as they proved much more convenient. These later fuels, or fossil fuels, however, are still biofuels -- just an ancient, highly concentrated form unlike seasoned wood. But really, when we turn the key in our car and it magically comes to life, no matter the sophisticated instrumentation and smooth, shiny, well engineered metallic and plastic surfaces, it's still the same old combustion of biofuels that powers the thing. It's like there are tiny, sweaty, soot-covered men shoveling wood into the engine as we move forward. Is this how we are going to live far into the future -- traveling to space on privately owned space ships that run on biofuels? I don't think so. There is nothing sustainable about producing biofuels and burning them save for the idea that we might be able to balance the carbon we spew into the atmosphere by extracting the same amount by growing plants and algae only to turn around and burn these and spew the carbon back into the atmosphere again. But analysis after analysis indicates that this is false thinking -- more than likely the amount of carbon we send up is still going to be greater than the amount of carbon we draw down. It's time to abandon carbon-based energy. Solar, wind, wave, hydroelectric, and (though I have reservations) nuclear and perhaps fusion energy, can provide energy without being tied into the carbon cycle. We desperately need to finally get away from the same primitive carbon-based energy system used by cavemen.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Biodiversity hotspots. The idea is that there are a few places in the world, like California and Madagascar that have so much biodiversity, that if we protected them we could save a huge percentage of the world's biodiversity and minimize how much land and sea surface we would have to set aside. I now realize that, as important as it is to protect biodiversity hotspots, it does nothing for achieving environmental sustainability. I'm all for the conservation of biodiversity hotspots, but really, if we want stabilize our planet, we have to start thinking about biodiversity all over the world, in cities, farms, and plantations as much as rainforests and coral reefs.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Hal Mooney of Stanford University. He's small, avuncular, and fond of beer, but he is a powerhouse who has done more to keep biodiversity a part of global environmental thinking than any person I know. Jane Lubchenco, who went from studying obscure animals on rocks on the Pacific coast to being selected by President Obama to be the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the late 1980s and early '90s she prodded ecology to get off its butt and stop spending so much time on abstract science and lead the world into a sustainable future. And Edward Norton. Any actor of his talent and fame who is willing to be the U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity deserves a huge round of applause and recognition from all of us.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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