A Conversation With Shahid Naeem, Biosustainability Scientist

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.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Illustration. I don't do it so much anymore, but for many years I would gladly have given up science to be an artist whose inspiration was nature. To study and capture the essence of what inspires one about nature and to share it with others either by producing art or publishing scientific articles, is a deeply satisfying thing to do in life. In scientific publications the illustrations are mostly tables and graphs. Drawing, painting, and other forms of illustration are much more aesthetically appealing.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Google News. I like the New York Times, the Week, and other news outlets, but the fast changing face of Google News helps me connect to what others find most interesting in current events. Only recently, for example, was science divided from science and technology in Google News. It seemed the only things science people cared about was the iPad, Facebook, and BlackBerry, but clearly there were enough people who wanted to keep basic science separate from technology. Now, I can see that people do care about science and not just about gizmos, though it seems they care more about health science and astronomy than the science of our living world.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Mean," by Taylor Swift. Wish it was Scarlatti's "Il Pompeo, opera: O cessate di piagarmi," sung by Cecila Bartoli, so my fellow academics would not think less of me, but there you have it.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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