A Conversation With Shahid Naeem, Biosustainability Scientist

Naeem-Post.jpgThe world we are leaving our children and their children is not the one we inherited; climate is changing, new diseases are emerging, exotic species are spreading, soil is eroding, pollution is occurring at global scales, and food, energy, and water security are plummeting. The economic debt our children will inherit that garners so much attention is rather mundane by comparison. Shahid Naeem is a scientist, however, who feels that environmental solutions can be found by conserving biological diversity; a different view of why conservation matters.

Usually, plants and animals are seen as innocent bystanders suffering in the face of global change, an unfortunate but necessary outcome of economic growth. Conservation biologists therefore focus primarily on finding ways to help out and protect these millions of species that are at risk of going extinct as the environment changes. But what if saving species is actually a way to stop erosion, clean up air and water, stabilize the climate, and much more? Naeem is one of the founders of a more modern view of biodiversity as the engine of our environment, not merely collateral damage of an increasingly unstable and unsustainable environment. Conserving biodiversity is not just a goal in and of itself, but a valuable way for solving environmental problems -- save the whales not just because we love them, but because they make our marine ecosystems more productive and more stable which, in turn, makes our lives better.

Here, Naeem discusses what it would be like if, all of a sudden, breathable air, potable water, equitable climate, fertile soil, pollination, and other products and services we've grown accustomed to were considered part of our economies; the radical shift away from traditional natural science that emphasized the role of evolution in understanding the diversity of life on Earth; and why we desperately need to finally get away from the same primitive carbon-based energy system used by cavemen.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I used to say I'm an ecologist, which is in fact accurate, but I noticed that people immediately assumed I was either an anti commerce tree-hugging pantheist liberal who would have us return to loin cloths and feed off insects and berries or a passionate lover of animals who would risk frostbite or death to radio collar a snow leopard in the Himalayas. So now I say I'm a professor knowing that will peg me as an academic and that immediately leads to the follow up question of, "so what is it you study?" It's then that I say I study what happens to nature when it is dismantled. Really interesting conversations always follow.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability of our world?

Over the last few years, there has been a radical shift away from traditional natural science that emphasized the role of evolution in understanding the diversity of life on Earth to trying to understand what role such a diversity of species play in environmental processes. It's an admittedly utilitarian view of species -- what is their environmental function rather than their origin? -- and that does not sit well with many lovers of nature. This new emphasis is called "trait-based ecology" because it focuses on the traits of species, or what features of species tell us how they influence or respond to environmental change. Traditionally, the vast majority of work on species concerned how species evolve and figuring out where they are on the evolutionary tree of life. These approaches, such as phylogenetics, systematics, or taxonomy, are important fields in the natural sciences, but they are not terribly informative about why species matter. Once you start looking at what species actually do -- are they pollinators, do they remove nitrogen from the atmosphere, do they stabilize shorelines, do they degrade organic pollutants? -- suddenly all those species start to matter. Once we have a comprehensive list of species, their traits, their functions, and their connections to one another, we might actually begin to build a realistic blueprint of the biosphere and how it works. With the advent of the Internet and increasingly more powerful computers, we can embark on this greatest of all quests -- to build a working model of the Biosphere based on its species. Then, and only then, can we figure out how to achieve environmental sustainability. I like to call this view, "biosustainability," a contraction of "biologically based sustainability."

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Two interrelated terms or concepts critical to my area are the devil to grasp. Even experts in our field sometimes get them wrong. The first is "biodiversity," which is almost always thought of as a collection of wondrous beasts and beautiful flowers. The second is "ecosystem," which is generally thought of as a wild place like a forest or prairie. In fact, biodiversity refers to all the elements of diversity of life on Earth, whether it is genetic, taxonomic, functional, structural, spatial, or temporal diversity, and it includes all living things, including the microbes, not just the plants and animals. Similarly, an ecosystem is also a complex term, referring to a system that produces and consumes biofuels (plants or algae) while cycling inorganic matter, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water, to organic matter, such as carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids like DNA, and back again. To make things worse, since you can never have biodiversity outside an ecosystem and an ecosystem always has biodiversity in it, each term doesn't make sense without reference to the other. I have an easier time explaining quantum mechanics and multivariate statistics than explaining what biodiversity and ecosystems are. Yet, to understand the fundamentals of living sustainably, one has to have a firm grasp of both biodiversity and ecosystems.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

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.

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.