The Ingenuity of Our Species

The New York Times/May 19, 2011

Ruth De Fries is the Denning Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

Evolution has endowed the human species with the ingenuity to manipulate the planet’s life support system for its own advantage on a grand scale.

Humans tamed fire to replenish nutrients in the soil, cook and pursue prey. Humans selectively groomed plant and animal species to provide surpluses of food. Later on, humans discovered how to dig carbon buried deep beneath the ground for energy and pull nitrogen from the air to nourish crops. Victory over disease-causing bacteria and virus more than doubled average life expectancy since the onset of the Anthropocene.

If you are comfortably reading this Web site and sipping a warm cup of coffee instead of toiling many hours a day for basic food, water and energy, you are the fortunate beneficiary of the ingenuity of the human species to usurp the planet’s life support system for security against the vagaries of nature. With luck and hard work, many more of our species will join the ranks of those who can enjoy the proceeds of human progress.

Humanity’s ascent to global potency is a culmination of creative ideas that are the trademark of our species. Time will tell whether we can direct that same creativity not just to pursue comfort and security, but to share the bounty among our own and with other species, foresee the repercussions on the planet’s life support system, and put in place the governance and technology that can help us avoid lamentable scenarios.

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