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"There are no silver bullets": Humanity's incredible run of luck might be coming to an end

Humans have overcome plenty of natural crises before, Ruth DeFries tells Salon. Will we be able to do so again?


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Lindsay Abrams
September 7, 2014 2:58PM (UTC)

Here's the long view of human history, as Ruth DeFries sees it: An ingenious species, we keep finding new ways to "hijack nature" and better feed ourselves. Each newfound system for producing food is a game changer, allowing our numbers to grow, only to be halted in our upward trajectory by some new problem that we must innovate our way out of again. Europe adopts the potato, people live longer and have more children, then the Great Irish Famine hits. A million people die, but humanity perseveres, developing new potato varieties and agriculture practices that keep the blight from causing another disaster.

DeFries, a MacArthur fellow and chairwoman of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, calls those new innovations "pivots." They lead to boom periods -- "ratchets" -- along with inevitable problems -- "hatchets" -- for which we require new pivots. Potato, growth, famine, new potatoes. Pivot, ratchet, hatchet, pivot. It's pretty much an endless cycle from there. In each, the stakes grow, and in each, we have new obstacles to contend with. But throughout, DeFries writes, "millennium after millennium, humanity as a whole has muddled through."

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The stakes, as they currently stand, are greater than they've ever been before. The title of DeFries' book, "The Big Ratchet," refers to the second half of the 20th century, a time during which "our twists of nature sped up so fast that the trajectory of human civilization changed course." It's come with some pretty big hatchets, different in kind from what we've had to deal with before: We're now facing problems on a planetary scale.  Will we pivot? Will human ingenuity save the day again? DeFries isn't telling (because, she insists, we have no way of knowing). "Although history shows that ingenuity has brought humanity back from the brink time and again," she writes, "this history does not ensure that the same will occur in the future."

Salon spoke with DeFries about our current ratchet and hatches and about why it's impossible to be entirely optimistic or pessimistic about our chances for pivoting yet again. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I was hoping you could describe, first, the genesis of this "pivot, ratchet, hatchet" pattern. What made you decide to look at things this way?

We hear a lot about calamities and doomsday and catastrophes that are in store for us on one side, and on the other side we also hear about technology always coming to the rescue and solving the problem. What I wanted to look at was the complexity of the reality that is between those two extremes. What I wanted to do in the book was step back in time and remove ourselves from the current predictions of doomsday and think about how humanity has prospered in the past and how we have solved problems, and look at that through the long arc of human history to see what that tells us about the patterns and where we might be going in the future.

Do you feel that those two extremes -- doomsday versus "everything will be fine" -- are dominating the conversation right now?

Yes.

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And that nobody's really in the middle?

The reality, like most things, is much more complex than the simplistic way of looking at the world and that’s what I wanted to explore.

The way you describe this pattern throughout history is as a sort of never-ending cycle of problems and solutions. But plenty would argue that the problem we're currently dealing with -- climate change -- is of a different magnitude, and that it ups the ante considerably. How do you take that into account? 

It is a problem of a different magnitude and it’s a very hard problem, probably one of the hardest problems civilization has faced. We can never know what happens in the future -- that’s part of the complexity of the story. Time and time again, people have been wrong about predicting the future. If we look through this long arc, we can see where humanity has faced some really, really hard problems in the past. That’s not to say we can always overcome every problem.

In the past, some of those problems have taken a long process of trial and error to solve -- I guess the other argument would be that we might not have enough time for that this time around.

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Yeah. Those are very valid concerns. On the other side -- and I don’t want to come across as being on the simplistic techno-fix side -- we have a lot of knowledge that we didn’t have before. We have a lot of ways of getting knowledge. So on one hand, we have this very rapid time frame where we don’t have long to come up with solutions, but on the other hand we have knowledge that we didn’t have before.

Can you describe the main components of what you call the Big Ratchet? And do you see this as diverging at all from the pattern that held for most of human history?

The Big Ratchet refers to the last 50 years when there has been just an enormous explosion in the amount of food for people produced in the world: The food production outpaced even the very big growth in population. And that comes from all of these ratchets that occurred throughout history where we figured out how to produce more fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, genetics. All of these technologies have been ratcheting up throughout human history and they all kind of collided in the last 50 years to produce such a massive amount of food.

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That brings us to the hatchets: the problems that comes after a cycle of ratchets. They're different than what we’ve encountered before. Many of the problems are a result of abundance rather than shortage. We have obesity epidemics spreading around the world as a result of the abundance. We have pollution, nitrogen runoff from fertilizer, all of the environmental issues that are related to too much rather than too little. Another thing that is different about where we are currently in history is that we’re now an urban species. In 2007, more than 50 percent of people in the world were living in urban areas. By the middle of the century, it’ll be something like 80 percent, so that also changes the way we rely on nature to feed civilization.

And these are all issues that the next pivots will need to address.

That’s the story. We have these problems and how can we devise the pivots? These would be, for instance, improving efficiency using fertilizer, or improving efficiency of water. They also relate to what we choose as our diets. Those pivots are starting to turn in a slow way. I think now we’re at that crest of the Big Ratchet and starting to get to that point of what are the pivots that we now need to focus on.

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So would you say we're on the verge of a big turning point in human history?

Possibly. I would never try to predict the future because so many people have been so wrong in the past.

I was surprised you didn’t write more about GMOs if only because they seem, if not bigger in scale than past pivots, then much more controversial. Is that the case, looking back through history?

Well, I didn’t write specifically a lot about the current situation with GMOs. But there is quite a bit in the book about how people have manipulated genetics going back. That was the first very large transition -- going from being foragers to farmers -- and that was all about manipulating genetics. The current practice is that same sort of manipulation of genetics but with a different twist, because now we can do that in a molecular way. I didn’t take a stand on GMOs, if that’s what you mean, because really the verdict is still out and the whole GMO discussion has become so mired in ideology rather than evidence.

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The difference to me would be past innovations like DDT: It was only after it was developed and instituted that we recognized its downside. The debate over GMOs, on the other hand, is happening before that trial and error period.

Yes, exactly. I think one thing is clear: GMOs are not a silver bullet. That there are no silver bullets is the point that comes out of this story.

I’m interested in your thoughts about our modern ways of looking at the past. Right at the beginning of the book, you argue against taking an idealistic view of subsistence farming. Is it the case that once we pivot it’s just impossible to go back? Or are there still some of those elements we can recapture so that we’re not only going in the opposite direction, of what you call "more bulldozers"?

A lot of people, or some people, have a romantic view of living off the land, which is fine for some people, but that’s not really what’s going to feed civilization. So that romantic view, from my perspective, is unrealistic. But that said, there are some aspects of this experience that we’ve accumulated over a millennia about how to overcome problems of soil fertility and pests. For example, the whole issue of recycling nutrients. With industrial fertilizers now, we can synthesize nitrogen from the air and dig up phosphorus from the ground and we’ve lost that recycling that kept humanity going for thousands and thousands of years. So that’s definitely one area where there is scope for pivoting back to those old principles -- but with a modern twist on it. Another one is how we manage pests without having to use too much fertilizer. This whole area of integrated pest management is another way of looking back, but using that to look forward.

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Even though there are no silver bullets, this view of history comes off as very optimistic. After every hatchet we were able to find a way to pivot. Humanity kept growing and improving. Would you say you’re optimistic about the future?

I look at this story and I can see how someone could take an optimistic interpretation and a pessimistic interpretation. The pessimistic interpretation is, like we said, there are no silver bullets and we are always vulnerable to where our food is going to come from. We will always be experimenting with nature. If you take that as a view, you could pull a pessimistic story line. I prefer, and I believe, in the optimistic interpretation of this story: that of course there are never guarantees for the future, but that we have an incredible amount of ingenuity and an incredible amount of ability and knowledge to figure out what these next pivots are. But again, it’s open to interpretation.

One of my motivations in writing this book was to step back and take a more nuanced look at this optimism-pessimism question. I hope I’ve achieved that. I don’t know. There is a lot of doomsday out there. There’s a lot of pessimism. For me, I don’t know where that takes you. I think if we’re going to put our energy into something, we should be putting our energy into what are the pivots.


Lindsay Abrams

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