Oosting Lecture Highlights the Science Behind Global Environmental Decision Making

March 27, 2016

Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

By Nathan Miller, MEM ‘17
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – Ruth DeFries, professor at Columbia University’s Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Environmental Biology, delivered the 2016 Oosting Lecture, “Food, Nature and Land in an Urbanizing World,” at Environmental Hall’s Field Auditorium on March 24.

Speaking to a room full of students, faculty and staff, DeFries, a widely cited expert on sustainable development and conservation, shared her expertise on spatial analysis and satellite imagery – tools she has used throughout her career to provide governments and communities with timely insights on environmental concerns and sustainable urban development.

Her talk focused on specific regions – the Indo-Pacific and central India – to highlight themes of urbanization, public health, and conservation.  

“During the 21st century, we expect most urbanization to occur in regions with emerging economies,” DeFries said.  “Furthermore, based on our historical observations of the United States and Western Europe, we realize that as a region becomes more urbanized, its relation to agricultural and forest resources in adjacent rural areas changes significantly.  Over time, we see rural and forest lands become highly commoditized, leading to increasing rates of resource extraction and the intensified use of existing farmland.”

DeFries didn’t frame these patterns of development as either a boon or detriment; rather, she asked the audience, “What are the trade-offs between the specific paths to development, and how can science influence the decision making process so that our solutions are, in fact, sustainable?”

To apply a real-world context to the questions she posed, DeFries proceeded to discuss the Indonesian fires that scorched extensive forests and farmland last fall and emitted smoke plumes that compromised the country’s air quality as well as those of Singapore and Malaysia.  

Expansive land conversion of tropical forest and peat soils into timber and oil palm plantations has left land once impervious to wildfire much more vulnerable, especially during the dry season, she explained.  Conversely, palm oil consumption throughout Asia has risen dramatically as an affordable cooking staple, making the production of oil palm trees a lucrative commodity for Indonesia.  

However, DeFries sees a compromise between conservation and commoditization.  Through geospatial analyses, she and her team were able to pinpoint the origin of many of Indonesia’s most recent fires and index the topographical characteristics that made each location so prone to fire.

“The smoke produced from last year’s fires was responsible for over 100,000 deaths not just in Indonesia, but Singapore and Malaysia also,” DeFries said.  “Air quality is an extremely important issue to many in Southeast Asia because the consequences of severe pollution are very real. But we also need to acknowledge the economic influences that drive land use change in the region. By restricting timber and oil palm production from areas that land use change would leave most vulnerable to fires, we can still encourage the commoditization of these crops while simultaneously reducing air pollution for the entire region.”

DeFries is the 44th speaker to present the annual Henry J. Oosting Lecture in Ecology, which is sponsored by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the University Program in Ecology and the Department of Biology.

Her 2014 book, The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis was a critical success and is widely cited throughout the scientific community.