State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

A Struggle to Coexist with Nature – Dr. Shahid Naeem

Shahid Naeem

In yesterday’s Academic Minute (a daily segment syndicated on NPR stations), Shahid Naeem, CERC’s director of science, examines humanity’s struggle to coexist with the natural environment.

Economic development began with Homo erectus, the human species who, almost two million years ago, hunted, used fire, and made tools to improve their lives. That was the start, and it was completely unsustainable. The Home erectus population was small, and resources were abundant, so their environmental impacts did not limit growth.

Not so with Homo sapiens; our population has reached 7 billion, and natural resources are near exhaustion. Today, we need to develop sustainably. Say, for example, we convert an acre of natural forest to a monoculture of palm trees for biofuels. Producing biofuels does not make this development sustainable. For this to be sustainable, we have to ensure that all the oxygen produced by the natural forest we removed, all the atmospheric carbon dioxide it sequestered, all the fruits, nuts and mushrooms it produced, all the soil it retained, all the water it purified, and everything else it provided, isn’t lost. Now, one might argue that there are still 3.3 billion acres of forest left on earth, so the conversion of one acre, or even a few hundred, isn’t significant.

Not so.

This idea, that a little more conversion of nature won’t hurt, worked for Homo erectus whose environmental footprint was very, very small, but our footprint is enormous. We’ve already converted about 12 billion acres of forest to development, without thinking much about all the things those forests did for us. Now that they’re gone, climate is warming, soil is eroding, and flooding is rampant. The same story for forests applies to all ecosystems–grasslands, wetlands, even deserts. The idea of sustainable development is immensely popular today. The big question is: is it feasible? The answer is “yes.” It’s just a matter of remembering, as we develop, to retain everything that ecosystems provide us. It’s not going to be easy or cheap. But we’re not Homo erectus, the hominid species that simply stood erect; we’re Homo sapiens, the hominid species who is wise.


To listen to the podcast, please visit the Academic Minute. The podcast features professors from top institutions around the world, delving into topics from the serious to the light-hearted, keeping listeners abreast of what’s new and exciting in the academy.

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Mel Mudhook
Mel Mudhook
5 years ago

Link to podcast is not workng.

Sarah Fecht
Reply to  Mel Mudhook
5 years ago

Thanks for letting us know, Mel. I just updated the links in the post–you should be able to listen here: