Review: Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet

December 29, 2014

The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crises. By Ruth DeFries. 2014. Basic Books. 296 pages.

Review by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist, The Nature Conservancy

There is no question humanity has screwed up the environment, and that many fundamental aspects of modern life are pathologies.  Naomi Kleinhas gained international attention for her environmentalist rant against “the system” (This Changes Everything, 2014).

But Naomi Klein has no depth of understanding beyond thirty or forty years of human history. In contrast, Ruth DeFries has written a brilliant book that starts with the origin of Earth and life on our planet, and goes through thousands of years of ecological history and one natural crisis after another.

Time after time, human ingenuity has overcome food shortages and ecological disasters — many of them self-made. But this is no techno-utopia tract. DeFries diagnoses clearly our current situation.

She writes of “pivots” — new ways to extract food and resources to meet our needs. But the pivots can be lurches that also create the next set of problems.

There is no guarantee of success.

For every five people going hungry, there are eight people obese. In the last thirty years the incidence of diabetes in China has increased tenfold, as famine has been conquered.

There is a tendency among “deep ecologists” to think of humanity as a blight upon the planet, and among left-leaning celebrities such as Naomi Klein to think of corporations as the root of all environmental depredation.

But unlike Klein, DeFries has a nuanced and sophisticated view of human history as opposed to a “good guys versus bad guys” cartoon.

DeFries is a biologist; she reminds us that we are like so many other species — we manipulate our surroundings to expand our territory and grow in numbers.

Ants do this, as do baboons, and even corals. It is just that humans have an extraordinary ability to “twist food from nature,” and as a result usurp most of the planet for our own use.

DeFries writes that this human dominance is “neither good nor bad,” but is simply “part of the evolution of life on the planet.”

This is a beautifully written book that is unique in combining wisdom, scientific discovery, and story-telling.

In no way does DeFries trivialize or diminish the challenges before us. But she does put those challenges in perspective in a way no other author I have read has done, and she also uses the long history of crises and pivots to deliver a hopeful message of a sustainable future.

DeFries has a second home in India where she works and clearly feels inspired and welcome, and it is in India that she crystallizes the great transformation we are going through now: we are transforming from farmers to urbanites, and how we make that transition will determine India’s and the world’s future.

Conservation’s success hinges on the move of humanity to cities — and how food and water are delivered to those cities, and conversely how city-dwellers connect to nature.

Ruth DeFries understands this. Fortunately, so does a growing number of conservation NGOs and environmental leaders.

Buy and read this book. You will learn something you did not know from it and be both wiser and uplifted.

Big Ratchet book cover

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.


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