Academic Minute
1:47 pm
Tue January 24, 2012

Dr. Shahid Naeem, Columbia University - Humans and Sustainable Development

Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Shahid Naeem of Columbia University examines the history of humanity's struggle to coexist with the natural environment.

Shahid Naeem is professor of ecology, evolution and environmental biology at Columbia University, and science director at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, part of Columbia University's Earth Institute. His research group studies the consequences of declining biodiversity, while paying particular attention to the connections between species at all levels of a community's ecology.

About Dr. Naeem

Dr. Shahid Naeem - Humans and Sustainable Development

Economic development began with Homo erectus, the human species who, some 1.8 million years ago, hunted, used fire, and made tools to improve his and her life. 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 is approaching 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. For this to be sustainable, we have to ensure that all the oxygen produced by the previous natural forest, 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 a few hundred acres is insignificant.

Unfortunately, having a small environmental footprint worked for Homo erectus, but it won't work for us. We've already lost 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. 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.

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