Book Recommendation

… by John W. Head (posted 05 Mar 2021)

Ruth DeFries, What Would Nature Do? A guide for our uncertain times (Columbia University Press, 2021)

The subtitle seems promising: A guide for our uncertain times. At the outset, however, Ruth DeFries presses us to realize that “[t]he human species has no experience living in a world with an atmosphere that has not existed for the last three million years.” [p.3] Like the mapmakers who sketched fearsome dragons into the unexplored regions of their world maps before Magellan’s successors had sailed and smashed their way into those regions, we can do no more than make up images of what such an experience might be like. DeFries writes: “How our exquisite and ever-changing planet – along with the bounty of life that it harbors – responds to an unprecedented atmosphere is too complex for the human mind to comprehend. Surprises are in store.” [p.3]

How, then, can DeFries offer a guide for these uncertain times … especially if the uncertainty extends beyond climate chaos to “surviving in our interconnected, urban world”, with which our species likewise has little long-term experience? Here is the gist of DeFries’ answer:

As the recent past no longer serves as a guide for the future, nature’s long experience sheds some light. Life in one form or another, whether tiny cells, scaly reptiles, or fur-covered mammals, has flourished for billions of years through catastrophic swings in climate, asteroids crashing into Earth, and mass extinctions. Over deep time and through trial and error, and without intent or preplanned design, surprising tricks to stay nimble and resilient evolved in nature. [p.4]

I will return soon to the phrase “without intent or preplanned design”. First, though, what are those “surprising tricks to stay nimble and resilient” that we might, as a species, familiarize ourselves with today in order to keep the Earth a habitable planet for coming generations of humans and other species with which we hope to continue share it tomorrow?

DeFries focuses on four such “tricks” or techniques of nature, and she expresses them partly in social, political, and economic terms. They are:

  • investing in diversity
  • favoring redundancy over efficiency
  • building self-correcting feedbacks
  • making decisions based on bottom-up knowledge

This handful of fundamental strategies, DeFries claims, can “enable life to persist through unpredictable, sudden shocks” [front book-jacket] and she takes the reader on a tour of nature to illustrate these strategies and drive them home to us.

For anyone familiar with the aims of the Global RESTORATION Project (, the first of DeFries “tricks” of nature – investing in diversity – immediately rings true. Central to Organic Regenerative Agroecology, which lies at the center of the acronym RESTORATION, is a reliance on polycultures (like those in native grasslands long ago converted into agricultural production). Hence the GRP’s insistence on hastening and broadening scientific research into growing perennial grains (also favored by native grasslands) in diverse mixtures of species, rather than in monocultures that present a banquet for pests and diseases of all sorts.

What about the second “trick” of nature that DeFries highlights: redundancy over efficiency? For this, she describes the network of veins found in most leaves, patterned in such a way as to avoid disaster for a particular leaf merely because one of its main arteries has been eaten by an insect. If such an event occurs, alternative routes (subsidiary veins, like capillaries) will keep the leaf alive. To illustrate the point, DeFries notes that the ginkgo tree, “with its fan-shaped leaves and foul-smelling fruit, is the oldest living tree species known on Earth”, and its leaves do not have an intricate crossing-of-veins structure: the ginkgo’s leaves have veins that “radiate from the base of the leaf” with “no smaller veins that connect across the radiating ones, as if a city had only avenues with no cross streets”. That distinctive structure makes recovery from damage a difficult proposition for the gingko tree. In order to overcome this difficulty, the ginkgo tree has developed special acids to ward off pests. The more effective strategy over the long run, though, is what most other plants have done: develop leaves with vein networks that provide protection through redundancy. [pp.94-95]

Another one of the “tricks” of nature that DeFries highlights – making decisions based on bottom-up knowledge – also aligns with aims of the Global RESTORATION Project. And it is here that I will return to the phrase “without intent or preplanned design”. DeFries says that nature has developed its various techniques for handling adversity over the course of eons “and without intent or preplanned design.” [p.4] We do not have eons; the climate crisis alone requires aggressive action in the coming few months and years (even a decade is too long to wait.) With this in mind, one of the GRP’s aims is to explore, and then design, the kinds of global legal and institutional reforms that could be effective in giving non-negotiable priority to the protection of ecosystems from further degradation.

But how can that “non-negotiable priority” for eco-protection be guaranteed in a world of human ego, human appetite, human competition? At the Global RESTORATION Project, we are trying to design structures that (i) allow the human species as a whole to place a firm prohibition on (human) actions that destroy natural systems but that also (ii) reflect the overriding importance of bioregionalism, so that persons living in “their own place” collaborate in applying their knowledge of that place to manage the detailed work of ecological protection and restoration – whatever is needed in that place, with its own climate/soil/landcover/biodiversity realities. What DeFries refers to as “making decisions based on bottom-up knowledge”, we reflect in the GRP’s call for “Territorially Integrated Operational Networks”. As we see things thus far, these networks would be territorially “integrated” along the lines of biomes.

To conclude this recommendation of Ruth DeFries’ intriguing book: In exploring the question of “What would nature do?”, DeFries provides some grounds for hope in addressing global crises. She highlights several “tricks” or techniques of nature that humans should apply. Several of those techniques of nature are central to the Global RESTORATION Project’s perspectives and proposals. If we concentrate on the lessons nature provides, perhaps our species can rise to the occasion.