STIA Loewy Lecture: How Humanity Came to Dominate the Planet, w/ Ruth Defries


A bird’s eye view from above reveals a planet dominated by a single species – us. How to explain this achievement? A combination of extraordinary endowments of the planet and human ingenuity has devised ways to twist nature to produce more and more food and expand our reach across the world. Millennia of twists of nature have led to the massive increase in humanity’s mark on the planet and an unclear path forward for feeding 9 billion, increasingly affluent people.

Ruth Defries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at The Earth Institute at Columbia University. (

Ruth DeFries examines human transformation of the landscape and its consequences for climate, biogeochemical cycling, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services that make our planet habitable. The work is based on the premise that land use change involves tradeoffs between human necessities such as food and unintended environmental consequences such as greenhouse gas emissions and habitat loss. A particular focus is tropical deforestation and its impacts on atmospheric carbon emissions. DeFries examines land use changes over broad scales through the lens of satellite observations. She is actively involved in linking scientific information into policy decisions.

Previously, Dr. DeFries was professor in the Geography Department at the University of Maryland, staff at the National Research Council with the Committee on Global Change and taught at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. She was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2006 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008, is a fellow of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2007. Dr. DeFries received her Ph.D. in 1980 from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She received her B.A. in Earth Science, summa cum laude, in 1976 from Washington University in St. Louis, MO.

Sponsored by the Science, Technology & International Affairs Program.

Active since 1999, STIA's Annual Loewy Lecture is made possible by the generous donations of the Loewy Family Foundation, which supports initiatives in the field of engineering.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 4:00pm to 6:00pm

Mortara Building
3600 N St., N.W., Washington