Please tell us about your current job – what is your major area of focus?
I do research and manage research. My research primarily concerns sparing natural resources through changes in technology and consumer behavior. The main projects I help manage are the Deep Carbon Observatory (concerned with the origins of life and hydrocarbons) and the International Quiet Ocean Experiment (aiming to achieve a better soundscape of the oceans, including human additions of noise).
In your recent paper, Nature Rebounds, you present a hopeful view of environmental change which contrasts with many other views of the future. What makes you think your view is possible?
The paper looks objectively at the peaking of demand for many natural resources that has occurred in the USA and elsewhere since about 1990. Demand for water, energy, land, and minerals is softening, while demand for information continues to soar. Fortunately, information brings precision in production and consumption and spares other resources. The result is, for example, huge regrowth of forests. The global greening, or net growth of the terrestrial biosphere, allows re-wilding. Ecological restoration inspires many people, although learning again to live in proximity to bears and wolves is not simple.
What would be the key changes humanity would need to make for this vision to come true at a global scale?
Most of what happens is not because humanity consciously and deliberately strategizes and makes changes. The role of policy is vastly exaggerated. French intellectual Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote in his profound 1945 book, Du Pouvoir, “politics is the last repository of hope. “ High tech tycoons Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) popularized tablets and e-readers and did more, together with the innovators in e-mail, to spare forests than all the forest activists and UN targets. Good systems analysts find high leverage for sound directions like decoupling and recycling. Simply observing well, describing the world as it is, matters greatly and demands tremendous skill and dedication.
Please tell us about your YSSP work at IIASA? What were your questions, and what did you find?
I participated in the 1979 YSSP, the second class. IIASA’s energy group had developed scenarios of how human activities might change climate. My task was to explore impacts of climate and adaptations. The 1980 book Climatic Constraints and Human Activities summarizes much of what we learned. Most of the book still reads well. Following climate today, I am reminded of the remark, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.”
How did the YSSP influence your career?
My YSSP summer encouraged a big drop in my disciplinary and national prejudices. My chief, Soviet hydrodynamicist Oleg Vasiliev, had great intellectual integrity. We had a wonderful rapport and in fact in July I sent him best wishes for his 90th birthday. Oleg invited me to stay in Laxenburg for two more years, which opened more avenues, most importantly collaborations with Cesare Marchetti, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and Arnulf Gruebler which continue today. The YSSP class itself was lively and talented; John Birge, for example, has had a great career in operations research. Finally, IIASA showed me the value of scientific cooperation between nations in conflict, and I have actively supported such cooperation ever since.
Ausubel, Jesse H. 2015. “Nature Rebounds.” Long Now Foundation Seminar, San Francisco, 13 January 2015. http://phe.rockefeller.edu/docs/Nature_Rebounds.pdf.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.