Professor DeFries and Coleman talk about their two books and the intersection in problem-solving between nature and polarization.

Tuesday afternoon, I logged on to a dual book talk hosted by The Earth Institute at Columbia University and moderated by Professor Alexander Halliday. The event featured two, highly accomplished speakers: Ruth DeFries, an environmental geographer and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, and Peter Coleman, a social psychologist. Both are professors at Columbia University. 

Professor DeFries began the event by emphasizing how interconnected our world is today. It is somewhat shocking to think about how a virus that emerged from somewhere across the globe, suddenly spread around the world in a matter of days. We are also connected through climate change; a climate extreme affecting food production in one part of the world might lead to food riots in another. Globalization, Professor DeFries explained, is usually viewed as a strength of society but has also left us vulnerable. Her book, What Would Nature Do, does not argue that we must endure either complete globalization or complete isolation, but rather discusses how we can take advantage of the benefits in society and employ strategies to minimize our vulnerability to the risks. These are the kinds of questions and problems that evolution has faced, a sign that we should look to nature for strategies. 

But the idea of asking nature for help seems intricate. What Would Nature Do is certainly an enticing name and implies nature can be a predictable entity whose past we can look to for guidance. Although that is not true, Professor DeFries gave a logical explanation of her title. She described how, growing up, she was surrounded by huge technological achievements like the moon landing. However, in our current world, there are certain difficulties that cannot be solved through the technological lens employed during the 20th century. And at some point, when we are facing a pandemic and increasing threats of climate change, we need a new approach. So, let’s look at nature. 

One natural, problem-solving strategy Professor DeFries gave stemmed from a leaf and the way a leaf designs its networks. A leaf boasts a network of veins that carry water throughout the leaf itself. If the leaf gets torn or partially eaten, then the network is in danger of becoming dehydrated. Therefore, rather than maintaining such a large risk and hoping the leaf stays intact, the leaf has redundant networks (lots of veins), providing multiple routes for the water to travel through. It reminded me a lot of node communication in computer networks which I took as further proof that the ideas Professor DeFries mentioned has roots in other fields. The key to her anecdote was that, even though it may seem inefficient, redundancies in things such as policy are needed. 

Although I found that Professor DeFries gave a unique point of view, many of the ideas she discussed while speaking resonated with Professor Coleman’s beliefs encapsulated in his upcoming book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. Professor Coleman started by describing how such intense polarization came to be about in places like the United States. He suggested that it started in Washington DC where politicians no longer function in unison. In the 90s, the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, changed congressmen’s five-day workweek to a three-day workweek. Professor Coleman explained that a three-day workweek meant congressmen would no longer feel the need to move their whole families out to DC, leading to less socialization and consequential widespread villainizing of one another. He also pointed to the increasingly entertainment-focused media as a factor of polarization. Polarization is a long-term issue that does not go away with changing dynamics and technological advancements. Professor Coleman argued that the problems we currently face need to be dealt with in a new way, echoing Professor DeFries’s earlier statement. 

Professor Coleman explained that these long term conflicts thrive in misery but that can be advantageous. When people are miserable and exhausted and spent, people look for a more functional leader in problem-solving, eliciting a call to action. In short, it is precisely because we are fed-up and hurting that we can find a way out of our troublesome situation. Rather than speak in abstract terms, Professor Coleman gave attendees legitimate ways to combat the difficulties of polarization. He warned us not to oversimplify our understanding of those different from us and rather reintroduce complexity into our understanding of others. He suggested finding three people who hold fundamentally different beliefs from ours and listen and think with them, effectively reintroducing nuance into our opinions of those with opposing POVs. 

His advice about addressing polarization is not just meant for attendees but for President Biden and Vice President Harris. He has sent memos to the transition team advising what to do about polarization in the nation. He proposed that rather than starting with a huge declaration of unity and getting rid of old and seemingly ineffective systems, the administration should highlight the parts that currently work in the system and support and scale those aspects. This seemed similar to Professor DeFries’ beliefs that we need to take advantage of the benefits that work in our current system of globalization and find new strategies to mitigate the risks.

It originally seemed like the two books featured in this book talk would be at odds with one another, but they held so many similarities and could be read in tandem. I didn’t expect to leave feeling so inspired and hopeful about the future, but both Professor DeFries and Professor Coleman were able to take such complex issues and break them down into various solutions that we can follow and partake in. 


Veins of a leaf via Wikimedia Commons