Two-Minute Interview: Steve Running

Only one professor at the University of Montana has a Nobel Peace Prize hanging in his office: Steven W. Running, director of the intimidatingly named Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, part of the university’s Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences. Running, a climate scientist who studies forest carbon, received the award for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Running’s group monitors global photosynthesis and evapotranspiration, specialties that involve merging satellite data with on-the-ground ecological monitoring. He’s currently collaborating with wildlife biologists–a first–in an effort to use large-scale climate predictions to inform questions about the future of animal populations. I popped in to see him yesterday in Missoula.

Q: That’s a nice plaque on the wall. What are you up to now?

A: I want to know when we’re going to reach the capacity of the biosphere to carry society. After the IPCC work, I revisited the ideas of Limits to Growth [the 1972 book about finite resources]. I found out really quick that hardly anyone remembered the book. It just wasn’t registering in public talks. Then this paper came out in Nature where another group defined these “planetary boundaries.” It’s a new conceptual framing even though it’s the same bottom-line theme.

I’m asking, Are we capable of measuring a planetary boundary for something like plant production? And if we are, can we evaluate how close to the limit we are? If we can successfully evaluate it, and we are close to the limit, the policy significance is huge.

Do people understand this deeply enough, that if we really hit capacity it’s game over? The answer in the general public is no. Hardly anyone gets paid to think 50 years ahead, except for some of us eggheads at universities. It’s not a strategic horizon that people work on.

I’m seeing if I can help quantify planetary boundaries of biospheric production. I wrote a paper in Bioscience a few years ago that’s kind of an overview of the whole thing. You start with satellite measurements, and from that we compute the current biospheric production every year. And then you evaluate, what’s the capacity to increase it? This is what the Green Revolution did for decades, increase biospheric production. What we’re seeing more and more is that we’ve probably reached the end of that rope.

All the agriculturally functional land is already under production. People think that not only is there no more water for new irrigation, but we can’t even sustain what we have in parts of the world. And in the fertilizer domain, we’re already at a point of nutrient saturation in our systems that’s causing things like the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. The idea that we can just grow food by dumping lots of fertilizer in is not in the cards.

I’m weaving together this argument: Here’s the current production, here’s the evidence that we can’t expand much more and may not be able to sustain what we have in certain areas where irrigation may run out of steam. And I’m trying to package that into the final bottom line: Do we think there’s any capacity for additional biospheric production? My indications right now, midway through this, is kind of no.

That brings me to my crossover, where I start reading economics, which is mostly what I do these days. Economists all say we need growth. It’s absolutely saturated in our economic thinking that we have to grow forever, and here I am saying we’re tapped out in our ecological production. Which is just one area of growth, but it’s the one that feeds us and clothes us.

How are we ever going to solve this clash of theories, of economics that insists we have to grow forever and ecology that insists we’re on a finite planet? If I had an answer, I’d be on the Rachel Maddow show tonight.

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