Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson | Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase August 17, 2022
Prof. Saleem Ali to discuss how natural laws and human decisions intersect in 2022 Ocean Currents Lecture
University of Delaware Professor Saleem Ali will give the final 2022 Ocean Currents lecture of the summer at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 25. The lecture will focus on his new book, Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life. It will take place in-person at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes and will be live streamed via Zoom. There will be a book signing and an Ocean Currents Reception to follow. Registration using this form is required to attend.
Ali is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at UD, chair of its Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences, and holds a secondary appointment in the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration. The following is an interview with Ali about his new book and the impetus behind writing it.
Q: How did your work at UD influence the book?
Ali: Partly, writing the book was motivated by teaching a required course on systems science and policy for our environmental studies and environmental science majors. I found there was really no book that did justice to both the natural science and the social science dimension. A lot of the books on sustainability science, they provide a very superficial perspective on the natural science of environmental systems and then you have the other side — the political science, social science and economics books — which are often internally consistent, but they are not connected to a lot of the fundamental constraints of what I call earthly order. So that’s what prompted me to write this book. It’s motivated by trying to have much more ecological literacy for the public. It goes from quantum physics all the way to political science, and it’s meant to be that way.
I dedicated this book to my students. The dedication says: “To my students who have made me a lifelong learner of fields beyond my comfort zone.” This book was a real intellectual journey for me. I had to do so much reading, and I got the Bellagio Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was very helpful. I also worked with a National Geographic writers’ circle to make sure I tested the writing with other writers. I put in a lot of effort into the quality of the writing.
Q: Could you talk about the main message that this book tries to get across?
Ali: This is a book which, in the tradition of the interdisciplinary field of geography, tries to bridge the gap between natural science and social science. It also uses order as a lens to approach the complexity of environmental problem solving. It’s a book about environmental systems, but I try to provide a very accessible foundational experience for the reader.
Q: What was the most challenging part about writing this book?
Ali: For me, the big challenge has been to write with nuance and selling nuance is not easy. When I worked on the book, people would ask, ‘What is your one argument in the book?’ and I didn’t want to give one argument because I’m writing a book about earth systems and that would be preposterous.
The book is aimed for a general audience, but it’s written with a University Press because I also wanted it to be peer reviewed. So it has legitimacy with academia, but it’s also written in a style which is accessible. That was the real challenge of writing this book: keeping that balance between depth and breadth. I tried to make it so that the science is digestible by the public without dumbing it down, and I feel I have been able to accomplish that.
In addition, with hopes to improve environmental education, I have made a commitment to donate all of the royalties of this book for environmental literacy programs either in developing countries or here in the United States.
Q: What are some examples of the environmental systems that you look at in the book?
Ali: I’m talking about planetary systems, such as how biogeochemical cycles work, as well as the carbon cycle, the water cycle, all of these large planetary environmental systems, but then I also look at cities. At the end of the book, I have what I call ‘The Five Lessons’ which are the take-home lessons of the book, and one of those lessons is that order can be discovered and invented in human society. It’s not just this natural order. We can actually invent order and that’s ok. That’s part of being human. So I also look at cities as a way in which we have tried to invent order, and that invention can either be in congruence with natural systems or it can be antithetical to natural systems.
Q: What are you hoping people take away from the book?
Ali: My primary goal is that people get foundational knowledge about these systems and the constraints that we have in terms of developing solutions to environmental problems. I am hopeful about what our future is in terms of adaptation, but I feel as though a lot of our decision-making, on both sides of the political spectrum, is constrained more by our own personal biases and a view of environmental problems which is rather reductionistic.
Even among the environmentalists, you have people who are very focused either on biodiversity or carbon. They all have their pet green project, and there are very few who actually look at the systems perspective and say, ‘Well, we live in a world of trade-offs’ so if there was one take-home message of the book, it’s that there is no free lunch in the universe. We have to make trade-offs, and we need to recognize those trade-offs if we are going to find some tangible and implementable solution.
Q: Could you give some examples of why these trade-offs are important?
Ali: With regards to climate change, we are at an impasse because we have rejected, in many ways, a systems approach. One good example currently in the news is with what has happened with energy policy in Europe. The Europeans were very focused on carbon mitigation, but they were so focused on this linear solution of switching to renewable energy as fast as they could, they didn’t understand that there are certain fundamental, scientific restraints to how electricity is delivered. You cannot give baseload electricity delivery with solar and wind without large-scale battery storage. Or, you need to have some other form of baseload generation, and the only other forms we have are fossil fuels and nuclear.
We just saw recently, the European parliament had to change its law because they had to declare nuclear energy to be green energy, otherwise they would not be able to deliver power after this fiasco with the Russian oil and gas dependance. That was a mistake that they made, fundamentally, because the way in which they thought about risk after the Fukushima disaster was not science-based at all. It was a complete corruption of information being given to the public where some people thought that most of the people who died in the tsunami, died because of something to do with nuclear power exposure, which was not true. Not a single person died of radiation exposure. They died of the tsunami, and even 10 years later, we don’t have any cancer clusters that the International Atomic Energy Agency recognizes.
You have this dynamic where politicians made decisions that have got them stuck in this current situation where they are either dependent on the Russians for energy or they have to make a drastic change in policy. That is an example of non-systems thinking, which was divorced from earthly order, really, and it led them into thick soup.