Responding to Ecological Loss: The Promise & Limits of Ingenuity

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Apr 11, 2013


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to co-sponsor the following Resources for the Future (RFF) seminar:

     Monday, May 6, 2013
     9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.

     Resources for the Future
     First Floor Conference Center
     1616 P St. NW
     Washington, DC 20036

Registration for in-person attendance is required. To RSVP for this event, please visit RFF's event registration page.

This event will also be webcast live starting at 9:30 a.m. Join the webcast at

Have a question for the panel while watching the live webcast? Simply tweet your question of 140 characters or less and include the hashtag #AskRFF. Watch the Q&A at the end of the event to see if it is selected.

About the Event

Marine biologists predict the collapse of harvested seafood species by 2050. But do we really need those species? With melting sea ice and thawing permafrost, polar bears may only exist in captivity by the end of the century. But do we really need wild populations? While these questions may be ethically discomforting, they are intended to trigger additional questions: Can we “substitute” our way out of ecological problems and losses? Are there limits to ingenuity?

In the past, innovation has alleviated many of the problems associated with “limits to growth” (examples include innovations in food production and mineral extraction). But for issues such as biodiversity and deforestation the picture is less optimistic. And although innovation can often address natural resource limits, what are the ultimate social, economic, and environmental effects of these innovations? This conversation has philosophical and psychological dimensions as well. Are there substitutes for wilderness, wildness, and natural beauty? What about whooping cranes, giant pandas, or freshwater dolphins? As we lose our connection with nature, do we lose advocates for nature? Humans may adapt to a loss of natural beauty and time outdoors. Will this come with physical, emotional, and psychological costs?

When are innovation and ingenuity likely to help solve ecological problems? What can we do to spur that ingenuity? Can the answers to these questions help us to better target natural resource investments? In asking these questions, can we better understand the aspects of nature that are invaluable and irreplaceable?

We have assembled a distinguished and diverse group of historians, ecologists, economists, psychologists, and entrepreneurs to elaborate on these questions and to begin to develop some answers.


     Susan Clayton, Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology, College of
     Geoffrey Heal, Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise,
        Columbia Business School
     Peter Kahn, Professor of Psychology and Director of the HINTS Lab,
        University of Washington
     Joel Mokyr, Professor of Economics and History, Northwestern
     Bill Shireman, President and CEO of Future 500


     Mark Tercek, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Nature
     Tracy Mehan, Principal, Cadmus Group; former Assistant
        Administrator for Water, EPA

The event will be moderated by James Boyd, who co-directs RFF's Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth and serves as SESYNC's Director of Social Science and Policy.

Read James Boyd's recent piece for Resources magazine, "The Limits to Ingenuity: Innovation as a Response to Ecological Loss."


A light breakfast will be served starting at 8:45 a.m.

9:30 a.m.
     Welcome and Introduction to the Discussion
        Molly Macauley, Vice President for Research at RFF
        James Boyd, Director, RFF's Center for the Management of
           Ecological Wealth

9:45 a.m.
     ​Panel of Speakers
        Susan Clayton, Conservation Psychologist
        Geoffrey Heal, Environmental Economist and Entrepreneur
        Peter Kahn, Eco-Psychologist and Technologist
        Joel Mokyr, Economist and Historian of Technology and Population
        Bill Shireman, Environmental Entrepreneur

11:00 a.m.
     Open Discussion

11:15 a.m.
     ​Coffee Break

11:30 a.m.
     Discussant Reactions
        Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy
        Tracy Mehan, The Cadmus Group​

11:45 a.m.
     ​Open Discussion & Speakers Reconvene for Final Thoughts

12:30 p.m.

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