Past Seminar

Responding to Ecological Loss: The Promise and Limits of Ingenuity

May 6, 2013

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?

RFF 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.

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


James Boyd, Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth Co-director and Senior Fellow, RFF


Susan Clayton, Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology, College of Wooster
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 University
Bill Shireman, President and CEO of Future 500


Mark Tercek, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Nature Conservancy
Tracy Mehan, Principal, Cadmus Group; former assistant administrator for water, EPA



  • James W. Boyd, Senior Fellow
  • Molly K. Macauley, Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future