3-minutes with…Elena Bennett

April 2015

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Elena Bennett is an Associate Professor of Ecology in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the McGill School of Environment.   Elena’s research interest is in ecosystem services, that is, to understand and manage the benefits humans derive from ecosystems, where benefits would include, but are not limited to, the provision of food or water, mitigating climate change and disease, recreational and cultural activities, or maintaining healthy nutrient-rich soils.

Q: So Elena, what’s your story? Who is Elena Bennett and what makes her tick?

I am a professor of ecology and mom of 2 young children and I’m dedicated to making the world a better place. The best way I’ve found to do that is to be as kind as I can to the people and to the natural world around me.  I’ve always been drawn to nature and the outdoors. Being in wild places makes me feel whole, calm, peaceful, and part of something larger than myself. I tend to be intensely logical (my husband might call it ‘robotic’).

“In the cathedral of the wild, we get to see the most beautiful parts of ourselves reflected back at us.” — Boyd Varty

Q: You recently co-authored a paper in Science entitled “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.”  If you were placed into a secondary school science classroom, how would you deliver and describe the findings of this report?

Planetary boundaries define what we believe are the limits of the safe operating space of planet Earth. By doing our best to figure out where those limits are, and the state of the planet in relation to those limits, we can better understand how to maintain the planet in the kind of stable state that is known to be able to support human life.

One important thing to understand is that these aren’t hard limits. That is, it doesn’t mean the earth will go ‘over the waterfall’ if we cross the boundaries. In fact, we believe that we’ve already crossed four of the nine boundaries. I’ve heard it described best by one of my colleagues. He says that the boundaries are like the curb at the edge of the road. When you stay on the sidewalk, you’re more likely to be safe, away from dangerous cars. When you step off the curb and into the street, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be hit by a car, but it increases the chances. So crossing the planetary boundaries means that we’re increasing the chances of catastrophic changes to the earth system.

Q:  How would you empower these students into taking action? 

Right now, I actually think the best way to empower people to action is by telling stories about times and places that we’ve been able to create positive change. We are bombarded by negative images of the future, and the few positive visions we have tend to be unrealistic, more like science fiction. But there are truly positive things happening around the world, places where we are connecting people to nature in new ways that enhance sustainability and human well-being. And very often, these things also create new bonds between people as well. I think talking about these stories, showing how the actions were undertaken by regular people like you and me, and thinking about how we might replicate them here at home, can be truly empowering.

Q:  In your opinion, how are we going to manage feeding a growing population while reducing the pressure agricultural production places on the environment?

This is one of the key challenges that we face today. About 1 in every 8 people on our planet don’t have enough food to eat. At the same time, agriculture is known to be a key source of many critical environmental problems. So how do we solve this dual problem? One of the easiest places to start is reducing waste. About 30% of our food is wasted. Here in Canada, most of that is stuff that rots in our fridges or that we throw out because we don’t finish what’s on our plates. (In some other places, the waste happens because of improper storage before food reaches consumers.) Another thing we can do is to produce our food in smarter ways, ones that work with the environment rather than against it, getting more efficient in our use of resources and reducing our production of pollution. Yet, even this is not enough. We must also think about how to make our agriculture resilient — long-lasting and adaptable enough to handle new challenges like climate change and globalization. We’ve had sedentary agriculture on this planet for 10,000 years. What are we going to do to continue to have agriculture for the next 10,000?

Q:  What objectives have you set for yourself over the next five years?

1. Write a book of positive stories about living in the Anthropocene.
2. Be outdoors with my kids as much as possible — take them camping and hiking, etc. — so they grow up happy and understanding the value of these places.
3. Learn how to sit still.  Or maybe not.

 

 

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