About Ruth DeFries

Ruth DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University in New York and co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School. She uses images from satellites and field surveys to examine how the world’s demands for food and other resources are changing land use throughout the tropics. Her research quantifies how these land use changes affect climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, as well as human development. DeFries was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, one of the country’s highest scientific honors, received a MacArthur “genius” award, and is the recipient of many other honors for her scientific research. In addition to over 100 scientific papers, she is committed to communicating the nuances and complexities of sustainable development to popular audiences through her books “The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis and “What Would Nature Do?: A Guide for Our Uncertain Times”.

DeFries is committed to linking science with policy, for example through her involvement with the  Environmental Defense Fund, Science for Nature and People, World Wildlife Fund, and reconciling conservation and development in central India.



Representative Recent Publications

Popular books:

DeFries, R. 2021. What Would Nature Do?   A Guide for Our Uncertain Times. Columbia University Press.

DeFries, R. 2014. The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis. Basic Books. 288 pp.

Silver, C and DeFries, R. 1990. One Earth, One Future: Our Changing Global Environment. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C. 196 pp. (translated into French, Portuguese, Arabic, and Japanese)


Scientific publications:

DeFries, R., M. Agarwala, S. Baquie, P. Choksi, S. Khanwilkar, P. Mondal, H. Nagendra, and J. Urpelainen. 2021. Improved Household Living Standards Can Restore Dry Tropical Forests. Biotropica.

DeFries, R. and H. Nagendra. 2017. Ecosystem management as a wicked problem. Science, 356, 265-270.

DeFries, R., J. Fanzo, R. Remans, C. Palm, S. Wood, and T. Anderman. 2015. Metrics for land-scarce agriculture: Nutrient content must be better integrated into planning. Science 349:238-240.

DeFries, R., E. C. Ellis, F. S. I. Chapin, P. A. Matson, B. L. Turner II, A. Agrawal, P. J. Crutzen, C. Field, P. Gleick, P. Kareiva, E. Lambin, D. Liverman, E. Ostrom, P. Sanchez, and J. Syvitski. 2012. Planetary opportunities: A social contract for global change science to contribute to a sustainable future. BioScience 62:603-606.

DeFries, R. and C. Rosenzweig, 2010. Toward a whole-landscape approach for sustainable land use in the tropics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107,46): 19627-19632.

DeFries, R., Rudel, T.K., Uriarte, M., and Hansen, M., 2010. Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century. Nature Geoscience, 3, 178-181.