Scientist Jesse Ausubel says diet will affect the Martha’s Vineyard landscape

Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, will speak about “Meat and Potatoes and the American Landscape.” — Photo courtesy of Jesse Ausubel

Eating habits affect landscape. That may be good or bad depending on shopping and dietary habits. On Tuesday, July 8, Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, will describe the effects in a free lecture titled, “Meat and Potatoes and the American Landscape.”

A longtime seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs, Mr. Ausubel has been an adjunct scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute since 1990, with backgrounds in marine biology, genetics, and climate science.

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF), the Island’s largest private land conservation organization, is sponsoring the lecture, which begins at 7:30 pm in the Whaling Church in Edgartown. A reception will follow.

“Jesse is our featured speaker this year as part of our new education program, which will involve a new lecture series,” SMF executive director Adam Moore said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “He will hold an eye-opening talk on our daily eating and food shopping habits and how they affect landscapes across the nation. It’ll be interesting to see how our daily decisions when it comes to eating and buying food affect landscapes across the country. Also, is the landscape on the Island affected by national trends in eating habits, or is Martha’s Vineyard distinct?”

Mr. Ausubel has a distinguished scientific background. He was a lead organizer of the first United Nations World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979 and authored the first comprehensive review of the greenhouse gas effect in 1983.   Since 1989 he has led a research program to envision a utopian society with minimal emissions that spares large amounts of land and sea for nature.

In the late 1990s he initiated the Census of Marine Life, an ambitious assessment of ocean diversity and distribution. In 2002 he was a founder of the Barcode of Life Initiative to identify animal, plant, and fungal species; about 200,000 species now have DNA barcodes in a public database. In 2006, he founded the Encyclopedia of Life to create a webpage for every species. Half of the 1.9 million known species are now represented. A species of lobster discovered in 2010 is named in his honor: Dinochelus ausubeli. This year, he received the 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award Winner from the Breakthrough Institute, which annually grants millions of dollars for scientific research.

On July 8, Mr. Ausubel said he will speak about “long-term trends in American farms and forests, and how these relate to hamburgers and Ipads.”

In an email to The Times, Mr. Ausubel explained why he thinks this is important. “Humanity needs to spare more land for nature. Nature, marine and terrestrial, is the source of the wealth of Martha’s Vineyard. No one would call the Island ‘Silicon Valley.’ It is helpful to understand better how decisions by farmers, foresters, and consumers change nature.”

Although Mr. Ausubel often warns of pollution and climate change, he is optimistic. “Americans eat fewer vegetables year by year, and spend less time shopping and cooking, and these behaviors shape the land,” he said. “The good news is that in the United States and many other countries, we may be at the start of a global greening in which biosphere (the sum of all life on Earth) increases, after centuries on the defensive.”

Mr. Ausubel’s decision to speak about his work is based on a personal connection. “SMF chief Adam Moore, a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, and I like to talk shop,” he said. “Our discussions about environmental science and management led to the idea that people on the Island might enjoy learning more about national trends in land use and land cover, and their relationship to trends on the Island.”

His familiarity with the Island also factored into the decision. “I am impressed that the Vineyard has preserved its nature and culture much better than other places comparably famous,” he said. “Vineyarders want both farms and forests, and that requires a smart set of incentives.”