Seeing the forest for the trees -- and a path for sustainability

Brazil’s struggle to conserve its rainforests has become a global talking point.

As more and more forests have been cleared in the name of economic growth, preserving them has become less attractive to landowners. But a new focus on integrating the social and natural sciences to address environmental problems is yielding promising results that may save the rainforests—and the planet.

For three decades, Emilio Moran, John A. Hannah Professor of geography, has been on the front lines of this effort—piecing together the big picture of deforestation and conservation efforts in Brazil.

Moran is a world-renowned social scientist who has made his academic mark by resolutely marching into other disciplines. Trained as a social anthropologist, he has worked for 30 years in the Brazilian Amazon, exploring the humid tropic’s potential for intensive agriculture – a question that has led him academically into soils, agricultural production, deforestation, reforestation and how humans make decisions.

Now Moran is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and what then was an academic incongruity today has become cutting edge contemporary scientific pursuit valued by many scientists.

Moran is mentoring a third generation of scientists. Mixing social and natural sciences, in his youth an oddity at best – at worst heresy to some -- is becoming not only an acceptable path to a PhD, but a future direction of training students to solve complex environmental problems.

In his recent appointment at MSU, he is aligning with centers dedicated to a holistic approach to environmental studies. In the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, he will work with Jianguo “Jack” Liu, a human-environment scientist and sustainability scholar who has turned international attention to such discoveries as how divorce (with its resulting increase in the number of households) can hurt the environment, and how ecotourism, if not properly managed, can harm habitat.

He also is using his years in Brazil interviewing landowners to determine what motivates them to conserve forests because, in the end, the choices people make in their daily lives will determine the success of conservation efforts. As Moran notes: humans created the problem, and they must work together to solve it.

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