Dr. Reed Noss, Ph.D.
Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, Pegasus Professor, and Davis-Shine Professor of Conservation Biology
April 2016

Q: What does Sustainability mean to you?
A: As an ecologist, I probably take a broader view of the sustainability concept than most people. To me, sustainability means not just sustaining our human society through the wise and conscientious use of resources. That is one legitimate and important component of sustainability, but it is limited and thoroughly anthropocentric; ultimately it may be self-defeating. My view of sustainability focuses on sustaining the Earth's biodiversity and the ecological and evolutionary processes that generate and maintain that diversity. Those same ecological and evolutionary processes both directly and indirectly support human society by giving us food and fiber, clean air and water, flood protection, medicines, pollination of crops, and many other so-called ecosystem services. Right now, biodiversity in Florida, the United States, and the world is collapsing as natural ecological and evolutionary processes are unraveling. The cause is painfully obvious: the unsustainable growth of the human population and our economy. The situation is particularly dire in Florida, with our extremely rich biodiversity (including many endemic species found nowhere else) and our recklessly pro-growth governor and legislature. Ultimately this growth, unless checked, will cause the end of human civilization globally. That may seem a gloomy and apocalyptic idea, but it’s one with which many serious scholars agree. Virtually all intelligent people understand that infinite growth is impossible. I hate to say this, but the explosive growth of UCF over the last couple decades has been a major cause of urban sprawl, traffic jams, mortality of animals on roads, and loss of natural areas and species in the eastern Orlando Metropolitan Area. I’ve seen populations of several sensitive wildlife species, such as Sherman’s fox squirrels, Florida pine snakes, gopher tortoises, and box turtles lost from portions of this area over the 14 years I’ve been at UCF. A sustainable society does not drive species extinct locally or globally. UCF should set a positive example of sustainability by limiting its own growth and development and by discouraging urban sprawl in the landscapes near campus.

Q: Describe the class you teach.
A:‬‬ I teach three classes regularly at UCF: Conservation Biology Theory, Ecosystems of Florida, and Field Ornithology. Conservation Biology Theory is an intensive graduate discussion course focused on the primary literature in this field. Major topics related to sustainability include extinction, biodiversity hotspots, the ultimate threats to biodiversity (human population and economic growth), proximate threats (habitat loss and fragmentation, fire exclusion, climate change, sea level rise, non-native species, etc.), and conservation strategies. Ecosystems of Florida covers all the main terrestrial, wetland, freshwater, estuarine, and near-shore marine natural communities of Florida. I emphasize the natural processes, such as fire and hydrology, which maintain these communities, as well as their natural history (for example, dominant, characteristic, and imperiled species). In addition to lectures, we have all-day field trips on most Saturdays. Field Ornithology is almost exclusively a field course, with emphasis on identifying and learning the life histories of birds found in central Florida in winter and spring, as well as the evolutionary relationships of birds (for example, the families in which our birds are placed). I teach the main bird survey techniques as well. Birds, being easy to observe and well known, are good indicators of the quality of our environment and of the sustainability (or lack thereof) of human activities.

Q: What do you do at UCF to advance sustainability initiatives?
A:‬‬ I hope I enhance sustainability at UCF through my teaching and mentoring students. The first step in promoting sustainability is an understanding of what it involves. Most students, as well as most citizens, have a shallow and human-centered view of sustainability. They might think that recycling paper, cans, and bottles, driving a fuel-efficient car, or eating less meat equates to living sustainably. These behaviors certainly help advance sustainability, but not if the deeper and broader implications of sustainability are ignored. As long as native species of plants and animals are declining and going extinct due to human-caused habitat loss, fragmentation, and modification, we are not behaving sustainably. Non-human species need to be given the amount and quality of habitat they need to thrive. This means that human population growth and urban development must stop. Our population and rate of resource consumption are already far too large for ecological sustainability. There is no legitimate excuse for converting one more acre of natural or semi-natural habitat (such as cattle ranches) to new cities, subdivisions, or strip malls in Florida. We must resume and vastly expand our state conservation land acquisition program, Florida Forever, until at least half of Florida is fully protected from development. And we must sustainably manage our semi-natural and developed lands on top of this. Several nations and regions have set such goals. As a global biodiversity hotspot, Florida must do no less.

Q: How can students get involved in your work?
A:‬‬ I have had many students, as employees, volunteers, or my own graduate students, involved in my research at UCF over the years. Some of the major projects have been “road ecology” studies to better understand what animals are being hit on our roads or prevented from crossing them by barrier effects, to determine where along the road are roadkill or movement barriers concentrated, and then to figure out how to mitigate this roadkill, such as by constructing wildlife crossings and associated fencing. This kind of research is critical in Florida, because road impacts associated with urban sprawl and increased traffic volume are one of the greatest threats to sensitive animal species – such as the fox squirrels, snakes, and turtles I previously mentioned, as well as large animals like Florida panthers and black bears. At present I have no grants to support such work, or my current research focus on fire ecology, so all my scholarly activity (such as writing books and giving lectures) is independent. ‬‬

Q: What is your vision for sustainability?
A:‬‬ My vision of sustainability, for Florida and the world, is for people to finally wake up and realize that they are just one of the millions of species on this precious Earth, fundamentally no better and no worse than any other species. Every species has value for its own sake, regardless of its utility to us. With this realization comes an ethical obligation to seriously reduce our impact on the Earth. Modifying individual behaviors (such as reproduction and resource consumption) is critical, but such a process is slow at a societal level. We must, as citizens, work toward an end to growth of our human population and economy. Governments could do this by offering tax breaks and other incentives for not reproducing excessively, and by heavily taxing products that are designed to be thrown away. By curbing the growth of our population and economy, we will be able to protect much more habitat for other species, and we will pollute and warm the planet much less. We must vote out of office those politicians who oppose increased habitat and species protection in Florida and beyond. Even if someone is not persuaded by appeals to intrinsic value and ethical obligations to other species, one cannot deny the wealth of research showing conclusively that Nature is good for us. Spending time in natural areas makes us smarter and healthier both physically and emotionally. Natural areas support our society in countless ways. But with continued growth, these natural areas and the species they support will disappear, and urban residents will become increasingly out of touch with Nature. Research by leading (but renegade) economists, such as Herman Daly and Peter Victor, shows that a no-growth or steady-state economy can be achieved relatively painlessly and will benefit human well-being in so many ways. Time is running out, so we had better get started.‬‬