‌‌Public Lecture: The Nature of the City, Professor Jesse Ausubel


Most people are perfectly happy to live decoupled from nature in beautiful walled cities, as in the Middle Ages, safe from bears. Beauty relaxes people and is therefore one of the most valuable attributes of any environment. Compact cities together with high yield agriculture can preserve the countryside. Behavior, diet in particular, makes a difference too. A vegan needs half the land of a carnivore. The “share economy” could also spare immense amounts of facilities and equipment. Still, people will increase their mobility, ranging further, as range equates with access to resources. The trick is to provide low-cost speed without paving the land, which means putting more systems underground or perhaps in elevated tubes, and to lift utilization. While we may enjoy many services within walking distance and speed between cities in maglev trains, we need still to embrace the mud and dogs and cats that build human immune systems. In the end, beautiful cities best save nature.



Jesse Ausubel is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York where he elaborates the technical vision of large, prosperous societies which minimise environmental harm and consumption of land and sea.

Mr. Ausubel is recognized for quantifying the declining materials intensity of modern economies and developing the concept of dematerialization and the broader field of industrial ecology, fostering radical waste reduction. He also quantified potentials for technology to reduce resources demanded by agriculture. Mr. Ausubel helped develop the concept of “decarbonization, publishing the first paper using the word in 1991.

His early career at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in Washington DC led to his involvement as a main organizer of the first UN World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. He wrote much of the 1983 NAS report, Changing Climate, the first comprehensive review of the greenhouse effect. He also developed and oversaw NAE studies on technology-intensive sectors of U.S. industry and the diffusion and globalization of technology.

Mr. Ausubel has helped design and conduct major international research programs including the 1979 World Climate Program,the 1983 International Geosphere-Biosphere (Global Change) Program, the 2010 Census of Marine Life, the 2002 the Barcode of Life Initiative, the Encyclopedia of Life project, the 2009 international Deep Carbon Observatory, and the 2015 International Quiet Ocean Experiment.

Author or editor of 150 publications, Mr. Ausubel is a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, adjunct scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and member of the Foreign Affairs board at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. He has served on the board of directors of the Electric Power Research Institute and as vice chair of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

Mr. Ausubel holds honorary doctorates from Dalhousie University (Canada) and St. Andrews University (Scotland), fellowships from the American Geographical Society, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and has been the recipient of numerous prizes including the Blue Frontier/Peter Benchley prize for ocean science, the International Cosmos Prize, and the Breakthrough Institute Paradigm Prize.

Publications of Interest:

  • Cities and Their Vital Systems: Infrastructure, Past, Present, and Future, 1988, J.H. Ausubel and R. Herman, eds., National Academy, Washington DC, pp. 357.

  • Cars and Civilization, 2014, J.H. Ausubel. William & Myrtle Harris DistinguishedLectureship in Science and Civilization, California Institute of Technology.

  • Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing, 2013, J. H. Ausubel et al (2013), Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing. Population and Development Review, 38: 221–242. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2013.00561.x J.H.

  • Nature Rebounds, 2015, J.H. Ausubel, Long Now Foundation Seminar, San Francisco, 13 Jan 2015.