Not many academics can say they have been mistaken for a spy. It happened to Eric Lambin in 1987 during his dissertation field research in the West African country of Burkina Faso. The mix-up – likely due at least in part to the fact that Lambin was the only white person in a remote corner of the country – is emblematic of the Stanford environmental scientist and geographer’s shape-shifting career of crossing geographical and disciplinary boundaries.
For his work to understand land use changes, their impacts on ecosystems and the effectiveness of land use policies, Lambin was honored with the 2019 Blue Planet Prize, a roughly $450,000 award widely considered the Nobel Prize for science that contributes to solving global environmental problems. UCLA professor Jared Diamond, best known for his popular science books, was also awarded this year’s prize. Lambin pioneered an approach that links socioeconomic data with remote sensing data to demonstrate new land use change processes resulting from the globalization of economies. His work has expanded our understanding of the causes of deforestation, forest fires, desertification and vector-borne disease.
“For three decades, Eric has been doing transformative work of the type that not only changes science in major ways but policy and decision making as well,” said Pamela Matson, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor in Environmental Sciences at Stanford.
“(Lambin’s) research findings have provided scientific support for making the most of forest certification programs, for implementing green purchasing commitments, and for promoting green procurement,” the prize judges wrote.
For Lambin, the award is validation of his unusual path away from the highways of major disciplines and pursuit of research questions wherever they might lead.
As a student, Lambin was mostly interested in travelling in far-away countries, discovering different cultures and exploring wilderness. By studying geography and doing long periods of fieldwork in Africa, he found a way to follow his passion while contributing to the emerging science of human-environmental interactions in land systems. Every new region he studied presented new questions and scientific challenges. A common theme was sustainability: how to navigate a path that allows communities to flourish while conserving nature.
Lambin continues to investigate that overarching question in drylands, tropical forests, mountains and peri-urban areas, with an evolving focus on issues ranging from farming systems and land degradation to vector-borne diseases and land use governance. He has shown how one country’s reforestation efforts can outsource the burden of extracting timber and producing crops to other regions – a finding that clarifies the importance of international prioritization of land areas, regardless of political boundaries, and consideration of globalization’s effects on land use practices. More recently, Lambin and his colleagues have looked at how sustainable sourcing commitments by private companies applied through their supply chains – for products ranging from chocolate to palm oil – can promote less destructive land use practices.
“Complex coupled human-environment systems are based on multiple interactions between their social and natural components,” Lambin said. “They are organized at multiple scales, they include a rich geographical dimension, and they are highly dynamic. Finding pathways to sustainability involves balancing competing objectives. In all my research projects, I am highly motivated by attempts to find order and patterns out of these messy situations.”
Lambin joins three past Blue Planet Prize recipients from Stanford: Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Studies; Harold Mooney, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus; and Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus.
Lambin is the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the Department of Earth System Science within Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; a senior fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; an affiliate of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment; and a professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. Matson is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and former dean of Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.