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From a key observer of life: a plea to save biodiversity

Edward O. Wilson tells why scientists should be activists, species preservation is affordable, and humans have a debt to earth

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2002


In Edward O. Wilson's office at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, bugs – and other diminutive creatures – are a big theme.

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Artwork depicting ants and other insects adorns the walls, alongside a photograph of a snail endangered in the southern Appalachians. Size has never mattered to this champion of biodiversity, who says his weakness is that "every endangered species that I encounter, I fall in love with." One of his two Pulitzer prizes was for his seminal work, "The Ants."

But Wilson looks to larger species, too – he considers the Sumatran rhino a "kind of talisman" – and his work has extended to philosophy, sociobiology, humanity's debt to nature, and the connections between different branches of knowledge. An activist as well as a scientist, he sits on the boards of several international conservation organizations.

In his latest book "The Future of Life" (Knopf), he not only gives a vivid picture of the bounty of species – and their rapid disappearance – but an impassioned call to action and a blueprint for saving the earth's biodiversity.

Calling himself a "cautious optimist," he points to several positive signs in biodiversity conservation, and also insists that, with targeted efforts and a moderate financial commitment, it is possible to save many of the world's disappearing species.

While global warming, ozone depletion, and cleaner air and water frequently attract news coverage and public attention, the issue of disappearing species and ecosystems sometimes fades to the background. According to Wilson, it's a critical issue to address for several reasons. First, unlike physical degradation of the environment, species extinction is irreversible. Second, it makes economic sense. Wilson points to a group of biologists and economists who in 1997 estimated that the services the natural world provides – things like clean air, clean water, and arable soil – amounted to about $33 trillion a year.

Perhaps most important, says Wilson, saving species and ecosystems is a moral issue. Not to do so, in his opinion, would be a supreme ethical failure in terms of our debt to the world, to future generations, to the very sanctity of creation. He wrote "The Future of Life" – which he begins with an open letter to Henry David Thoreau and peppers with his own sense of wonder – hoping that more people would feel the imperative he does to change humanity's destructive trajectory.

In an interview at his Harvard lab, he discussed his ideas further.

On people's awareness:

One hundred and fifty years ago, humanity was essentially unaware and unconcerned about extinction of species. Very few people put up a squawk when a couple of egg collectors deliberately destroyed the last two great auks. There was scarcely a tear shed when the last passenger pigeon died. We were on the verge of just driving the American bison – the most abundant big mammal in North America – to zero. Finally, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we began to care about a very small number of species. It became part of our culture to care about the American eagle and the bison and so on. And that's gradually spread.... You have people [in the southern Appalachians] who care about these endangered little mollusks that are in the streams, whereas previously you would have been thought nuts if you'd said they're in danger.

On arguments against conservation efforts:

People are in denial... When someone comes along and says – whether it's Rush Limbaugh, or [author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist"] Bjorn Lomborg, or a petroleum industry spokesman – and says, 'Well, you know, we just don't believe these figures ...," that's a denial.