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

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

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.

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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.

The other denial is to say, 'Wait, aren't human beings just part of nature? Aren't they just another extinction element?... The answer is really very simple: Before humanity came along, species were dying at a rate of about 1 per million, per year, and they were being born 1 per million per year. So, through time immemorial, things have been pretty much in balance.

Now we're speeding up the death rate of the species 1,000 times and we're lowering the birthrate. The cradles are being destroyed.

When you say humanity is a part of nature, so we're just an extinction agent... it's like saying the giant meteorite is part of nature. We don't want to be a force of mass destruction.

On scientists as activists:

Scientists in many disciplines have a dual responsibility. They have to continue functioning as scientists, and that means that when they present evidence in the scientific journals they have to subject what they are claiming to peer review, and have all of the protocols of scientific research....

The second role is that of activist. And I believe that most scientists should be activists at least to the extent of making the work in their field more transparent, and the willingness to speak to an issue with the backup of the information that they obtain as scientists. And that's true all the way from global warming, which has drawn some of our finest scientists, to cloning, to genetically modified organisms. In fact, noting that half the legislation coming before Congress contains in it issues of importance from science, this is not an inconsiderable role to play.

On plans to inventory the world's species:

We agreed at the [biodiversity] summit meeting at Harvard [last October] that it was plausible to try for a complete inventory of the world's species in 25 years. A lot of people think that's impossible, because in the last 250 years scientists have managed to catalog 1.8 million [species], maybe. And many scientists now estimate there are [around] 10 million species out there, or as [many] as 100 million.

So how are we going to do this? As in the human genome project, where the cost per base pair in getting the human genetic code kept dropping rapidly as technology advanced and more and more talented people got concentrated on it – in the same manner I'm convinced that the cost per species will drop, drop, drop, and more and more scientists will focus on it.

On the role of ecological "hot spots":

One by one – and this is what comes from science – we're identifying the most critical areas. The 25 [hot spots] the National Geographic is going to be covering [in an ongoing series] only cover about 1.4 percent of the land surface of the world. But if you save that 1.4 percent, we actually can save a large minority of the endangered species. And it's not that expensive.

The Defying Nature's End conference a year and a half ago at Cal Tech estimated that it would cost about $28 billion.

On the role of education:

Once people see these creatures, and learn about them – wolves, African wild dogs, and you can go on down a long list – they become very [interested]. Kids love them. That's one of the great advantages we have in this whole field of biodiversity and conservation – namely that young people are biophilic. They really are attracted to larger creatures and nature.

My hope is that the more people hear and learn, the more they have a strong background in why it matters. They don't have to have a strong background in the science. But [understanding] why it matters, why certain parts of the world are these hot spots, and what's happening to the world, and that it's a creation, and that it's disappearing and we can save it for twice the cost of [Boston's] Big Dig – I think they'll get involved.

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