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January 22, 2001

The (near) future of E.O. Wilson

Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor and one of the leading naturalists of the 20th century, will speak in WHSCAB Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 27, as part of the Reconciliation Symposium. Managing Editor Michael Terrazas spoke with Wilson about his lecture and research.

ER: Your address is titled “The Future of Life.” Could you give us a preview of what you’ll be talking about?

Wilson: Sure. It’s drawn from a book I’m just finishing up by that title [that] will probably be out either late this year or early 2002.

The theme I’m focusing on is reconciliation of humanity and the rest of life, especially the natural environments of the world and biodiversity, or what’s left of it. I have in this work drawn on a great deal of experience in science, government advising and also board membership of conservation organizations to update the [global] situation.

I’m going to make four major points: First of all, that scientists have, especially in the past 10 years, found that biodiversity—the variety of life, numbers of species—of plants, animals and microorganisms is far greater than had been imagined previously, with some 80 percent or more of the species remaining to be discovered. So I’m going to stress how little is known about the living world.

But then I’m going to point out that, due to human activity, this richness is disappearing rapidly. Ecosystems are being destroyed, and species are being extinguished at an accelerating rate, and I’ll show how and why that’s happening.

Then I’m going to say that we’re going to pay a heavy price for that loss, and future generations even more so. The more we allow the hemorrhaging to continue, the more we are going to regret it.

Finally, I’m going to say the hemorrhaging can be slowed or even stopped. Particularly, we have to pay attention to the developing countries, where most of the biodiversity is located, in places like rain forests and coral reefs. This is where global conservation efforts should be concentrated.

It’s an extraordinary figure, but the United Nations classifies 800 million people as absolutely poor: that is, no sanitation, no clean water, no assurance of their next meal and with an appalling rate of child mortality. Somehow we have to concentrate on [raising their standard of living], and we’ve got to do it in a way that enables us to save as much of the remaining environment [as possible].

The image I’ll use is that of a bottleneck of overpopulation and overdevelopment. It’s one in which the world population, which is now over 6 billion, will, according to the best projections, probably peak somewhere between 9 billion and 10 billion sometime later in the century before leveling off and then, perhaps, mercifully coming down.

So that, essentially, is the message. It’s a special kind of reconciliation, which I will suggest is fundamental to all other forms of reconciliation.

Would you classify this book as optimistic or pessimistic?

It’s guardedly optimistic, because there are major, positive changes that are occuring in global conservations. They’re just beginning, and I will describe some of them, but the trend is upward, and some progress can actually be registered. One of the methods being developed by the global conservation organizations, like Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, is the “conservation concession.” That is, because logging in tropical forests operates on a very thin margin, logging companies can be outbid by conservation organizations. You can do it for as little as $10 an acre and sometimes even less than that.

You mean buying the acreage?

Well, there’s several ways of doing it. One is to buy it outright, and that’s been done. A second is to buy the logging rights. In Bolivia, for example, that’s recently been done for less than $1 an acre.

In other cases—in Suriname, for example, on the northern coast of South America—[it involves] setting up logging concessions, where the country has a policy of letting out concessions to timber extracting companies, almost always from outside the country. You enter into the same arrangements with them [as the loggers] and at the same time set up a trust fund.

The trust fund pays out, at a rate comparable to what the logging company could provide, to look after the forests, and also the income is used to help the country develop new sources of income that are noninvasive in the forest, like tourism, carbon credits, noninvasive extraction of medicinal products, that kind of thing.

So there are these movements under way that take advantage of the fact that [many of] these countries are poor. They’ve been victimized up until now by logging and mining conglomerates, and the cost involved is low enough—in the range of tens of millions of dollars—[for conservation groups] to become an important player. With some of that money coming from the conservation organizations and private gifts, leveraged by grants from the United Nations, from a global environmental facility with multiple sources of income, and from the World Bank, it’s possible to get up in the $10 million range without a lot of trouble.

The result has been the doubling in size of two of the major national parks in Bolivia within the last two years and a substantial increase in the reserves of Suriname, with a new policy in that country of preserving its forest and shifting its economy toward noninvasive use of its forests.

So these are among the promising signs that make me guardedly optimistic.

Let’s talk about reconciliation. What do you think about devoting a year of academic study and reflection to the concept of reconciliation?

I think it’s a splendid idea, especially with the archangel of reconciliation, Jimmy Carter, looming above it. And you can quote me.

I will. The archangel?

Seriously, the presence of Jimmy Carter as a theme maker ... that alone gives it considerable weight.

In a way, you’ve been working in reconciliation for much of your professional career. What distinctions do you draw between consilience and reconciliation.

Well, they’re certainly different, but they’re the same in aim. [But] I’ve decided to address the issue of global conservation.

So are you moving away professionally from working in consilience?

Oh no. It’s just that, since I finished [my 1998 book] Consilience, much of my time has gone back to global conservation issues because they’re so urgent. It’s a matter of urgency. I’ll come back to consilience later on, but right now I’m eager to portray and make some contributions to the rapidly changing [ecological] picture. It really is a race between destruction of the last natural environments on one hand, and with that countless numbers of ecosystems and species, and the development of methods and economies to save them.

The book Consilience is there to read, and I just feel more comfortable talking about what should be the major, practical goal of humanity in the years ahead. Scholars themselves will gradually pick up on consilience.

One of the reasons I wrote Consilience and talked about uniting the three great branches of learning was to urge a more naturalistic view of humanity, and the reason for that was to urge a more solid basis for a conservation ethic. In the last chapter, I developed that theme of what’s happening in the global environment and population, what they’ve doing to the rest of life and to each other, and what we must do about it.

So, in a way, your next book is... a continuation of the last chapter of Consilience. And also the new book stresses from one end to the other the need for a development of ethics with more breadth and power in dealing with the changing circumstances of the 21st century. I relate that need particularly to saving our environment as the base for human economy and welfare.

So you think humanity may be able to deal with these concepts before we are absolutely forced to deal with them?

Yes, providing we make the ethical choice to do it and have the will to do it. I regard the great goal of the 21st century, what will give it meaning, is to stabilize the world population and lift it to a decent standard of living, and at the same time to save as much of the natural world as we can. In other words, the rest of life, or, if I can use a quasireligious term, to save as much of Creation as we can. In other words, we’re going to see the 21st century as a bottleneck we pass through, and we really need to try to pass through it and come out the other end with people much better off in the quality in their lives—but also with as much of the rest of Creation as possible.

I realize these are picky little subjects here—just kidding. I realize this is rather sweeping, and I realize there’s a little bit of the pulpit here, but what the heck? I’m coming home to the South. I expect sympathy.

You grew up in Alabama. Do you miss the South?

Yes. I go back all the time, back to Alabama. I’m particularly interested in visiting the natural environments and promoting conservation in the state.

What creatures are more fun to study, ants or human beings?

Oh, there’s no question—ants. I’ll admit that’s idiosyncratic and likely to be shared by what must be an extremely small part of the population. I’m hopeful that people will generally increase their interest in natural history and then pick their own favorite organisms.


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