January 22, 2001
The (near) future of E.O. Wilson
Harvards 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.
Wilson: Sure. Its drawn from a book Im just finishing up by that title [that] will probably be out either late this year or early 2002.
The theme Im focusing on is reconciliation of humanity and the
rest of life, especially the natural environments of the world and biodiversity,
or whats 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.
Im going to make four major points: First of all, that scientists
have, especially in the past 10 years, found that biodiversitythe
variety of life, numbers of speciesof 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 Im going to
stress how little is known about the living world.
But then Im 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 Ill
show how and why thats happening.
Then Im going to say that were 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, Im 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.
Its 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 weve got to do it in a way that enables us to save
as much of the remaining environment [as possible].
The image Ill use is that of a bottleneck of overpopulation and
overdevelopment. Its 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. Its 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?
Its guardedly optimistic, because there are major, positive changes
that are occuring in global conservations. Theyre 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, theres several ways of doing it. One is to buy it outright,
and thats been done. A second is to buy the logging rights. In Bolivia,
for example, thats recently been done for less than $1 an acre.
In other casesin 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. Theyve been victimized
up until now by logging and mining conglomerates, and the cost involved
is low enoughin 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, its 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.
Lets talk about reconciliation.
What do you think about devoting a year of academic study and reflection
to the concept of reconciliation?
I think its 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, youve been
working in reconciliation for much of your professional career. What distinctions
do you draw between consilience and reconciliation.
Well, theyre certainly different, but theyre the same in
aim. [But] Ive decided to address the issue of global conservation.
So are you moving away professionally
from working in consilience?
Oh no. Its just that, since I finished [my 1998 book] Consilience,
much of my time has gone back to global conservation issues because theyre
so urgent. Its a matter of urgency. Ill come back to consilience
later on, but right now Im 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 whats
happening in the global environment and population, what theyve
doing to the rest of life and to each other, and what we must do about
So, in a way, your next
...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,
were 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 livesbut also
with as much of the rest of Creation as possible.
I realize these are picky little subjects herejust kidding. I realize
this is rather sweeping, and I realize theres a little bit of the
pulpit here, but what the heck? Im coming home to the South. I expect
You grew up in Alabama.
Do you miss the South?
Yes. I go back all the time, back to Alabama. Im particularly interested
in visiting the natural environments and promoting conservation in the
What creatures are more
fun to study, ants or human beings?
Oh, theres no questionants. Ill admit thats idiosyncratic and likely to be shared by what must be an extremely small part of the population. Im hopeful that people will generally increase their interest in natural history and then pick their own favorite organisms.