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Interview: E.O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson is Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science and Curator in Entemology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. He is a leading voice in the world for the preservation of biodiversity. Some of his noted publications include the Pulitzer-prize winning On Human Nature, The Diversity of Life, and more recently, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. His many scientific awards include the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. You've stated that there are two major categories of environmental issues: the loss of biological diversity and all other environmental problems. What do you mean by this?

E.O. WILSON: By all other environmental problems I mean the various forms of degradation of the physical environment which make the news and political addresses most often, including, among others, ozone depletion, climatic warming, and toxic pollution. Contrasted sharply with all of those is the loss of biological diversity, which is often confused with deforestation. The two are linked, but referring to deforestation does not embrace automatically the key issue here, which is the loss of biological diversity from genetic diversity within species to entire species within ecosystems and even entire ecosystems themselves. This is occurring at an accelerating rate. The loss of biodiversity, that second of the two major categories, is very different from the first category because it is irreversible.

Addressing it would entail uncovering very great benefits for humanity from new products and medicines to the maintenance and even improvement of ecosystem services to still uncharted areas of aesthetic pleasure and psychological fulfillment.

What first steps should we take to prevent greater loss of biological diversity?

One of the first steps should be increased education. People at all levels from high government officials to average citizens need to understand what biodiversity is, why it's important to humanity, how little we know about it and how fast it's being lost. One of the many initiatives that should be taken is the protection of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, the ones we call the hot spots. These are those patches of forest, lakes, river systems, and bits of savannah that have large numbers of endemic species found in them which are endangered. This is an immediate brush-fire which we must attend to immediately.

Another thing we need to do is explore the natural world better and get improved maps of where the biodiversity is located. We must account for all the various types of organisms, not just those we already know well, like birds and trees, but also many of the lesser well-known organisms, from beetles to protozoan and even bacteria. We must learn to plan more sensibly in order to manage and use this biodiversity.

And a third thing is to develop more linkages between conservation and use of biodiversity and economic development especially in the poorest countries, which are in the strange position of having the greatest material poverty and overpopulation as well as the greatest biological wealth. It makes sense for them and for everybody to develop their biological wealth.

Do you think that the United States Endangered Species Act is comprehensive enough as it stands now?

No. It's directed toward individual species and a case-by-case reactive set of procedures. To be sure, it stresses the preservation of the ecosystem that contains endangered species. But we need a new total strategy for saving endangered ecosystems as well as endangered species.

I believe the ideal would be to retain the Endangered Species Act, or some strong modification of it, as a safety net for individual species, but to put a lot more emphasis on the identification of hot spot ecosystems, defined as those ecosystems which both have large numbers of species peculiar to them and are also under threat. By identifying the ecosystems now that most need preserving in order to hold on to the maximum amount of American biodiversity, we can make longer range plans in the form of providing zoning regulations in and around these areas and circumvent the advance of inefficient and destructive development plans.

The Endangered Species Act has, in any case, only resulted in a blocking of minute fractions of the twenty thousand or so projects that have been examined formally and informally under its provisions -- something considerably less than one percent. But there is a risk that if we rely entirely on the Endangered Species Act as it's now written, with better and better knowledge of more and more groups of organisms, not just birds and a few trees and so on, we will begin to get so many cases of individual species to examine that we could enter a conservation-development gridlock. The way to avoid that is to get started on mapping the biodiversity of this country more accurately, and, as the bureaucrats like to say, making longer upstream plans to protect those ecosystems.

How would you describe your view of environmental ethics? Do you advocate environmental protection for human's sake or for nature's sake?

I have an essentially anthropocentric set of moral precepts. I spell that out in my books On Human Nature, Biophilia, and The Diversity of Life. Although I see little evidence to argue strongly for innate rights of other species, I nonetheless think that it is entirely in the interest of our own species to preserve as much of the biodiversity on the earth as we possibly can for multiple reasons that range from the utilitarian to the spiritual. We haven't begun to explore adequately what I'm loosely defining as the spiritual side, namely the aesthetic, emotional, and creative powers of the human mind, which may depend a lot more on the existence of a relatively unsullied natural environment and a diversity of living organisms around us more than we had understood.

So, in arguing for an anthropocentric view of nature, I feel as strongly as any animal rights activist or species rights activist in calling for the salvage of all the biological diversity we can save, not only because I believe that those connections are there, having been put in place by millions of years of human evolutionary history, but also out of sheer prudence. We are throwing away right now, in a span of twenty to thirty years, something that took millions of years to create and would take millions more to replace, even in part. That seems to me to be the height of folly.

Do you consider human beings to be morally responsible for environmental deterioration and species extinction or to be mere players in the often harsh game of evolution?

That question is closely related to the one you just asked, namely, what is the place of humanity in this environment? Should we just consider ourselves a natural agent, the latest of a long evolutionary series, so that whatever we choose to do is in some way natural, that is, part of nature's design? Or should we consider ourselves utterly unique in our destnictive capacity and morally obliged to prevent environmental degradation? Without getting wordy about, I definitely prefer he latter. We are something new under the sun. We're the first species ever to understand what we are doing, and we're he first species ever to have this awesome destructive power.

Are you in favor of the US or other industrialized countries arranging debt-for-nature swaps in which the American government cancels Third World debts in return for cooperation in protecting endangered parts of the environment?

Yes, I am. It's been pointed out that, under the best of circumstances, the debt-for-nature swaps will actually forgive only a minute fraction of Third World debt, but this is not a reason to discontinue them or to de-emphasize them. The other side of the trait has enormous impact. Just converting, say, one percent of the debts of Third World countries to funding for conservation and local development around conserved areas can go very far toward solving the most acute problems in biodiversity conservation.

Why should the industrialized world shoulder this burden?

First of all, out of decent concern for humanity, in which the United States has a traditionally strong record. But second of all, out of simple self-interest because the Third World owns the biological wealth and the developed countries like the United States can share in that developed wealth, such as the development of pharmaceuticals. Also, these countries, as future trading powers, will be the economic partners of the United States.

A desire for political stability in these countries provides another reason. To preserve and make better use of the natural environment is to promote political stability. One need only point to the main trouble spots of the New World in recent years -- El Salvador and Haiti, for example -- and make note of the fact that these are the most devastated and overpopulated countries in the Western hemisphere, recognizing the connection between environmental stability and the alleviation of poverty. Proper development in these countries is tied up with proper environmental use along with political stability.

But beyond that, the massive deforestation of countries is contributing substantially to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas loads of the atmosphere. There is no question that other environmental changes that are and will be occurring are going to impact the rest of the world in yet other ways. An example is the changing rainfall patterns over whole continental areas.

Does the prospect of global warming worry you?

Yes, of course it does. In global warming we're seeing a problem that may not strike us fully for another fifty or one hundred years. Even relatively conservative models predict that it's going to be an important problem environmentally if left unabated, quite apart from the immediate impact on human population and on the productivity of agricultural areas. Increased global warming means big problems for natural reserves, especially in the north temperate zones and the poles, where the climatic zones will be changing too fast for a large percentage of the plants and animals to adapt, putting them in the position of literally having to transplant. We will have to move entire preserves and national forests northward in order to keep up.

What role can the preservation of tropical rainforests play in preventing global warming?

They can help by locking up substantial amounts of carbon in living tissue and wood instead of having it converted into carbon dioxide. Some have estimated that if an area of the world the size of Australia or perhaps Brazil were to be planted in trees, this would be nearly enough to halt the increase in carbon dioxide levels. I don't know how accurate that is but I do believe that continued massive deforestation, which is contributing a large minority of net increase in carbon dioxide levels, is a major factor.

Has your environmental consciousness sprung out of your work as a biologist?

My interest in biology goes back to my childhood. Having been raised in the Deep South, I had access to woods and fields and enjoyed a sense of wonderment of natural wildlife from the beginning. I always planned on making a career in the studying of nature and diversity. From my teens on I was aware of environmental problems. My current heavy involvement is more the culmination of a lifetime of writhing anxiety rather than a response to the environmental movement.

What do you think are the most effective methods of spreading environmental awareness throughout our society and beyond?

The media are all-important. That's why I've spend a lot of time talking to journalists. The media are the intermediaries in spreading information and developing movements, especially in a democracy. Scientists who wish to influence policy seldom are able to do this, particularly in an area like biodiversity which is not easy to explain and hasn't yet caught the public's fancy. It is very difficult for scientists to have much of an influence by going directly to political leaders -- believe me, I've tried -- unless the political leaders are already convinced or have a personal commitment. Unless they are already committed personally, they tend to be unresponsive. Yet if they perceive that a lot of the public cares about the issue, then it will get high priority. That sort of public consciousness-raising, though, is usually accomplished only through the media.

Increasingly, the chain of communication and causation in a new area like biodiversity, as well as in many other other fairly new environmental issues, is conceptually difficult. You really have to understand ideas like the ones we've been talking about. The average person has to be able to answer a question like 1s humanity just a normal agent of nature?' and 'Won't evolution replace extinctions anyway as part of the natural process?' The average person has to be able to understand the answers to such questions. These questions are not difficult, but right now people don't know the answers.

It is important for scientists to work through books and then through the media to reach a large number of people. Once this is accomplished, activists can then elevate the problem to the status of public issue. And if enough people are persuaded, it creates the type of pressure that moves political leaders in a democracy. It's very simple: 1...2...3.

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