Campus & Community

Wilson optimistic amid environmental gloom

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Stabilizing population, environmental innovations, will save us

At the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Edward O. Wilson stops next to an African wild dog, of which there are said to be only a few thousand left in existence. Animals like these will be helped by NGOs, Wilson said, which are leading the way in striking the difficult balance between meeting the needs of local human populations and lessening their impact on fragile and increasingly scarce wild areas.

The world is on the road to becoming a barren, overcrowded, and lonely place for humanity, but famed biologist Edward O. Wilson is optimistic we will alter our path and emerge better stewards of the Earth, its creatures, and by doing so, ourselves.

Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, recited a gloomy litany of impending environmental catastrophes before a crowd of about 350 Wednesday (Jan. 16): Populations are exploding, rainforests are falling, species are dying, and the climate is warming.

But all is not lost, he said.

Grassroots environmental awareness is rapidly increasing, as evidenced by the swelling memberships of nongovernmental conservation organizations. These NGOs, Wilson said, are leading the way in striking the difficult balance between meeting the needs of local human populations and lessening their impact on fragile and increasingly scarce wild areas.

He cited the razor-thin profit margins of logging companies as an opportunity for action. For a few dollars an acre, conservation organizations can outbid logging companies and buy up rainforest land. If they can’t buy the land outright, they can buy the development rights to that land, ensuring local governments of as much income as they would have gotten from loggers even as they conserve the land for future generations.

“Large blocks of the last remaining natural environments can be preserved at surprisingly low cost,” Wilson said. “Conservation concessions can be established and make countries turn around and conserve large areas of land for purely economic reasons.”

Wilson cited a program in Surinam where conservation groups set up a trust fund that pays income to the government for preserving tracts of rainforest or for developing sustainable uses for the forest.

“There’s certainly a lot to worry about, but I’m optimistic,” Wilson said.

The Future of Life’

Wilson presented his views as part of the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s (HMNH’s) “Harvard Scientists” lecture series, held in the HMNH’s Geological Lecture Hall. Wilson’s speech also served as the launch of his latest book, “The Future of Life,” in which Wilson lays out the problems and promises of the environmental predicament.

Over the years, Wilson’s writing has brought him high acclaim, including two Pulitzer Prizes, for “On Human Nature” in 1979 and “Ants” in 1991. Wilson, whose research focuses on the social behavior of ants, has also won many awards for his research, including the National Medal of Science in 1976.

HMNH Executive Director of Public Programs Joshua Basseches said as many people were turned away from the packed lecture hall as were admitted. He said the museum is happy to help Wilson spread his environmental message to those who will do the heavy lifting of environmental conservation in the years to come.

“Ed Wilson seeks to inspire a new generation of naturalists dedicated to saving the earth’s natural diversity,” Basseches said.

And indeed he does. After his lecture, Wilson said his next stop is a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. While he hopes his words and writings reach decision-makers in the U.S. government, more than the halls of power, Wilson said he hopes the book is widely read and discussed.

“Particularly if the book is successful, in terms of the attention given it, then I hope it will also prove persuasive,” Wilson said.

Population bottleneck

Despite his optimism, Wilson is blunt about the dangers facing the world. He describes a 50-year “bottleneck” during which the Earth’s human population will continue to grow – perhaps to as high as 10 billion. During that time, humanity’s increasing numbers will increase the pressure to convert the world’s undeveloped areas to farmland, to log its forests or mine its wild places for resources, or to scour the remaining wilderness for animals to eat.

Wilson said if the poorer countries are to be brought to the standard of living experienced by most Americans, it would take the equivalent of four planet Earths to provide those resources.

He added that the 21st century is destined to be known as the Century of the Environment

If this period is poorly managed, Wilson said, the world could lose as many as half its species by the end of the century as well as most of its tropical rainforests and other environmental “hot spots,” such as coral reefs and temperate rainforests, which hold much of the world’s remaining diversity.

“In the last several decades, scientists have found the biosphere to be richer than ever before conceived . . . that biodiversity, that took 3 billion years to evolve, is being eroded,” Wilson said. “That loss will inflict a heavy price in wealth, security, and spirit if allowed to continue.”

Under that scenario, humanity’s teeming billions will be largely poor, crowded, and starving, as nations struggle to increase yields on arable lands and eke out new crops on marginal lands. Fresh water supplies will also be scarce, as water for drinking and washing compete with water for industrial purposes or for the irrigation that will be needed to ensure a reliable food supply.

Hard to forgive

Much damage has already been done, Wilson said, showing slides of endangered and extinct species that took thousands or millions of years to evolve.

“The damage that has already been done can’t be repaired in any length of time that has meaning for the human mind,” Wilson said. “The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is something for which future generations will least forgive us.”

The dangers are multiple, Wilson said, but all stem back to the burgeoning human population. The largest danger is habitat destruction, followed by invasion by exotic species, pollution, and overharvesting, whether plant or animal.

The remaining rainforests, he said, cover an area equal to the lower 48 United States, with an area as large as Florida – along with a quarter percent of its species – disappearing each year.

To stop the destruction will require a lot of money, but Wilson terms it “chump change” compared with the gross world product. He estimated that $28 billion to $30 billion would be enough money to set aside into perpetuity the core areas of the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea rainforests, plus the hottest 25 environmental “hot spots.”

“Keep in mind that it is just one one-thousandth of the gross world product. That’s chump change,” Wilson said. “This problem can be solved. The resources do exist.”