Global ‘chump change’ could provide biodiversity protection

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E.O. Wilson and Eric Chivian talk about biodiversity

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson said the Earth’s major biological hot spots could be conserved for roughly $50 billion— an amount he termed “chump change” in a world of trillion-dollar financial bailouts.

That amount would provide what he called “stopgap” protection for roughly 70 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, which are concentrated on just 4 percent of the world’s land area. That would provide not just protection for animals, he said, but also economic development and other support for people living nearby these critical areas.

Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus, said the amount is equal to just one one-thousandth of the annual “world domestic product” or its annual production of goods and services. Considering the consequences of losing such biodiversity, Wilson said, the amount is small enough for it to be practical to raise.

“It’s chump change and it’s one reason for optimism,” Wilson said.

Wilson made his comments during a talk Thursday evening (Oct. 16) before a packed Geological Lecture Hall. He appeared with Eric Chivian, director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in an event sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Chivian and Wilson marked the publication of a new book detailing the dependence of human health on the life around us. Called “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity,” the book was edited by Chivian and Aaron Bernstein. Wilson wrote a foreword.

Chivian, who was among the founders of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said he embarked on the book project as a way to apply the lessons learned from the anti-nuclear war campaign to the environmental problems facing the world today.

The anti-nuclear war campaign was successful, he said, because it effectively linked nuclear war to human health effects, bringing the horrible consequences home to ordinary people. The problem with global warming and other environmental problems today, he said, is that they’re much more complex and, though they have potentially disastrous consequences, are harder to convey to people not immersed in the problems’ scientific background. There is, in effect, no Hiroshima and Nagasaki to grab people’s attention.

The book, Chivian said, is an effort to fill that gap, providing not just a scientific background of the problems facing life on earth, but also case studies that can bring the problem home.

During his talk Thursday, Chivian presented a few examples from the book about how human health is linked to biodiversity through ecosystem services, food production, and the spread of disease, among others. Using polar bears, cone snails, Lyme disease, and several frogs as examples, Chivian pointed out that science is really just beginning to mine nature for its possible benefits to human health.

Bears, including the polar bear, whose Arctic ice hunting platforms are melting more each year, hold within their hibernating bodies possible keys to treatments of osteoporosis, renal failure, and diabetes, while cone snails’ enormous array of toxins have already yielded a new, addiction-free painkiller.

Extinction, Chivian said, would put similar useful discoveries out of reach. That was the case with two species of frog with the unusual breeding habit of the female swallowing her eggs and brooding them and the developing tadpoles in her stomach. Scientists were interested in the tadpoles because they secreted substances that kept them from being digested that might be useful in the treatment of human ulcers. Both species have gone extinct, however, taking whatever chemical secrets they held with them.

“That information is gone forever,” Chivian said.

During his talk, Wilson said science is gaining a new understanding of the richness of life. Though 1.8 million species have been identified, it is thought that there are between 10 million and 100 million species on the planet, of everything from birds to plants to fungi to bacteria.

Extinction rates are increasing rapidly. The natural rate of extinction — which would occur without human interference — is roughly one species each year for every million species on Earth. That relatively low rate is balanced by a similar rate of species creation, Wilson said. The actual rate of extinction today is thought to be perhaps 1,000 times higher, with estimates ranging from 100 to 10,000 times higher.

The result, Wilson said, is that even as science gains a new understanding of the richness of life on Earth, that richness is being rapidly eroded by human activities. Wilson said we need to avoid reaching biodiversity “tipping points” where the extinction of a large percentage of the Earth’s species will occur rapidly.

Tipping points are in sight, he said, at a handful of known global hot spots that hold concentrations of plants, animals, insects, and other creatures. Some of those hot spots are approaching 10 percent of their original size, a point at which studies have shown they can hold just half of their original species. Once they drop below 10 percent, Wilson said, the remaining species can be lost rapidly.

Despite that dismal picture there are reasons for optimism. Though the human population is projected to grow to 9 billion, it is expected to level off there, which Wilson said is a number the Earth can support. What’s important, however, is that we learn to curb our consumption of the Earth’s resources.

“We can handle that, but what we really have to curb is per capita consumption, particularly the reckless, unplanned, complete free market-based consumption, … which will kill us,” Wilson said.

Wilson cited several other positive developments, such as the possibility of an environmentally sensitive president being elected in the United States, the growing recognition of the need for alternative energy sources, and today’s increasing environmental consciousness.

“This is not a fad; it is the march of history foreordained by the way we have covered the world,” Wilson said.