We must save the rest of life if we expect to survive, says environmentalist Wilson

The 21st century will be called the century of the environment or, in science, the century of biology, predicts Edward O. Wilson (left), one of the world’s leading environmentalists. “This is a time when we will settle down and attain sustainability or completely wreck the planet.”

Since the 1970s, this 79-year-old entomologist has been an advocate for animal conservation and biodiversity protection. “This is a time when we must save the rest of life and rely on it for our existence for the long haul,” he told about 200 people gathered to hear him Saturday morning as part of York’s 50+50 Symposium.

A two-time Pulitizer Prize winner for The Ants and On Human Nature, he has been hailed as “the new Darwin” by Tom Wolfe and one of America’s 25 most influential people by Time magazine. He is Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus in entomology at Harvard University.

Wilson said there is an imbalance in the way we are approaching going green. Instead of concentrating on worrying about the physical environment – the depletion of natural resources, loss of water and arable land, and pollution – we should be focusing first on preserving the living environment. We should be protecting ecosystems in their totality and the species comprising those ecosystems. “You cannot save the living environment without saving the physical environment, but if you save only the physical environment, you will ultimately lose them both.”

The living environment “took tens of millions of years to evolve. Our lives depend on it because we are a biological species living in a biological world,” Wilson said. “Everyone should know something about it. Everyone should care about it and take action.”

“The biodiversity that took three and a half million years to evolve is being eroded at an accelerating rate by human action,” he warned. “The loss is going to inflict a heavy price on us in future generations in our wealth, in our security and not least in our spirit.”

Rapid population growth and high per capita consumption will create an environmental “bottleneck” in the immediate future, he said. “It won’t be comfortable.” But science and technology could get us through it, he suggested.

“Science and technology combined with a lack of self-understanding and a Paleolithic obstinence have ruined the environment and brought us to where we are today,” Wilson said. “Now science and technology combined with foresight and moral courage have to see us through this bottleneck.” If we handle everything right, the 22nd century could be a century of paradise, he predicted.

But the environmental damage already done cannot be repaired within any period of time that has meaning for the human mind, he said. “The more it is allowed to grow the more future generations will suffer for it in ways both well understood now and still unimagined. The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is the folly our descendents will least likely forgive us.”

So far, scientists have identified 1.8 million species, including animals, plants, insects, viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae and protozoa. But they’ve hardly touched the rich natural diversity of life on this planet, he said. The number of species is estimated at 10 to the power of 30. Instead of searching for life on other planets, Wilson said, we should be studying what we don’t know of life on this planet in order to save it.

As a first step to undoing environmental destruction, scientists are mapping endangered hotspots around the world so they can focus their efforts on saving the most threatened. He estimates it would cost $50 billion a year, or 1/1,000th of the gross national product of all countries in the world.

Right: Edward O. Wilson and moderator Suzanne MacDonald

Wilson believes the living environment can be saved. The resources exist. “Those who control them have many reasons to achieve that goal, not least their own security. The technology already exists, the costs are not high and the benefits to all human life and activity are beyond calculation.”

The decision to conserve and protect the living environment will require a religious intensity, he says. “That’s why I’ve reached out to the evangelical community and other religious faithful and am saying let’s stop fussing about this trivial stuff and get together on the transcendent issue of conservation.”

“A civilization able to envision god in an afterlife and to embark on the colonization of space will surely find a way to save the integrity of this magnificent planet and the life it harbours because it’s the right thing to do. And it is an ennobling task of our species to save the rest of life.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer