By Bob Peart
“How was it?” asked my friend. “It was thrilling, I felt like a kid meeting one of my heroes”. I had just finished talking to E.O. Wilson the retired Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard professor of entomology, perhaps North America’s preeminent biologist. “I even got him to autograph my book!” The book was my well-thumbed copy of The Future of Life. E.O. Wilson is someone that I truly admire and as a biologist is one of my all out favourite authors and visionaries. I have consumed his books about ants, socio-biology, the nature of humans, being a naturalist and conservation biology for decades.
Dr. Wilson is in his mid-80s and seldom travels from the Boston area to give public talks, so I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to meet him. In particular, I wanted to hear his most recent thinking about ‘the half earth solution’, a concept that he developed nearly two decades ago. He didn’t disappoint as he spoke strongly about why ‘nature needs half’; that half the world’s earth, water and ocean needs to be conserved for nature “if we are going to stare down that demon climate change.” He believes it would be a tragic mistake not to focus our financial and human resources over the next 10 years to protect the world’s ecological health. He described what he terms ‘the bottleneck’ that the world’s ecosystems and human populations will be facing over the next few decades, and without proper legal protection in place humans are going to destroy most of the species on earth. He reminded his audience that humans have sped up the extinction rate by 1000 times in the past couple of hundred years, that no ecosystem can function once 90% of it is destroyed, and that once the earth has lost 50% of its biodiversity life (as we know it) will truly disintegrate. He bemoaned the human race for setting such a path of destruction and wondered, “…what kind of a species is the human to treat other species as if their life is so cheap?”
And what I have always liked about E.O. Wilson and his writings, once he has painted the realistic, perhaps bleak picture (“…we are playing in a danger zone my friends…”); he follows with a path for survival. In spite of the challenges that face science Dr. Wilson remains optimistic that we could achieve the half earth solution, for a number of reasons:
- Population growth is beginning to stabilize as human society becomes increasingly educated.
- The move to urban living is allowing the rural areas to recover for agriculture, restoration of nature and critical conservation protection.
- The improvement in food quality, production and transportation, in particular with dry land crops.
- Our average ecological footprint will decrease as the global economy shifts to less material, increased productivity and improved energy efficiency.
- The shift to a non-growth economy will ease the demand on the natural environment, and expand the opportunity for conservation.
- We are already witnessing successful large landscape models such as Yellowstone to Yukon, so we know it can be done.
As clear as he was that we could both protect nature and improve our quality of life, Dr. Wilson was also adamant that to be successful governments must come on board with policy and regulation: “The situation is urgent and we must effect behaviour change within the needed time-frame…to do this there needs to be a legal hammer, the research shows that the self-regulating volunteer-carrot approach does not work.”
Dr. Wilson concluded his talk by reflecting on his childhood roaming around the swamps and forests of the Alabama area and the current trend of today’s children to spend an increasing amount of time indoors in front of a screen. There is no question in his mind that exploring nature as a child forged his career. “How can you build curiosity and engage people in nature if they don’t get outside. As ecological health is essential to our daily lives it is crucial that everyone, especially children, spend time with nature, experience real things and figure out how the web-of-life works. I can’t overstate how these experiences lead to love, and it is a love of nature that will lead to being a naturalist and helping to save this earth.”
Meeting E.O. Wilson and hearing him speak about the need to protect wild places and the importance of getting children outside to explore nature was an honour. As I reflect on his talk and my 40 years of conservation it confirms that my efforts have been worthwhile. It also renews my energy to continue the fight to get biodiversity protected, to ensure that society understands that we are part of a larger process, and to get children and their families outside to experience the web-of-life firsthand.
The key question is: “How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?” (from The Future of Life. E.O. Wilson)