EO Wilson and Elizabeth Kolbert in conversation

Thursday night at Town Hall, the Natural Resources Defense Council presented E.O. Wilson interviewed by the author and New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert. Father of biodiversity, "Darwin's Natural Heir", Pulitzer Prize winner, author of 25 books, ecologist, and humanist, E.O. Wilson is also the subject of the film Lord of the Ants, which will be presented on Nova May 20th. Wilson joked that the only time he tried to publish in the New Yorker, they rejected him, so that, by dialoguing with Kolbert, he was working his way up. While he shares the dismay many of us in the environmental movement feel about the direction in which the planet is going, Wilson is an optimist on human nature, and, by extension, on people's ability to fix environmental problems once they are aware of the issues at stake.Wilson believes that once Americans understand a problem, they can quickly mobilize to work on that problem, as we did in World War II. This isn't just an environmental crisis, he stated, but a crisis of our productive capacity and ability to innovate. We need to keep our lead in the sciences, as he sees it, and take another great leap forward. (This reminded me of Thomas Friedman's New York Times' articles and Al Gore's powerpoint slideshow, in which he is fond of saying that in Chinese the word for "crisis" is the same as for "opportunity"—although it seems that both Al Gore and JFK have misunderstood the Chinese word weiji.)

Wilson related that he has recently discovered from Rachel Carson's biographer, that he is the only living person to have worked with the famous biologist, nature writer, and founding mother of the modern environmental movement.
That we have progressed at least in our thinking about how to approach the environment was apparent from Wilson's stories about the kind of government projects which were being proposed during the 1960's when Carson was working on Silent Spring, and America was even more careless about the environment than we are now.

During this period, Wilson was involved with reviewing projects and determining their environmental consequences, and one project seriously being considered was to use atomic devices to build harbors. The U.S. was going to plant atomic devices from America down to Panama, creating a domino effect of explosions all the way down the continent. Wilson put the kybosh on that one.

Another environmentally disastrous project being proposed in the '60's by the USDA was a plan to spray chlorazine (a hydrocarbon) over the entire range of lands that had become infested with the fire ant. Wilson reported that this project was stopped mainly due to Carson's work, adding that that's why we need science in the environmental movement. The spraying would have created havoc on the rest of the natural life being sprayed and would not have gotten rid of the ant (all you need is one live virgin queen, and she can go start a new colony).

Wilson finished his lecture by making more comments about Americans' values. Though we often do cost/benefit analyses, he said, and have other secularist shortcomings, more than 50% of Americans are religious believers. Religious people see the values they have as embedded in scripture, and are driven by religious values which are sources of strength. These values, Wilson said, would be an asset to the environmental/conservation movement.

A problem is that liberalism and environmentalism in the past have been considered linked, so many people started to think of environmentalism as a ploy by the left, and it became part of the culture war between the left vs. right. Yes, Wilson said, we differ on evolution, but there is so much more that we agree on. He admits that he's strayed from the Christian fold, but the serious problems we face transcend these differences in beliefs.

Getting the religious community into the environmental movement, though, was only one way that Wilson proposed to preserve biodiversity and the environment. Another strategy as we develop and urbanize is to create habitat corridors on each continent. Some hiking clubs are currently working on corridors connecting the Adirondacks to the Appalachian Mountains; Yukon to Yellowstone; and perhaps most importantly, the low-elevation Andean Mountain Range. He mentioned that Costa Rica has become the first carbon balanced sustainable country in the world by building and restoring parks, and preserving forested land.

Encyclopedia of life, a biodiversity e-library, is a new project of Wilson's, which has an e-page for every species with everything known about the species, reached through a single portal, on command. The site officially launched last month, and will be available for free. All the biological libraries agreed to scan all their literature on all species. This is 300 million linkable pages. Amateurs will be able delve deeper intoto anything ever written about any species. When he approached Google with this project, they responded only 100 million species? Easy assignment!

One questioner during the Q & A section of the event, asked how to respond when others might ask why isn't it ok, or even Darwinian to lose a couple of species out of millions of species that exist?

Wilson responded that each species is a masterpiece of evolution, which is highly adaptive. That means for every species we lose, for example one species of tree we lose, it takes on average at least 20 other species of animals, especially insects, down with it. So when we lose a species we don't know what we are losing with that species. Species also provide vital services to us, for example even soil is productive and has many microorganisms that we depend on for food and decomposition. And finally, losing species is also, in Wilson's opinion, immoral. The audiences licking up Wilson's optimistic message gave him a rock star standing ovation

Tags: Biodiversity | Insects | Preservation | United States

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