The Future of Life: Questions and Answers



Series: The John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment
2nd National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment
Primary Speaker: Dr. Edward O. Wilson
Date: December 6, 2001
Location: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Question:

I noticed your map of the U.S., with places that had prob­lems and places that were doing better. I noticed that the least densely populated states had the fewest problems. However, of densely populated states, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and John Chafee’s Rhode Island were doing very well. What are they doing right?

Answer:

The question was why have some of those industrialized and densely populated states shown on that map done so well. I suspect that it has something to do with having eliminated most of the species at an early stage, so we don’t notice the loss now. But it also has to do with the fact that historically some states have much smaller faunas and floras. The faunas and floras for example of the southeastern United States — Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida — are very rich and vulnerable, particularly the aquatic fauna. Hawaii is an example of a very fragile environment, and the colonists hit it in a devastating way. California has large numbers of species that have gone extinct even in recent times, in part because it’s so big, it has so many species, and it has a varied topography where many of the species are limited to just small areas. So I don’t think you can explain it culturally.

Question:

I want to thank you for your presentation. I would like to remind the audience that the first national conference on biological diversity was held in this exact auditorium in 1986. This is a worthy successor. I think there was a point here men­tioned by Dr. Wilson which is extremely important to the concept of sustainability. And that is the current levels, the current lifestyles, the current standards of living in Europe and America cannot be achieved by the world at this point. It would take four times the production capacity of the Earth, the consumption of natural resources, to bring the population of this globe up to the standard of living which probably 98 percent of us in this audience enjoy right now. That’s something that we really need to take to heart — that this is the essence of sustainabili­ty. Until we come to grips with that issue, which is going to be heavily science driven, we cannot solve the issue of sustainable development on the Earth. I would also like to point out that the $28 billion that you mentioned to approach the conservation of a huge proportion of the biological diversity on this Earth is only two-thirds of that which the president is now proposing for an increase of the U.S. budget for the defense department in the war on terrorism, which is $40 billion, and the bailout of the American industry and New York City in trying to repair the damage. We need to look at these scales of investment. $28 billion versus $40 billion. If we can get the political constituency on Capitol Hill to do this, we can answer these problems.

Answer:

Thank you.

Question:

My question is exactly along those lines. I think I speak on behalf of many people in this room in saying that I am in absolute awe of the way that you have so gracefully incorpo­rated complex scientific theory into some very practical policy issues. And my question to you is, what do you see as the scientists’ role in bridging the gap between current consumption patterns and where we need to go to protect environmental diversity?

Answer:

What is the role of scientists? I thought that might be self-evi­dent. The scientists themselves devoted to basic research have a great many major problems to solve and areas to explore, not least of which is to get on with a complete biodiversity map of the world. And recently we did have a summit conference on the continen­tal and in some cases global initiatives around the world, in order to get a concerted effort. All of the heads of the initiatives who attended the summit ended up endorsing the idea of trying to achieve the goal with­in 25 years.

Question:

Dr. Wilson, my name is Brian Czech, I’m a conservation biologist for the National Wildlife Refuge System, so I guess that makes me part of that iron triangle of conserving lands in the United States for the purpose of biodiversity conservation. The thing I wonder about, is as long as we have a national goal of economic growth, which of course we do, those lands will come under increasing pressure for production, and the political boundaries — for example the refuge system and also the private conservation lands, like The Nature Conservancy — will be compromised as time goes by unless we replace that goal with a goal of a stabler, steady state economy. And I recall ask­ing you about two and a half years ago when I first signed on with the Fish and Wildlife Service what you thought about that issue, and you were into the ecological economics movements. But I didn’t hear any of that come out in the talk this evening, so I just wonder how you would intend for us to pursue that aspect of conservation and biodiversity.

Answer:

Well, you know we have a huge job in persuading Americans to look after their own national forest and wildlife preserves. I think that in one way Americans have been sold a bill of goods and might be quickly persuaded if they knew it. The deception concerns the economic potential of logging and mining on public lands. A very interesting figure which comes from the U.S. Forest Service report of 1999: the income produced by our national forests, which I think is what, 8 percent of the land area of the United States, was about $85 billion. Eighty percent was from recreation, including hunting and fishing, 13 percent from logging, and still less from mining. When Americans hear those figures I think they’re going to be less impressed by arguments that we need to intrude on national land in order to favor or save the American economy. Logging and mining are in fact anti­thetical to the use of the land that is producing the most income.

Question:

Dr. Wilson, I spent most of my conservation life with The Nature Conservancy and with the World Resources Institute, both of them looking at policy and preserving habitat. Recently I’ve been in the political arena. You have given an outstand­ing talk, expanding the knowledge of the already committed. But our problem is a black hole of understanding, one mile to the west of here (i.e., the White House) and two miles to the east (i.e., Capitol Hill). What do you suggest we do about that? Because we can convince each other and get wonderful arguments, but if we don’t get the votes and the understanding and the programs, it will all go down the drain.

Answer:

I’ll say one thing we can do is elect people with scientific and environmental backgrounds like John Chafee to the Congress. The composition of the U.S. Congress lacks people with back­grounds, particularly scientific backgrounds, to address these issues. Approximately half of the legislation coming before the Congress is said to have some important scientific issue in it, obviously including all that concerns the environment. I’m sure there are environmentally knowledgeable people on the staff, but we need people at the top who understand the key issues and treat them with passion on behalf of the American people. I think the problem is the following: most of our political leaders and political intellectuals, our talking heads on Sunday morning television and writers of syndicated columns, were educated in the social sciences and in the humanities. Almost none of them were educated in the natural sciences, and that shows. There is such a huge imbalance in the media, coming at us around the clock, and therefore in the perception of the American people.

Thank you very much.



This is a chapter from The Future of Life (Lecture).
Previous: Lecture  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Appendix I: Biography of Senator John H. Chafee


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Citation

Environment, N. (2008). The Future of Life: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156544

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