E.O. Wilson on the Importance of Biodiversity

The famous biologist discusses his life's work in conservation and his efforts to save the ecosphere.

E.O. Wilson:  In my long life, actually I'm 85 years old, I've been through a lot of different worlds, mostly biological worlds and parts of the natural world and the like. And what I'm coming increasingly to concentrate on in whatever time I have left is the natural world and the necessary means that we have to use to save it. There are about two million species of plants, animals and microorganisms that we know about, that scientists have found, diagnosed, given a description of and a scientific name, two million almost exactly at the present time. The actual number of species in the world is estimated at roughly eight million species, maybe eight to ten. We don't know. Most of the natural world, most of nature, much of the living part of the environment is unknown to us. And of those species that we know, the two million, we only know the lives, lifecycles and the biology of only a tiny fraction. And of that tiny fraction that we know something about we know just a tiny fraction again of how they interact with other species. We are living in and dependent upon a world, a biosphere in which we evolved and to which we are exquisitely well adapted in every part of our body and our mind, razor thin that biosphere within which we and our fellow organisms live without going into submersibles or space suits.  And we are destroying a large part of it.


The rate at which species are going extinct, this is the consensus order of magnitude, I've estimated, others have estimated different ways and so on working in this field of extinction, the rate at which species are going extinct is on an order of magnitude a thousand times faster than what species were, how fast they were going before the coming of humanity. We're hemorrhaging the world's biodiversity. People know that but they just don't seem to grasp what this means. What this means is that the living shield, just from their point, the human point of view, the shield of living organisms that maintains the environment is close to or exactly what humans need, because we evolved as one of them, is being shorn away. We estimate that the number of species of existing unimpaired at the end of the century would be just somewhere around one half. One half will be gone or on the brink of extinction at this rate of extinction.


There are ways to stop this and I think we're going to have to start talking about big changes in how much of the earth's surface we put aside for nature just to keep it from going extinct in a very short period of time. And I'm in a group of scientists working very hard on that part right now, this is what I'm focused on and I hope we might even see what some of the solutions will be, but here's one last interesting point. Just as our salvation is aided by an unintended consequence of women who get any economic freedom stop having children, that is they drop having the children number below zero population growth, which is a very good thing for an overpopulated world right now. In other words we don't have to enforce or persuade much more people to have fewer children, what we need to do is to move as much of the world population into the middle class with women's freedom.  We could reach, well this is the United Nations projection, we could reach eight to ten billion by the end of the century and then the population begins to subside.


What about consumption? Many people would say well, you know, eight/ten billion people that still means that we're going to eat up the rest of the world so there's still a lot. No. Not at all. There's something called the ecological footprint. That's the amount of land required for each person on average to live at whatever level of life humanity is reaching for or has acquired for the amount of land for habitation, for food, for governance, for transportation, the whole thing, maybe scattering pieces around the world but we can measure it and it has been measured. And so the theory would be that's growing, is it not, because of increased per capita consumption. And that makes even with the population slowing and receding the rest of life would be gone, right? Wrong. No.


With modern technology, and think about it, everything in the current innovative techno-scientific evolution that society is going through is producing an ever smaller footprint. Why?  Because people buy - the whole economy is increasingly techno-scientific and being directed at making things lighter, smaller and more effective in energy consumption. And it happens then, and this is something I need, I think the economists should be measuring and thinking about.  What then important is as human economic activity increases world wide it is, at the same time it seems to me, I have discussed this with some experts and they seem to agree, this is an extremely important principle, that what we're doing in the modern scientific techno-scientific digital hyper-connected age is shrinking the ecological footprint. Believe it or not. That could be, and we need measurements taken, that could be the solution of the whole thing. Because if we give more to nature to hold onto that shield and the living part of the environment, it can be done and I believe it can be practical because of the shrinking ecological footprint. Just a thought.


Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton




Edward O. Wilson claims that the biosphere is incredibly delicate and without a change in behavior we will irreversibly destroy the biodiversity on the planet.

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