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.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.