Listen to E.O. Wilson on NPR’s “All Things Considered” As He Makes the Rounds of Capitol Hill

E.O. Wilson Goes To Washington
Originally broadcast on All Things Considered, May 22, 2016
With Andrea Seabrook

The Pulitzer Prize winner, who’s known as the “father of biodiversity,” is a scientific superstar. But now he’s trying to convince Congress to set aside half the earth as wilderness.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

E.O. Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a retired Harvard professor who’s been called the father of biodiversity. He’s also provoked ample criticism over the years from those who say he overstates the relevance of the animal world to the human one.

But now, at 86 years old, he’s left academic battles behind for a new utopian quest. He wants to convince world leaders they should set aside half of the Earth as wilderness. Reporter Andrea Seabrook followed E.O. Wilson as he made the rounds of Capitol Hill.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: E.O. Wilson sits on a leather couch in the office of Congressman Don Beyer. Beyer is a Democrat from Virginia who’s written a piece of legislation that would create wildlife corridors for mating and migrating animals.

DON BEYER: If we really want to be concerned about biodiversity and the recovery of these endangered species, the corridors is an essential idea.

E.O. WILSON: This is one of those great problems, you know, Congressman, in which two worthy goals…

SEABROOK: …This is not Wilson’s natural habitat. He’s not your average lobbyist. And what he’s asking for – setting aside half of the Earth – is a stretch, especially when he’s asking politicians in an election year. But Wilson is greeted like a rock star. Though no one disagrees with the goal, they’re not promising much, either. And he? Well, he’s a scientist, so he says his goal is deeper than advocating any one policy.

WILSON: I’m trying to save species, getting recognition of the enormous importance of the living environment. And this is in the hands of the people – of countries, especially our own, that have the ability to change things.

SEABROOK: Wilson is the first to admit he’s never been a politician. Like most scientists, he’s a specialist. Wilson’s brain holds everything humanity knows about ants. In fact, he discovered a lot of it. And if that seems small, well, Wilson also helped craft the concept of biodiversity, the idea that the health of an ecosystem – or our planet, for that matter – is linked to its number and variety of species.

So here’s the thing. Even with such lofty credentials, E.O. Wilson, the newly minted lobbyist, leaves freshman Congressman Don Beyer’s office giddy.

WILSON: That was a great opportunity to have a congressman and a scientist chatting back and forth like that.

SEABROOK: It seems very rare.

WILSON: Yeah, it is. It was spontaneous. It was real.

SEABROOK: Wilson shuttles from one event to the next, a briefing room packed with congressional staffers, most of them in their 20s.

WILSON: You are the thin green line. It’s not an exaggeration to say that’s a life or death process ongoing.

SEABROOK: The thin green line, he calls them. The sliver of hope, Wilson says, guarding the Earth’s future from ideas and industries that would use it all up. This is why Wilson is here. This is why, at 86 years old, he works his way from office to office, meeting with any members of Congress.

WILSON: Anything we can add to help out with their decision-making – I think we’d all be more than happy to do that.

SEABROOK: You don’t seem to have a lot of anger or dark feelings about politicians who aren’t interested in this.

WILSON: Well, why should I? I mean, after all, it would be right in the fashion of the day, but what good would it do?

SEABROOK: The stakes are too high, he says. Animal and plant life is now going extinct at a rate about a thousand times faster than it was at the beginning of humanity. So while E.O. Wilson would really rather kick around in the dirt, looking for bugs and critters and the wildlife that quickens his heart, he is instead pacing the marble halls of Congress, seeking reinforcements for that thin green line. For NPR News, I’m Andrea Seabrook in the Capitol.