News and Notes

E.O. Wilson at 90: The conservation legend shares dreams for the future

Wilson’s message is as strong as ever: Saving space for non-human life will save humanity.

By Andrew Revkin

This article appeared in National Geographic on June 10, 2019.

National Geographic paid a visit recently to Edward O. Wilson, one of the great figures in biology and conservation of this, or any, century. Wilson, who turned 90 on June 10, sat in the plant-filled conservatory at his retirement community outside of Boston and reflected on three-quarters of a century of insights into the astounding diversity of species on Earth, the mounting troubles at the intersection of nature and human nature, and strategies for saving wild things and, in so doing, saving ourselves.

In each comment, Wilson, retired only in the most technical sense, looked forward more than back, eager to spur everyone from school children to the world’s elected leaders to save space for non-human life and fend off a brewing mass extinction. He described his work on the final stages of another book, which he’s calling “Tales from the Ant World,” preparations for a July 6 “bioblitz”—a saturation exploration by students and scientists of the nearby Walden Woods immortalized by Thoreau—and correspondence with officials in his home state of Alabama about a long-held vision to expand parks there.

He laid out afresh his argument for the audacious conservation target he called for in his 2016 book, Half-Earth: for humans to set aside half of our planet’s terrestrial and oceanic space for other species within the next few decades. He insists that it is both essential and achievable.

Conserving this amount of space for nature, he has calculated, can safeguard some 85 percent of the world’s species, offering the prospect of a sustainable long-term human relationship with the planet once our population stabilizes and we learn how to satisfy human needs without undermining ecological health.

But which half, where?

“There are three levels of biodiversity that we’re trying to save: ecosystems, then the species in the ecosystems, and then the genes that prescribe traits of the species that make up the ecosystem,” he said. “And we should decide upon areas to be saved not by the general appearance or what are the main ecosystems in them. We don’t know enough about ecosystems. We should be choosing them according to the number of species that are in each. And particularly the number of endangered species of some kind.”

An urgent first step, he said, is in essence a global bioblitz, from the heights of Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench to city parks to the knotholes in trees, to the bacterial assemblages in our guts.

Indeed, asked what his ideal birthday present might be, he offered this modest wish: “I think it would be a commitment in the policy of the United States and internationally to go for the exploration and identification and protection of every species on Earth, with the same vigor that is building toward stabilizing earth’s climate, because the two are intimately linked.”

In honor of Wilson’s 90th birthday and achievements so far, the National Geographic Society today is launching an ambitious new initiative and suite of grants to discover new species using traditional expeditions, citizen science, and artificial intelligence.

Wilson has allies

On June 6, the world’s biggest global information system technology company, Esri, announced a five-year commitment of resources and funding to help boost the species-mapping capacity of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, which was formed to carry out Wilson’s vision.

In April, dozens of researchers from around the world published a detailed road map, “A Global Deal for Nature,” for protecting 30 percent of the planet’s ecosystems by 2030—essentially creating an interim milestone on the way to achieving Wilson’s vision by mid-century.

Conservation-focused foundations and organizations are investing heavily in boosting nations’ commitments under the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity to protecting the world’s last wild places and important habitat wherever it exists. These include the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, the Wyss Foundation and National Geographic Society.

Wilson sees several strong justifications for such initiatives and the conservation pulse that could result. First is the practical value in being surrounded by diverse and biologically thriving landscapes and seascapes. “When you leave intact as many species as possible, in a major habitat, whether it’s a pond or a bay or a forest somewhere,” he said, “the better it functions. And the better it functions, the better it serves.”

The very process of exploring and sharing the wonders of the natural world wherever it occurs—from city parks to remote peaks—can inspire new generations devoted to intensifying conservation, he said.

Look, go outside. Just go outside in some little woodland around Harvard here, pick up the first small organism you see.’ I’ve actually done that with over 20 graduate students I’ve had, and they’ve all come in with successful theses, but this can be done almost anywhere in the world, as an adventure in which everyone can participate. – E.O. Wilson

After all, he mused, that’s how he got started as a child. “When my parents moved to Washington with me as a 9-year-old, when my father had a temporary job in the government, I found myself five blocks from the National Zoo and just beyond Rock Creek Park,” Wilson said. “And so while I was going through the end of grammar school, I proceeded to spend all of my time in that zoo and then exploring Rock Creek Park. And I became then and there a lifetime professional scientific naturalist… . Seeing people who are actually engaged and studying it and treasuring it and making a lot of it was just enough to make me want to study any subject so that I could be like one of them.”

He stressed that this was not just about wilderness, noting how discoveries can be made at any doorstep.

“I believe it’s worth emphasizing that a scientist and a graduate student in college, and a kid in grammar school all can start with understanding something new by exploring even the simplest and most common forms of life you find right in the heart of the city,” Wilson said. “Along a fringe of a street, along the edges and into a city park, is a multitude of species, of associations, of phenomena going on that scientists themselves have not fully come to understand.

“When graduate students who have worked with me say, ‘What sort of projects should I do for a PhD?’, I like to tell them, ‘Look, go outside. Just go outside in some little woodland around Harvard here, pick up the first small organism you see.’ I’ve actually done that with over 20 graduate students I’ve had, and they’ve all come in with successful theses, but this can be done almost anywhere in the world, as an adventure in which everyone can participate.”

He also recalled the inspiring power of inquiry as he helped lead a community bioblitz on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa in Mozambique in 2011 while serving as an adviser during the creation of the national park there.

“Kids from all the local villages showed up,” he said. “And I had to be the expert for everything.” In two hours, he counted 60 species in 39 families and 13 orders of living things. “These kids went wild,” he said. “They were listening to everything that I and others had to say about the creatures they were bringing in and the plants and so on. And I realized that anywhere a bioblitz could be a powerful instrument in introducing kids to science.”

He noted that the park, with the help of the American conservationist and philanthropist Greg Carr, has since become “a powerful force in helping the country of Mozambique recover from a very serious civil war, and in addition, create a better life for a great many people.”

No single path

Success will be hard won, mostly because there will be no single path to saving room for reefs, forests, and other keystone habitats given the huge diversity of cultures, political systems, geographic situations and stages of development in human communities from the inhabitable fringes of the poles to the Equator.

The range of threats is also dizzyingly varied. In some spots, as the United Nations warned in a landmark report in May, an estimated 1 million species face rising risk of extinction from threats both discrete and diffuse. The threats range from fast-spreading cattle ranches, road networks, and poaching to vast plumes of runoff from farmers’ fields to ocean acidification and global warming driven by accumulating heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide. Ecosystems are being disrupted worldwide by invasive species, like the South American red fire ants that Wilson, as a budding entomologist at age 13, discovered nesting in Mobile, Alabama, in 1946.

But there are many pathways to solutions, Wilson insisted, ranging from harnessing artificial intelligence in conservation science to innovations in agriculture. I think we could produce an almost unlimited new industry of food production,” he said. “People have begun to talk a lot about making hamburgers from vegetables. I like that. If we could just take the cattle off the ranches, and stop slaughtering them, and somehow produce substitutes for the things that are harming humanity most, we would make a great leap forward.”

In the end, Wilson stressed, accelerating the exploration, understanding and conservation of nature is about much more than expanding knowledge or nature’s utility. It is an ethical imperative.

He articulated his most fervent dream: “That somehow we have as a value, a human value, that we not destroy but we protect and study and understand and love the environment that was our birthplace. And the species that were our birth mates, and the ecosystems that are most able today as they were in the past to take care of themselves, giving us almost infinite benefits in maintaining the kind of lives, aesthetically and in terms of our health, that we could hope for.”

“We’re hearing a lot of talk in the present political arena now of values,” he said. “And I believe that we’re on the edge of a new era, in which value is extended to saving the rest of nature. Knowing it, preserving it, studying it, understanding it, cherishing it, and holding on until we know what the hell we’re doing.”