The godfather of biodiversity, E. O. Wilson, comes to town April 7 to make his case for protecting the planet from imminent destruction. In 2006 the Harvard entomologist-turned-public-intellectual — and winner of two Pulitzers — decided to reach out to the religious community with a book called The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. In it Wilson suggests that secular humanists (like himself) and evangelicals (like his childhood self) can find common ground in their respect for plant, animal and human life whether they believe the existence of that life stems from God, evolution, or something in between.
Wilson’s Thursday night talk at UCSB will take up themes from The Creation, but whereas his book is addressed to an imagined Baptist minister, he is aiming his talk at college students in whom he hopes to inspire the same reverence for the natural world and its ecosystems that he found as a young man. The Indy caught up with Wilson at his home in Lexington, MA to chat about his upcoming talk and ask him about the looming threats to biodiversity.
Can you give me a preview of the talk you’ll be giving at UCSB?
The title, The Creation, was deliberately chosen because of the style in which I framed the argument of the book. The book is a long letter addressed to a Southern Baptist Pastor, but that’s just a literary device. I wanted especially for religious people and, in particular evangelicals (the branch of the group I grew up with) to consider the argument that the time has come for scientists and environmentalists on one side — whatever their religious persuasions — and religious believers (people committed to a particular religious creed even though they may not believe in evolution) to put differences aside, to pursue a transcendent goal important to both. That is of course saving the diversity of life on earth, the living environment. The reason I address it that way is to avoid the entanglement of irrelevant ideology and religious beliefs and to try to form an alliance that was transcendent. That was the style, but then the argument for the book was meant for a general audience. I think it is for anyone interested in the rest of life on Earth.
What provoked you to address a religious audience?
That’s very simple. Eighty percent of Americans are religious believers to some degree.
So it was a tactical decision?
First of all, it is really a very logical argument. Also, it’s tactical. Not tactical in any sense that I was trying to manipulate anybody, but simply pointing out that what we are dealing with here is a transcendent issue. Also, I recognize that about 40 percent of Americans are evangelicals.
Now let me back up and tell you why this was important to attempt. It is because although Americans are really beginning to appreciate and support environmental efforts — efforts to save the environment — their minds are on the physical environment. That’s what we are focused on and talking about: climate change, pollution, exhaustion of irreplaceable resources, the drying up of our water resources, and so on. I wanted to point out that the great problem that we have not faced squarely is preserving the living environment that is biological diversity, the variety of ecosystems and species. I’ve noticed that this is a much harder sell while others in environmental movements and biology have noticed that trying to persuade people of the importance of the living environment — particularly biodiversity and natural ecosystems—is a harder sell because people don’t grasp it quite so easily. They don’t see the long term implications of having a more balanced conservation ethic.
Addressing it in this matter and deliberately trying to enlist people of very diverse ethical and religious beliefs means that I recognize that political decisions are not made (especially in this country) without grassroots support. One of the problems with American politics now is that most major elections, both state and national, are balanced on a knife’s edge, and political candidates are afraid to bring up and pursue any issue that they are not certain is going to get them votes and equally certain is not going to lose them votes. So it’s very important to have grassroots support. What is grassroots support? That’s the people. Who are the people? The people of America are highly religious. They logically would find it part of their ethic to preserve the rest of life. That was the argument. I think it has worked pretty well. That is to say I think it helped to stimulate more interest than had existed among evangelical groups.
Have you heard back from religious groups since you published The Creation?
Oh yes, I’ve joined them. When the book first came out I spoke to quite a few leaders. I was invited to speak with different groups. I was invited, for example, by the Mormon leadership to visit them in Salt Lake City to discuss the issues, and also by Southern Baptists and other religious groups. It didn’t mean that I helped start a major movement. But I think it did push things in the right direction a little bit. I still think that’s a sound approach to take at the grassroots level.
But that’s not the main subject of my talk. … The main subject of the talk is to present to a university audience and the broader public what the real situation is now with the rest of life — how much there is, how little we know about it, and how fast it is disappearing. Those are facts which I’ll be laying out in my talk. I’ll also show why it’s disappearing and a little bit about what we can do about it. And then, especially to the students that I’ll be speaking to, the great challenge and the adventure in front of us in the discovery, the mapping and the maintenance for human welfare of the diversity of life on the planet. Those are general subjects. I think if you can just scan through [The Creation] you’ll see what some of the basic arguments are.
I actually had a couple questions about the book. In The Creation you use the acronym HIPPO [habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population, over-harvesting] to describe the greatest threats to biodiversity.
Oh yes, that’s a very convenient way of remembering what we’re doing to diversity and to species and ecosystems. It’s easy to remember because when you go from H to O, you’re starting with the most destructive of all and going to the least destructive — from habitat destruction including climate change, down to over-harvesting including too much hunting, too much fishing. And they are all serious.
It seems to me that in order to address one of those threats you must augment another one. For instance, building renewable energy projects that displace habitats. You almost have to do a cost-benefit analysis.
Of course you do. You have to do it for everything. Of course the bio-fuel problem is a classical example of a cost-benefit problem. We want to move to a pollution-free or pollution-low form of fuel. That will assist everything. It will assist people; it will assist conservation. But on the other hand, taking up land — especially undeveloped land where wildlife exists — to create more bio-fuel is very detrimental to biodiversity. That’s an extremely important problem in a country like Brazil which is eating into the rainforest to plant more sugarcane and soybean. You’re right. It’s not just a simple “don’t do this or do that.” It’s a matter of figuring out what the best thing to do is.
But one thing we should not get too analytic about, in terms of allowing an economic-type analysis to determine the practice, is treating species extinction as a medicine-like triage. In other words, when people say there are species that are near extinction, let them go because extinction is natural. I think that is unethical. There is no such thing as a senescent or an aging species. There are only species that have just about been pushed into extinction by human beings. All species consist of mostly young, vital individuals. The last tigers of the world, of which there are only a couple thousand, are young and vigorous. The last Sumatran rhinos, of which there are about 300, are all very young and vigorous. It’s just that there are only a few of them. The whole species could go extinct if we allow the hunting of anymore of them, and so on down the list. We should have saving every single species and every single ecosystem we can as an absolute ethic. That should have top priority because we can always figure by cost analysis of other energy — using systems within the human domain — and we could always figure out other solutions to allow the preservation of just about all of the species if we wish. So that’s the main argument I’m making when I arrive there in beautiful Santa Barbara.
Do you think that climate change is the biggest looming threat to biodiversity?
Habitat destruction is generally the biggest threat by far. I include everything in that, both direct removal of wildlands, further conversion of what wildlands we have left, and that conversion occurring as a result of the drying out and temperature changes through the climate change we are causing. Both of those are involved in habitat destruction, but of the two elements — direct destruction with chainsaw and plow and indirect destruction by human-induced climate change — I’m not sure which one is the worst. Maybe we could get measures of it but right now they are both very severe.
I know that you are a pretty firm believer in keeping a distinction between [the concepts of] “nature” and “culture.” Can you tell me a little bit about what bothers you about philosophers who question the boundaries between human life and the natural world that surrounds us?
What bothers me is that they are confused. You know, in one sense you can define nature as any place where you have species and organisms living and growing and reproducing independently of human beings. You can define nature that way quite sensibly. If you leave a plot of land alone, in a while it is going to start regenerating and probably by means of a great many of native plants and animals. The city of Chicago has what it calls a wilderness program. These are vacant plots and land and riverfront acreage around the city that has been left long enough so that it is beginning to return — not to primeval nature, no — but at least to an ecosystem that potentially exists independently of human activity.
The trouble with philosophers is that there is very little left for them to do anymore except semantics. Those who are philosophically inclined — I shouldn’t come down on them too hard; a lot of others make the same confusion — point out that even fairly pristine rainforests or prairies have been modified by humans who have come in and hydrated, or cut some of the timber, or shot off part of the large animals, or introduced exotic plants. That’s true, but the difference between a relatively old-growth forest or blue water ocean and portions completely developed by humans is dramatic. I would invite anybody that needs convincing to go to some place in the Amazon or on Borneo or, for that matter, in the Western United States where natural forests have been cut over recently and are being converted into pasture and cropland. Just go into the forest and feel the difference — the temperature, the moisture — and look all around you and get a feeling of the teeming life of great diversity. And then walk out into the part that has just been developed. You’ll see the difference between nature and culture or between nature and human-created environments. That’s the way to do it.
So it was when humans created agriculture that we stopped being part of nature?
That’s right. Ten-thousand years ago. At that time, and up to the present time in many parts of the world, people made a distinction between wilderness and wild land which was there to be taken and converted or, as they like to say, developed. … So Western European cultures and Middle Eastern as well — let’s say most of the agricultural cultures of the world — do not consider land developed until it is converted. And land ownership is something that is held as a sacred right. And ownership is validated by developing the land you acquire, meaning cutting it over or clearing it and converting it into human use.
At this point Wilson, previously unaware of how long he’d been talking, realized he was running late for another engagement. “I’ve said enough things to irritate a lot of people,” he quipped, suggesting that the interview was therefore a success. He will continue his provocations on Thursday night 8 PM at Campbell Hall on the UCSB campus. Tickets are available through www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu or 805-893-3535.