Half of life could go extinct by century's end, warn eminent biologists

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

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E. O. Wilson
Image: Sage Ross.
Wilson and Raven pose with their Verrill Medals.
Image: Sage Ross.

In a "fireside chat" at Yale University on Wednesday, prominent naturalists Edward O. Wilson and Peter H. Raven predicted dire consequences for the planet's biodiversity and habitability unless current trends in consumption and environmental degradation are reversed. The two scientists were awarded the Addison Emery Verrill Medal by the Peabody Museum of Natural History for their contributions to natural science before a capacity crowd at Yale's Sprague Hall. Both are known for their environmental activism as well as extensive research and popular writing.

Wilson, known for his contributions to island biogeography as well as the controversial field of sociobiology, said that humans—like all earth species—are adapted to this world. But most people have the dangerous attitude that this world is "a waystation for a better world", warned Wilson. Humans could cause the extinction of half of all species by the end of the next century, he stated.

The event was billed as a debate between the two scientists, but they found little to disagree about. (Raven quipped that he did not care for Wilson's tie, the extent of their disagreement for the evening.) Raven pointed to unsustainably high levels of consumption, especially in the United States, that will lead to ecological disaster if left unchecked. Levels of consumption have to be cut drastically, he argued. But Wilson claimed that it would be possible to maintain and even improve quality of life even while significantly reducing the population's ecological footprint. Current models, he said, predict that human population will peak at around 9 billion, and that "if we use what we have" intelligently, the world could be a sustainable paradise by the 22nd century.

Raven and Wilson both argued for the compatibility of Christian and environmentalist viewpoints. According to the second chapter of Genesis, said Raven, man was put on the earth in order to preserve it. Wilson said that we need to "form an alliance" to save life on earth—an alliance including both religious and non-religious people—and that one can be a "conservative right-wing Christian" and an environmentalist. His recent work, including the Encyclopedia of Life, has focused on creating such an alliance.

The most important thing, Raven said, is to expose children to nature. Invoking the argument of Rachel Carson's 1965 A Sense of Wonder, Raven said that children between the ages of four and ten are extremely impressionable, and that teaching them to appreciate the natural world will be the most effective way to ensure environmental consciousness in the next generation. But although Raven was a naturalist from a young age, he said that he "didn't give a thought to conservation" while in graduate school in the 1950s. Carson's 1962 book on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, was Raven's introduction to dangers of environmental degradation. Wilson also emphasized Carson's legacy for the environmental movement; he proudly noted that Carson biographer Linda Lear had recently called him the "only surviving person who actually helped Rachel Carson" put together Silent Spring.

Raven and Wilson were only the 16th and 17th, respectively, to receive the Verrill Medal, which is the highest honor awarded by the Peabody Museum. Before a sympathetic crowd, Wilson tactfully avoided any mention of his own institution, Yale's rival Harvard University.


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