Edward O. Wilson : « The loss of biodiversity is a tragedy »
Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson, an entomologist whose specialty is ants, is recognized as one of the first theorists to develop the concept of “biodiversity”. Since the publication of his seminal text The Crisis of Biological Diversity in 1985, Wilson has never ceased alerting policy-makers and the public to the threat posed by biodiversity loss.
You wrote « The Crisis of Biological Diversity » in 1985. Twenty-five years later, why is it still so difficult to make people aware of the crucial importance of biodiversity?
It is indeed difficult to raise public awareness about the ongoing mass extinction of biodiversity. I and others have been trying for decades with every means available to us. The problem is that most people do not have much understanding of the subject, as opposed to crises in the physical environment, and extinction of species, especially in faraway places elsewhere in the world, seem to them a remote issue.
But fortunately, awareness of biodiversity loss has grown a great deal lately, and my hope is that we will reach a "tipping point" in which it will be routine front-page news around the world (like climate change) and something political leaders include in their speeches. We just have to keep pushing, and the UN Year of Biodiversity will definitely help in that.
What are the main consequences of species extinction occurring at unprecedented speed for a few decades?
Loss of many of the biological "genetic encyclopedias" millions of years in the making is one consequence. Loss or erosion of ecosystems due to destabilization caused by erasure of links in food webs is another. Also, loss of opportunities in medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture; and not least, loss of a major part of the greatest national and global natural heritage, permanently. Even just one of the consequences just listed -- and all will occur together -- is a tragedy.
How are climate change and the threat to biodiversity linked?
The causes of species extinction are, in order of magnitude of impact on biodiversity, summarized in the acronym HIPPO: Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, human over-Population, Overharvesting by hunting and fishing. Climate change is definitely a very big H.
Is it already too late to avert disaster?
It is not too late to stem and then halt the extinction of species and the ecosystems they compose. We are certainly too late to save some of them, but global action now can keep the final loss to a minimum. Science and technology will be a crucial part of the solution. Although vertebrates, corals, plants are reasonably well known, and form the basis of current conservation practice, the great majority of insect and other invertebrates remain unknown to science, as well as almost all bacteria and other microorganisms. These latter "Little things that run the world" are crucial to the survival of the larger creatures, including ourselves. We need a major initiative to explore the little known planet on which we live, in order to preserve its life. We also need to know far more about the life cycles and ecological relationships of both the known and unknown species. The science to achieve this should be fed directly into innovations in conservation as well as to advance technology in many fields.