In last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, the eminent ecologist E. O. Wilson–who we’ve posted about several times in the past for his inspiring and erudite thoughts on nature and biophilia–wrote an opinion editorial on “The Global Solution to Extinction,” in which he partly reminisced about his studies in biology, and also offered his suggestion on how to prevent further extinctions: increase the area of nature refuges, or in other words, boost habitat conservation. Here’s an excerpt of the first half of his piece:
DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11-year-old living with my family in a low-income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life awaiting me, bottomless in variety.
Seventy-six years later, I have kept that dream. As a teacher and scientist I have tried to share it. The metaphor I offer for biological diversity is the magic well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw.
But today the dream is at risk. Civilization is at last turning green, albeit only pale green. Our attention remains focused on the physical environment — on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and, of course, the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, human-forced climate change. But Earth’s living environment, including all its species and all the ecosystems they compose, has continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. If we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical, nonliving environment, because each depends on the other. But if we work to save only the physical environment, as we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both.
So, what exactly is the current condition of the living environment, in particular its biological diversity and stability? How are we handling this critical element of Earth’s sustainability?
To begin, how many species of organisms are known on the planet? Here, our knowledge is pathetically weak. At the present time, about two million species have been discovered, described and given a Latinized scientific name. But how many are there actually, known and unknown? Putting aside the bacteria and a distinctive group of microbes called the archaea (which I like to call together the dark matter of biology because so little is understood of their diversity), the best estimate we have of all the rest (the fungi, algae, plants and animals) is roughly 10 million, give or take a million.
Except for the vertebrates (consisting of 63,000 described species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and the flowering plants (with approximately 270,000 species), relatively little is collectively known about millions of kinds of fungi, algae and most diverse of all, the insects and other invertebrate animals. And that matters, a lot: These least understood minions are the foundation of the living world. They are the little things that run the Earth.
Read the second half of Dr. Wilson’s op-ed from the March 12 edition of the Times here.