The Future of Life--Preserving Our Natural Capital
Bradley Lecture Excerpt

Edward O. Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard University, delivered the seventh of the Institute’s 2000-2001 Bradley Lectures on April 9. Edited excerpts follow.

In the past several decades, scientists have found the biosphere to be richer in diversity than ever before conceived. That biodiversity, which evolved over more than 3 billion years, is being eroded at an accelerating rate by human activity.

In order for every person in the world to reach present American levels of consumption with existing technology, we would require four more planet Earths. The people of developing countries may never want to attain our level of profligacy, but in just trying to achieve a decent standard of living, they have joined the industrial world in converting the last of the natural environments and reducing a large part of the planet’s fauna and flora to endangered status or final extinction. At the same time, humans have driven atmospheric carbon dioxide to the highest levels in at least 200,000 years, unbalanced the nitrogen cycle, thinned the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere, and triggered global warming that will ultimately harm the entire world.

The key elements of natural capital—that is, arable land, groundwater, forests, marine fisheries, and petroleum, the capital that underlies the market economy—are finite and not subject to proportionate capital growth. They are furthermore being decapitalized by over-harvesting and habitat destruction.

With population and consumption continuing to increase at exponential rates, the per capita amounts of resources left to be harvested are falling and are destined to do so at a faster and faster pace in the future. Humanity, awakened at last to the realities of the natural economy, has begun an earnest search for alternative sources of materials and energy.

The twenty-first century is destined to be the century of the environment. Science and technology, combined with a lack of self-understanding and an obstinacy that led to our ruinous environmental practices, have brought us to where we are today. Now, science and technology, combined with foresight and moral courage, both based upon a more enlightened ethic about the planet, must see us through the bottleneck and out, one hopes by the end of the century.

The damage already done cannot be repaired within any period of time that has meaning for the human mind. The more the damage is allowed to grow, the more future generations will suffer for it. It is entirely possible that if present rates of habitat and destruction and spread of alien species continue, we could lose half the species of plants and animals on Earth by the end of the century. The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity now underway is the folly our descendants will least likely forgive us.

Developing a Strategy

The greatest challenge of this century, as it will be seen in future centuries, will be how to raise the lives of people everywhere to a decent level while keeping as much of the natural environment as possible intact. The two goals can be approached in a synergistic way, in which progress in one enhances progress in the other.

Large blocks of the last remaining natural environments in wilderness areas can be preserved at surprisingly low cost and in such a way as to yield greater profit to the countries owning them. We should also focus on preserving hot spots, those particular forests, coral reefs, and other local habitats that are endangered and contain the largest number of kinds of plants and animals found nowhere else.

Progress in global conservation depends on joint enterprises of the private sector, government, and science. We have to know exactly what is at stake, what needs most to be done, and how to do it, and develop a strategy of aid and development attractive to people everywhere and to their governments. The nongovernmental organizations are, in general, more entrepreneurial, more innovative, and more flexible than governments, but governments, at least those of the industrialized countries, still have to do the heavy lifting and will have to assume a larger role in the future.

At the present time, about $6 billion a year is spent worldwide on conservation, proceeding from both private and government sources, but most of it ultimately from government. A recent estimate suggests that roughly $26 billion annually is needed to sustain a sample of all the world’s natural ecosystems, to do something serious with the hot spots, and to throw a shield around a large part of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. If that seems a large price to pay for saving nature and biodiversity, keep in mind that it is only about one part in a thousand, or 0.1 percent, of the combined gross domestic products of all countries.

I hope I have added today to the conviction shared by growing numbers of thoughtful people in all walks of life and of all political ideologies that the problem can be solved. The resources to accomplish this goal exist. Those who control the resources have many reasons to achieve that goal, not least their own security.

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