Skip to main content Skip to main content

Rediscovering Biology: Molecular to Global Perspectives

Biodiversity Expert Interview Transcript: Peter H. Raven, PhD

Peter H. Raven, PhD

Director, Missouri Botanical Garden
Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity. He is a past president and chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a recipient of the esteemed National Medal of Science. Raven, called by Time magazine a “hero for the planet,” is a leader in the field of environmental sustainability.

Interview Transcript

Peter H. Raven, PhD, is Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and is one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity. He is a past president and chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a recipient of the esteemed National Medal of Science. Raven, called by Time magazine a “hero for the planet,” is a leader in the field of environmental sustainability.

First of all, what is the one thing you most want high school biology teachers to understand about these processes at work right now?

If anyone wants to make a contribution to the preservation of life on Earth and to our attainment of sustainability, the first and most important thing to remember is that you individually can make a difference in the following ways: by your attention to what is going on in the world right around you, to the woods and natural areas around your town; to the ways in which you practice recycling and other conservation-oriented ways of living; to the ways in which you think about foreign countries, to the ways in which you understand the inter-dependence of the United States on them. Your participation in the political process and your willingness to state what you believe is something that is important to your elected officials. All of these things can make a huge difference.

We’re living probably in the most tumultuous and difficult time that human beings will ever confront. This is the result of about 200 runaway years of consumption since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Obviously, there is no way that this can go on for another 50 years, much less another 200 years. So we have to find formulas for sustainable living, and in doing that, each and every one of us can make a real contribution, one whose mark will be found down through the years, far into the future. It’s always worth the effort.

Just start by giving us an overview of the mission of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Well, the mission of the garden is to discover and spread information about plants, so as to enrich life on Earth, in other words. We work all over the world to try to find out everything we can about plants, and particularly to enlist people all over the world in the quest in which we are engaged. We have people living in various countries. We build their capabilities, learn as much as we can, and we try to empower people everywhere–not only to have that knowledge, but to be able to use it for their own benefit.

Are there other organizations in the U.S. with comparable resources, that are engaged in comparable activities?

The leading organizations in the world in discovering information about plants on a very wide scale, really, are the Royal Botanic Gardens, which is in Kew, near London; the New York Botanical Garden, which is in the Bronx; and ourselves, the Missouri Botanical Gardens. We are really the three largest and most broadly based of all the organizations. But there are thousands of other organizations. Sometimes branches of museums, like the department of botany at the Smithsonian Institution, and sometimes departments in Universities such as the herbarium at the University of California at Berkeley, that would have similar objectives but be more narrowly focused or with more narrow possibilities.

Would you have anything to add as far as the function of the Applied Research Department and the extensive collection that is housed there?

Everything about plants, everything that anyone wants to do about plants, depends on a thorough knowledge of the classification of plants. There are about 500,000 kinds of plants in the world, we estimate, of which about 420,000 have been described and been given scientific names so far. So we’ve registered a little bit of information. In the major herbaria of the world that study collections of dried plants, there are several hundred million collections, study samples of plants. Here at the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is about one of the top half dozen herbaria in the world we have about 6.2 million dried specimens and a very major library of about 300,000 items. Those, together with our electronic databases and together with our staff of scientists and those associated with us, constitute an open-ended resource for learning about and understanding the characteristics of plants. The only so-called applied research that would apply some of the information that is to be derived about plants from that. But so would any kind of research about plants whether that would be looking for more plants to grow as ornamentals, additional kinds of lawn grasses, and so on. It could be archeological studies of plants; matching up current samples with plants that were found in archeological sights. It could be any other approach to plants that one could imagine. They are all based on the same kind of database that we build here in connection with thousands of other institutions around the world. In which, nowadays, one makes available on the web for everyone’s benefit.

Since you bring up the web, how has the advent of the web pushed the research forward in your abilities here?

Modern opportunities in information technology have greatly expanded the possibilities of taxonomy, the ability to classify plants or animals or micro-organisms, and to make that information broadly available. When you think about it, there are about 1.7 million described species of organisms, and an unknown total, probably 10 to 20 million kinds of organisms out there. When you think about the fact that you basically want to be able to record all kinds of information about those organisms and then do it in a comparative way, it’s almost unimaginable that people tried to do that before the advent of databases situated on computers and widely and generally available, because the amount of information is simply too great to organize logically in any other way. The more millions of specimens of plants for example that are accumulated in herbaria, the information doesn’t really become more available unless we find ways like registering it in electronic databases and allowing people therefore to see what has been collected, and where it is, and what it’s features are, and what you can expect it to be.

You mentioned people accessing information. Can you talk about the coordination of international efforts, as far as information is concerned, and the web making that a possibility in terms of sharing the knowledge around the globe?

By putting information in a common way into electronic databases available on the web then we make it all, in a very explicit sense, a common venture, so that everybody can contribute to it and draw from it. We need editorial means to do that. Basically we are just at the very beginning of setting that up, but there is wide agreement that we are all collaborating on the formation of a very major database, which will serve all of our interests. Specifically, we here at Missouri are doing that with New York and Kew, and indirectly with dozens of other organizations. Those databases, both the synonymized catalogues that give you the correct names to use for any particular plants or animals, and those databases that contain information about where the specimens were obtained, are then everyone’s common property. We build on them. Then they tell us what we know and what we don’t know in an efficient way. It’s impossible to think of building up millions of samples and organizing information around them and using them in any other way.

How does the research at Missouri Botanical Garden and all of the other efforts intersect with biodiversity and conservation efforts?

Well, our research has a direct effect on conservation all around the world. One of the projects in which we are deeply involved is called the Flora of North America, which is a modern account of all of the plants of the United States and Canada, which when it’s finally finished will be about 30 volumes. Of course a modern, up to date classification is necessary before one can begin conserving plants or animals or anything else, because you have to know how many there are out there. Salmon are a good case in point. There are either a lot of them, all of which need to be preserved individually, or fewer.

When the endangered species act came into force about 30 years ago, people began examining species of plants and animals that weren’t very well known to see if they were threatened or endangered. In some cases they found that they were very local and not very well understood, and were indeed threatened or endangered. In other cases they found out they weren’t really different from something else, and by studying them more carefully they were able to eliminate them from the endangered species list. In foreign countries, our influence or involvement in conservation is very explicit. For example, in Madagascar our scientists in conjunction with scientists in Madagascar and European countries formed a register of about 200 species that belong in the seven families of plants that are found only in Madagascar. We did that by working through the classification of each family and deciding in modern terms how many species there were. We went out with teams of people we trained in Madagascar and colleagues we’ve trained, and looked at species the in the field and saw what their status was in the present day. One of the happy surprises was that every one of the species was still in existence. About 90% of the natural vegetation in Madagascar has been damaged, but it was immediately obvious that many of those species were found only in very small populations in particular places. Only about half of them were well preserved in areas that had been set aside at the present time. So based on that information, it was possible to make a number of suggestions to the government about setting aside other reserves and natural areas. By doing that, really you protect them all. Of course in the bigger sense, one combines that, as we’re starting to do in Madagascar, with other efforts: if a species is about to disappear completely, immediately, in the field, for example if an animal has gone grazing them or something else happens, then what one wants to do is get them into cultivation, so that they can at least be preserved somewhere, and then used later to reintroduce into the field when suitable sights are opened up. So it’s all of those things. We have been active in Madagascar for about 30 years. We have about 25 people working there for us directly, and hundreds of other people are associated with us. We are connected with all of the national and foreign institutions in the country. By the way, Madagascar is about the size of California, and it’s about 250 miles off the coast of Africa, and instead of about 6,000 species, which there are in California, there are about 12,000 species found there, and very few of them are found anywhere else.

So it’s an area of very high conservation priority, and it’s a very poor country, with a very rapid growing population. But our philosophy is, you can really do long term work in conservation around the world only by helping people to get the knowledge and to build the institutions in which they can build their own plans to deal with their own diversity, for their own benefit. So that’s what we do in Madagascar, and in other places around the world.

That touches on a lot of areas we are interested in communicating here. One of them you mentioned is the difference between California and Madagascar in terms of number of species per area. I wonder if you could take that opportunity to discuss it as a biodiversity hot spot.

The concept of bio diversity hot spots was really developed by a British scientist, called Norman Myers. Then he joined with Conservation International. It finds the areas of the world that have the highest species diversity. Actually, it was based on plant distribution, although it’s expected, because plants are relatively well known compared with many groups of organisms, that those spots will represent concentrations of biological diversity for many groups of organisms. Whether they really will or not remains to be seen, but in a general way they do. About 40% of the world’s biodiversity can be found in something like 3% of the world’s surface. Hot spot areas would be among others, California, southwestern Oregon, which is the California floristic province, where about 55% of the species are found nowhere else — or the Cape region of South Africa, where about 70% or 75% of the species are found nowhere else; Southwestern Australia; the Andes in northern South America. What Conservation International and its associates have been developing in relation to those hot spots are ways of dealing with them effectively to purchase or set aside the remaining land that would still contain large amounts of biological diversity while there is still time. Those hot spots are generally very heavily populated: they have very high concentrations of biological diversity and very high rates of development or destruction going on in them. Obviously, the possibilities for preserving them vary in different parts of the world. There is relatively little left that can be preserved in California, for example. It’s kind of an end game being played out to set aside very specific habitats that are still in existence, to preserve as much of the biological diversity in the scenic beauty of the state as one can. In the Amazon basin, on the other hand, something like three quarters of the forest is still there, and while it’s expected to be reduced to about 5% of its present area over the next 50 years, the choices that are made about which specific areas to try to set aside and preserve, hopefully with international collaboration, are going to be very telling. In other words, investing in the preservation of biological diversity and hot spots is a very good way to invest money to try to set aside a large proportion of the biological diversity that is still left on Earth to save it from extinction. But biological diversity everywhere is important for that particular locality, and so we need to worry about its conservation and sustainable management in countries and regions all over the world.

You mentioned the strategy of Conservation International. Is it fair and possible to then compare and contrast that approach versus something like the biosphere reserves? Are those two different approaches? Or are they similar ideas?

The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) biosphere reserves were established quite some time ago. Biosphere reserves as such are along the lines of man, and the biosphere program, which was established about 35 years ago, was to set aside areas that had human beings in them, and had high amounts of biological diversity as well, and to manage those areas extremely well. So they can be both places where human beings could live in a sustainable way with their biological diversity, and at the same time conserve a large amount of the biological diversity in them. So those areas could be sustainable over the very long run. Conservation International’s program is very similar. In its essence, they are concentrated on finding particular sights, particularly in the tropics around the world, where intensive research can be done and where ways can be found to combine the needs of the human populations living there with the possibilities of those areas; to set up long term ways of living there. It’s all based on knowledge, on taking care of human needs, on addressing poverty, on using the biological resources available in ways that are sustainable. Everyone is sort of looking for different formulas that will accomplish that in different ways.

Could you give us a brief introduction about the concept of when it first became an acknowledged approach to conservation?

The idea of sustainability first came into widespread view at the time when Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was at the time the Prime Minister of Norway and now is head of the World Health Organization, chaired the World Commission on Environment, and Development, which was eventually accepted as a UN report after they completed their work. They defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.” It led to lots and lots of considerations about what sustainability was, and lots of acceptance of sustainability as a kind of a model.

The way I like to think about sustainability in a sense is like living off the interest of a bank account, rather than living off the principle. You could think of it as living off what the world produces, rather than digging into and destroying the basic productive sources in the world. If you look at what’s happened to the world over the past 50 years, you would find that about one third of the forests that were around 50 years ago have been cut without replacing them. Twenty percent of the topsoil that was here 50 years ago has been lost. Twenty percent of the agricultural land that was used has been lost because too much fertilizer has been put on it, or cities have sprawled out over it, or there is no water to fertilize it, irrigate it, a variety of reasons like that. And the atmosphere has been changed substantially over the last 50 years. The depletion of the ozone layer in the stratosphere and the addition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the main green house gas that traps heat, is leading us on towards a very rapid episode of global warming, which is underway at the present time. If you add all those things together, you can see that we are not living in a sustainable way at the present time. We could have sustainability as an ideal, but it’s not something that we are doing. If we want to be sustainable, we have to use our resources in a way that they are still available at the end of the day. George Schaller, who is a great conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, put it this way. At the end of the 20th century he said, “We cannot afford another century like this one.” Sustainability worldwide will be achieved because we can’t go on using what the world produces faster than it can produce it. That means we have got to find ways, or levels of consumption, that the world can sustain; numbers of people, population levels, that the world can sustain; kinds of technology that will allow us to use natural resources on a continuing basis. At some point the world has to become sustainable, because there is only so much there.

But I think what I said about last 50 years shows that the world is becoming less interesting progressively, more run down, less forested with less natural vegetation, less natural productivity, and really what we are making now is a series of decisions about what kind of a world we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. Dr. Kai Lee of Williams College wrote an excellent book called Compass and Gyroscope (Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment, Island Press, 1993). As he put it, we have to decide whether we are willing to live in a way that is worthy of the benefits that we are given. Obviously those of us who live in industrialized countries like the United States, consume a great deal more than those who don’t. Anyone can consume as much as they want, in a sense, but we have to find ways, technologies and ways to do this on a continuing basis. We haven’t found those technologies yet. It’s been estimated that if everybody in the whole world lived in the same way that we do in the United States, consuming at the same amount, at the same level that we do, it would take two more copies of the planet Earth to support us all. We haven’t got two more copies of the planet Earth. Which means that visions of everybody in the world rising up to the same level of consumption will not come true unless we find new technologies, new ways of consuming, new philosophies about population levels and so forth, that will sustain us.

Could you pick one or two things that you would say would be the most dramatic leap in our understanding or change in our philosophy relating to conservation in the past 20 years?

I think people over the last 10 to 20 years have begun to realize that people are part of the equation and that the legitimate needs of human beings need to be met. At the 1972 United Nations Stockholm conference, Indira Gandhi said, “The basic problem is not our assault on the environment, but our callous neglect of one another in the name of progress.” In other words, if very large numbers of people in the world are very poor, and we’re really not concerned about them and we don’t try to elevate their standard of living, the world as a whole will be going down hill more rapidly than if we do. And that basically is what we have going on in the world right now. One of the most important things that we can do in a country like the United States, if we want to help to build, to bring the world toward a condition of sustainability, will be to become aware of the fact that there are other countries around the world, and that we are only a small percentage of the world’s population, but one that is very rich, consuming about 25% of everything the world produces and living in a very large sea of very poor people. We can’t relate to them well unless we really take into our hearts and souls the fact that they are really out there, and we really need to deal with them. So I think in the United States as in Europe, Japan and other industrialized countries, one of the most important things is for us to think hard about other countries, how they live, what’s going on in them and to recognize that they aren’t just large masses of starving people or something. They are people just like us, with the same ambitions and desires that we have. If we begin to realize that it would be the beginning of being able to deal with the world problems of sustainability on a global scale. When one says that the United States uses 25% of what the world produces, that implies that we are utterly dependent on countries all over the world. On their stability, on their productivity, on their ability to trade with us and to relate with us on a variety of different ways. Therefore it is very much in our own self-interest for us to recognize that, and to do what we can to contribute to their sustainability, the fact that their people would have a comfortable standard of living. The fact they would have an education and they would have democratic rights and be able to get on with their lives in a reasonable way, because only by promoting values of that sort around the world will be in a position to build a world in which we can flourish with our own society. We may think sometimes that we exist only inside our own borders, but actually our economic outreach and our environmental footprint is very, very much larger than that. By recognizing that explicitly, coming to understand people around the world, we can do a very much better job of this.

Would you have anything to say about the notion that we are in the midst of a 6th mass extinction?

As to extinction, we can get an idea of the average longevity of a species, of how long they lasted, by looking at the fossil record of species over the past 65 million years. At least that’s the case for species that have hard parts, like vertebrate animals, animals that have bones or shells like mollusks. When we do that, we can say that species over the last 65 million years have lived about a million years on the average, and about 1 per million becomes extinct per year. So if there are ten million to 20 million in the world, we can say for the past 65 million years, something like 10 to 20 species have disappeared per year. We can also say that at that rate they have been replaced by evolution, so that the number of species has remained constant or gone on increasing. If we then look back at the last 300 years of recorded history, which is the only period of time when we have definite enough records of groups of organisms to chronicle extinctions, we can say that the extinction rate has gone up by maybe a dozen or 15 times over the background rate. So we have hundreds of species becoming extinct per year instead of a dozen or so. If we look forward into the future and we consider the well-demonstrated relationship of habitat and species diversity, then we can say that the elimination of habitat is like the tropical, moist forests, which are now a small fraction of what they were originally, and have been calculated to be only about 5% of what they were half-way through this century, and that will cause a very large amount of extinction of species–the vast majority of which are completely unknown scientifically. Then we can calculate on very sound grounds that we are indeed on the edge of one of the major extinction events in world history, and one that threatens certainly during the course of the 21st century to lead to the extermination of about two thirds of all species of organisms that are living on land now, which would be an amount of extinction about equal to that that happened 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid collided with the Earth, threw up an opaque cloud and caused a mass extinction.

We ultimately base our entire life on Earth on our ability to use other organisms. All of our food comes directly, or indirectly, from plants. Our medicines, very largely and for most people still in the world today, come from plants or fungi or micro-organisms. Our fossil fuels, oil, gas, coal, wood, whatever it is we use for energy comes largely from organisms. We depend on them completely. Really though, it has only been in the 50 years, since Watson and Crick first postulated the first double-helix model of DNA, that we have begun to unlock the secrets of genetics and to be able to understand biology at a level where that understanding biology can really be used well to build a more sound, secure, healthy, and sustainable future. The secret of biology is not in its unity but in its diversity. Different kinds of organisms differ enormously from one another. Now as we are beginning to learn about whole genomes, we are beginning for the first time to understand how organisms differ from one another in principle; how similar features differ from one kind of organism to another.

As we do that, we are going to be able to use our knowledge of biology to build and sustain a better future. On the one hand, we fully expect that the 21st century will be the age of biology, when we shift from a dependence on the physical sciences in building our inventions, and shift to biological sciences in building more sustainable inventions. We are just beginning to learn about the diversity of organisms and the ways in which their genes and their evolutionary histories and their genomes and features differ from one another, and we are just beginning to put that knowledge to use in understanding them and using them in different ways-whether those ways are re-vegetation or building bio mass for consumption, or whatever those ways are. Ironically, just as we are beginning to explore those deep secrets of biology in depth, we, through our activities, are driving a major proportion of all the species of organisms on Earth to extinction at a rate that has been unprecedented for the past 65 million years.

Aldo Leopold, the great American conservationist, said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the cogs and wheels.” We are acting as though we don’t really know that. We are ripping life on Earth to pieces for short term benefit, or perceived short term benefit, without recognizing the enormous potential that life has to bring us to new heights of sustainability, of civilization, of advancement of living on the Earth in the future. It really is a great tragedy, and the sooner people begin to address that through their actions, the better off we will be.

How does that idea mesh with the idea of bio-prospecting, and how can bio-prospecting help in regards to sustainability? By helping us to learn about and research these species, which we may be losing?

Bio-prospecting has become a very controversial issue in the modern world, and yet it really need not be. Biological diversity is very unevenly distributed over the face of the Earth. People have rights to that biological diversity, and it’s generally accepted that nations have rights to their own biological diversity. Individual groups within those nations, many of which those live in close contact with biodiversity, like groups of Native Americans in South America or India, native peoples who have been there a very long time, may not be part of the dominant culture. Now they have their rights, and those rights need to be sorted out, and they will be sorted out. For the most part, we lack sufficient legal systems worldwide to make those rights clear. And unfortunately, that has lead to a lot of confusion, a lot of difficulty in what’s called bio-prospecting, which would be going out and looking for, in the simplest way, new cures for cancer or HIV or something like that. As long as a legal system is in place where everyone can benefit from them, then that’s a fine way to go.

And of course exploring for new biological features of interest to people is of very great importance. Seventy percent of the people in the world depend directly on plants as their source of medicine at the present time, though, and those medicines are both adequate for them and affordable, and it’s important to remember that we aren’t really discovering those medicines and changing them; they’re already there. One of the problems in the use of supplements, herbal supplements and things like that, in the industrialized world is that a lot of the plants that are used to make traditional medicines in developing countries are being handed out, harvested in such large numbers that they are disappearing and they are not even available for the people in those countries as their own medicine.

China and India together have a population of about 2.3 billion people, which is about 40% of the world’s population, yet they depend almost entirely on plants as their sources of medicines. Only about 15% of the medicines that they use are actually grown in cultivation, so only that sort of proportion is really renewable. One of the particular things we need to concentrate on is how to enhance the cultivation and the establishment and the conservation of medicinal plants around the world. Having said that though, bio-prospecting is a good thing, but there are many rights involved, and there need to be adequate legal systems involved to protect the rights of every individual or group of individuals who has those reasonable rights. Since this is all relatively new, the world hasn’t done a very good job of adjusting to it yet. When we do it at the Missouri Botanical Garden, for example under the legions of the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, we make agreements whereby the scientific base in the countries where the bio-prospecting is going on can be enriched, people can be trained, they can be encouraged to set up their own laboratories, and certainly they will get a return in those countries for any products that come out of the bio-prospecting. Those agreements are not necessarily perfect by any means, but what I’ve just said gives you an idea of the kinds of arrangements that really need to be made. Which really brings me to another very important point. Only about 10% of the scientists and engineers in the world live in developing countries, which have about 80% of the people in the world. Most of even that 10% are in just a few countries, China, India, Mexico, Brazil. So for about 150 countries in the world, with about 40% of the world population and about 40% of the world’s bio diversity, there is no adequate, scientific establishment to make those people secure about what they are doing to be able to deal with their own bio-diversity for their own benefit. They need a scientific basis in order to engage confidently and well in international agreements. In a defensive way, which is easy to understand, a government may impose impossible obstacles to collaborating with foreigners in order to avoid being ripped off completely. What we really need–and this is why we are so devoted to this here at the Missouri Botanical Garden–is to build the scientific and engineering capabilities in those countries, so that they can take care of themselves and of their own interests. When we’ve done that, then all these other agreements and things will take care of themselves too. Until we do that, it becomes nearly impossible. It is not that countries all over the world don’t want to pursue conservation. Every country in the world wants to pursue conservation. It’s a myth to say we’re going to these underdeveloped countries and teaching them that they should conserve. The question is, do they have the money? Do they have the tools? Do they have the expectations? Can they reason through it scientifically, in a way that will allow them to be confident that they’re doing it in a way that is of interest and importance for their own people? That fits properly in the values they have established for their own countries?

Are you confident that’s proceeding well so far, or that it’s a realizable goal?

That’s proceeding very slowly, but I don’t know any other way to get a good long-term outcome. We certainly aren’t going to get good long-term outcomes in countries by dumping money in them, or by demanding they do certain things, or by expecting treaty obligations or something, because they want to do those things anyway. What we need to do is give them technical, educational, and financial assistance so that they can become the kind of stable and relatively prosperous countries with which we can deal on an ongoing basis.

Have you seen any shift in our understanding or our philosophy about conservation, away from individual species and more to focus on ecosystems?

When a tropical forest is logged, as far as we know, we probably are killing about 29 out of 30 species that we have never seen before. In other words, we maybe have given a scientific name to one out of every 30 species that are being killed off in the forest. Even if you look at the big coniferous forest in the Pacific Northwest, where you’d worry about Northern Spotted owls, there are thousands and thousands of unknown species that are functioning to make those ecosystems fertile and stable where they are. Now one of the things that are going to be absolutely necessary in the world of the future is a greatly improved science of restoration ecology. We are going to be able to, we are going to need to put together areas that have been seriously damaged and restore forests and wetlands and prairies and grasslands in ways that will work. The problem with that is, we don’t even know the names of huge numbers of species in forests or other natural communities. We know of course far less than that about how they really function. Many of the most important ecological discoveries about communities on a broad scale-such as how much carbon do they really keep bound up in themselves? Or where do they get their nitrogen from? Or what kind of run off is there from them-from our discoveries in basically the last few years, one of the major hypothesis about communities and ecosystems is that the more diverse they are, the more species they contain, the more stable they are. The answer to that is, as scientists keep working on that in different kinds of communities, sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes maybe. A wide array of different circumstances exists. Many fine scientists are working continually on finding out what exactly the dominating factors are in determining the stability of particular ecosystems. That is just one of the many factors we need to know about in order to be really good at restoration ecology. But we have to know what the rules are and what the principles are, what to expect in different circumstances; how to manipulate them ecologically in order to protect the ecological services that those communities provide to us on an ongoing basis, and to deal with the individual species within them. Ecology, though, is a very young science and in it’s modern form, it dates to the 1920’s. Most of the significant work has been done from after WWII. We’re just beginning to understand the kinds of relationships that are so necessary if we want to be able to deal with communities on an appropriate basis. That’s why a lot of people have said we are running gigantic un-testable and un-copy-able experiments on the world, without really understanding what the alternatives are. In many cases, we aren’t even using the results of our experiments or our activities in a way so as to enrich our knowledge, to make us better deal with the next situation. It’s one of the most important areas that we can possibly deal with in depth. We need to understand these issues as well as we can, as soon as we can, in order to provide a secure world for the future. The question all depends on what kinds of technologies are used to produce what you can consume? The automobile would be a good example. In China, the Chinese government and the foreign automobile company assume that China is a great market for automobiles. If China had automobiles at the same level as the United States, and all the technology were the same, we would require all the petroleum in the entire world to fuel the automobiles in China. There wouldn’t be anything left over for anything else. So that leads you to reframe the question. The question is, “How can I live? What’s a reasonable form of personal transportation? Where can I expect to go to work? What should cities be like? And everything else hangs on the answer. The answer to, “How much I should consume?” hangs on that too. It’s been estimated that if everybody in the world lived at the standard of the United States that it would require two more planet Earth’s to support us, but that’s using present technologies and present levels of consumption. We’re not getting two more copies of the planet Earth.

So then the thing to do is improve technology as far as possible. Think more about consumption, so we’re not wasteful. It’s not obvious why the United States needs to use twice as much energy as Sweden, Switzerland or Germany per person. It is not obvious that we are living any better. Therefore, one would assume that we are wasting an awful lot of energy. Not buying anything for it, but just wasting it. And so it goes. We need to figure it out. What do we need? What are we wasting? Why do we produce twice as much garbage per capita as any other country in the world except Australia? Do we really need to? No. Does it get us anything? No, but we get used to certain kinds of things. We don’t need to lower our standard of living, necessarily, to live more conservatively and to be more conservative about the ways in which we use natural commodities or things that the Earth provides us. But we need to think about it in formulas and ways that we will be comfortable with. It’s the same answer really to the question, how many people will the Earth support? Well the question is, how are they going to live? What kinds of technologies are they going to use? How comfortable will they be? What are they going to be satisfied with? The answer could be a lot more people than we have now, or it could be a lot fewer people than we have now. We have to make that determination. But surely the answer is not in doing what we are doing now, which is to ignore the question, and to just assume that everything is going to be alright. It’s not. That’s a sure recipe for being sure that it is not going to be alright.

Do you think it’s possible to predict which species are more critical to an ecosystem’s function using scientific methods?

Some species in ecosystems are what are called keystone species that support or interact with a very large cross section of the species in the community. It’s obvious for example in coniferous forests, in redwood or Douglas fir or spruce forests, that those are the keystone species in the community. By their very existence, they alter the local climate and create habitats where everything else can live. If those species were gone, obviously the community would be vastly different, which is basically an experiment that is tried over and over again in suburban areas, where those forests exist. Figs are a perfect example of a keystone species in the tropics, where when they fruit they provide food for dozens and dozens and dozens of different kinds of vertebrate animals. They support hundreds and hundreds of species in the communities normally as sources of food and shelter and so forth. Other species may be very rare in a community, and specialized in a particular way.

For example, a very rare species of orchid that might be represented as only three individuals per square mile. The disappearance of an orchid would not have nearly as much effect on the community as the disappearance, say, of a dominant species of fig. But the orchid, like the fig, is the product of billions of years of evolution, with its own unique heritage. From an intellectual or scientific sense, and probably in ways that we cannot even dimly perceive, it is equally important to us to gain an understanding of the diversity and the splendor of life on Earth.

Do you have anything to say about E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia, and the moral versus the economic arguments for or against it?

The kind of phenomenon that Ed Wilson calls ‘biophilia,’ or love of biology, can be explained this way. Human beings grew up obviously in biological communities. We are biological organisms. The fact that, for example, both chimps and baboons are known to use plants as medicines under certain circumstances shows that our use of medicine goes back to before we even existed as a distinct, evolutionary line. In the same way, it is obvious that our language somehow developed around biology. In another sense, obviously all of human communication, in the course of its development, would have been about biology: it would have been about other organisms, dangerous ones, tasty ones, beautiful ones, comforting ones, ones that could be used as fuel. It’s a small wonder that we are totally enraptured with organisms on Earth. We depend on them. We feel more comfortable if there are pets in our homes. We feel more comfortable in a space where plants are growing. They have inspired our art, and much of our literature. They formed the basis of our language and our communication and our philosophy, because we are really a part of them. We can never really be separate from them. Many people have asked the question of whether we have the right to cause the extinction of what, as far as we know, are our only living companions in the entire universe without paying more attention to that fact, by just letting it go down the road. It’s certainly true that human beings naturally have an affection, an understanding, and a love for other organisms on Earth, which has been reflected in all the major religions and philosophies that we have developed over time. That love, and that affection, and that understanding is probably the single greatest hopeful thing that we have in trying to bring together a responsible section of the living things that there are on Earth today to go into the future, in this very chaotic and disturbed time.

Series Directory

Rediscovering Biology: Molecular to Global Perspectives


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-733-9