Harvard scientist warns environmental damage irreversible

OECD Observer

OECD Forum, 14th May, 2001: Keynote Address “Future of Life”; moderator Donald J. Johnston 

Exploitation of the natural environment is growing at an unsustainable rate ultimately risking human survival itself. That was the uncomfortable message Professor E.O. Wilson, biologist and entomologist at Harvard University, brought to the opening day of the OECD’s Forum 2001 on Sustainable Development and the New Economy.

Economists have long ignored the real cost of environmental degradation, he said, because they do not use the right statistics. The key statistic for measuring sustainability is called the ecological footprint – the average amount of productive land and coastal marine environment appropriated by each person around the world for survival.

In the developing world, which has 5 billion of the earth’s 6 billion population, that footprint is about 2.5 acres per person. That compares with a footprint of around 24 acres in the United States.

“For every person in the world to reach US levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet earths,” Prof. Wilson told an audience of government officials and representatives from business and civilian groups.

With so many technological and scientific advances to celebrate, what humanity is neglecting is “much of the rest of life, environmental security and part of what it is to be human.”

Prof. Wilson said that although scientists now know that our biosphere is richer in diversity than ever before realised and it took three billion years to evolve, it is being eroded so fast that the loss will inflict a heavy price on wealth, security and the human spirit.

With world population past 6 billion and on its way to 8 billion by mid century before it is likely to drop, the per capita portion of arable land and fresh water available is dropping to levels that resource experts agree are very risky.

Prof. Wilson is one of the world’s foremost experts on biodiversity and has received numerous environmental awards and two Pulitzer awards.

He warned of the mass extinction of eco-systems and species. “The damage already done cannot be repaired within any meaningful time that has meaning to the human mind,” he said. “The more it’s allowed to grow, future generations will suffer for it in ways that are both well understood now and still … unimaginable. The radical reduction of the world’s biodiversity is, I believe, the folly our descendants will be least likely to forgive us.”

One of the tragedies underpinning this destruction is that we still have little idea of just how many animal and plant species there are on the planet. There are, he said, around 1.5-1.8 million known species but countless others that have not ever been described by scientists. “We have just begun to explore the planet.”

On this point, he commended the OECD’s “very worthwhile initiative” in creating the Global Biodiversity information facility (GBIF), an international science facility which aims to provide worldwide access, via the Internet, to information about the known 1.8 million species of organisms that inhabit the earth.

The exponential loss of natural habitat and consequent loss of biodiversity is “stunning”, Prof. Wilson said, citing several examples. Nasa has calculated that about 5 % of the earth’s surface is burned every year, much it to the detriment of the world’s tropical forests. He said the Philippines was one of the hardest hit parts of the world but there were other shocking examples including the West Indies, Brazil and Africa.

“A 90 per cent reduction in area … means extinction of half of the species. (The land) can only sustain half that number of species,” he said. “The rate of destruction of tropical rainforest is equal to about half of all the state of Florida each year.”

But Prof. Wilson sounded a more optimistic note on the resources being poured into environmental protection. He said NGOs were best placed to spearhead the global environmental protection and the largest of the environmental groups can draw on budgets of between $50-100 million.

“The resources to accomplish this problem (sustainable development) exist. Those who control those resources have many reasons to achieve that goal, not least their own security,” he said in conclusion.

In response to a question by Marsha Johnston of the Sustainable Business Investor Europe magazine, he said that 1.2 million square kilometres of ecologically threatened land could be secured for about $4 billion.

“At the end of the day, however, it may be essentially an ethical decision. A civilisation able to envision God and an afterlife and to embark on the colonisation of space will surely find a way to save the integrity of the magnificent planet and of the life it harbours,” Prof. Wilson said.

©OECD Observer May 2001

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