How to save life on Earth, according to E.O. Wilson

HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: Scientist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson first gained fame for his study of ants. Through the years, he's moved from small insects to big ideas, and now a very big one, one made more urgent by the problems of climate change.

Jeffrey Brown has our profile in his second report from Southern Alabama.

E.O. WILSON, Author, "Half Earth": I was just a 12-, 13-year-old boy, and it was just a wonderland to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward O. Wilson spent his formative years in Mobile, Alabama, looking for snakes and insects in the surrounding delta.

E.O. WILSON: If I could, I would just do the same thing today that I did then, but it would look funny.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The experience would shape him, as biologist, evolutionary theorist, naturalist, and at age 86 perhaps most important to him now conservationist.

E.O. WILSON: What is man? Storyteller, mythmaker, and destroyer of the living world.

JEFFREY BROWN: His new book, "Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight For Life," takes on nothing less than the survival of plant and animal life on earth.

E.O. WILSON: Yearning to be more master than steward of the declining planet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wilson's solution is in the title, setting aside half the Earth as natural habitat.

We spoke beneath the old live oak trees at Fort Blakeley Historic Park, where Wilson's great-grandfather fought in one of the last battles of the Civil War.

Half Earth. Are you serious?

E.O. WILSON: I'm serious. I know it sounds radical, but we must have it if we're going to save most of the species remaining on Earth. And it's easier to do than most people might think.

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds impossible. It sounds for some people crazy.

E.O. WILSON: I was just going to use the word insane.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

E.O. WILSON: Yes, it sounds that way, because they envision cutting the Earth into two hemispheres, one for us and one for the other 10 million species. But, no, we mean giving 50 percent or setting it aside, patches, some large wilderness areas, others far, far smaller, in order to make that amount of reserve area.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your ideas on this and what should happen have gotten bigger and bolder.

E.O. WILSON: Well, they have.

My alarm went from yellow to red when I read the papers authored by large numbers of scientists and team efforts that showed just how far off the goal the conservation organizations were, how — all our efforts around the world in slowing down extinction rates.

JEFFREY BROWN: One key to Wilson's argument is how little we know of life on Earth, only two million species identified out of a total probably closer to 10 million, even as species go extinct at 1,000 times the normal rate, thanks chiefly to human population growth and corresponding habitat loss.

Conservation efforts worldwide have thus far set aside a little more than 15 percent of the Earth for habitat. Wilson would triple that.

E.O. WILSON: We would be taking a first step towards securing enough space and natural habitat to preserve, by my estimate, more than 80 percent of the species left. If we don't do this, we're going to go down to 50 percent or more in a fairly short period of time in this century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wilson is attempting such a thing right here, to give national protection, either a park or wildlife refuge status, to parts of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America.

There's opposition in this conservative state. But Wilson is not deterred.

E.O. WILSON: I think it's a moral thing to do. I believe morality is going to enter very strongly into what I hope will be a shift of perception and precepts and reasoning about this, that we really should take extra measures to save the rest of life on Earth.

And who are we, one species, to wipe out a majority of the species remaining that live with us on this planet just for — without even thinking about it, for our particular selfish needs?

JEFFREY BROWN: Wilson acknowledges that the world's population will continue to grow from its current 7.3 billion to around 11 billion, before leveling out. But he thinks advancements in technology will help shrink our ecological footprint.

So what are the stakes?

E.O. WILSON: The stakes are the future of life, the future of the living part of the environment.

Mind you, we are beginning to make meaningful progress toward controlling the forces of climate change and of pollution. And the other parts of the nonliving environment that have been causing a large part of the destruction.

If we allow the living part of the environment to disappear, for me, it would be by future generations regarded as one of the most catastrophic, even evil periods in human history, for our descendants to look back and say, they wiped out half or more of all of the rest of life on Earth, the variety of life on Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: A thoroughly depressing prospect. But to spend a day with Edward Wilson is anything but depressing.

E.O. WILSON: Science needs to have a goal and actually achieve that goal. We really want to see on the front page of the newspaper scientists announce cure for cancer, or cure for lung cancer, shall we say?

What galvanizes public support and puts spirit into it is to say, this is the goal that we must reach. Let's set that goal, and let's get there.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Fort Blakeley Historic Park outside Mobile, Alabama, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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