Posted by: floridanature | February 12, 2009

E.O.Wilson: Life & the Razor-thin Biome of Hope

E. O. Wilson was speaking at Stetson up in DeLand tonight, and despite the fact I was fighting a bad cold, I was determined to be there. The venue held 2,000, but I figured it would be full soon enough so I drove up from Sanford with my friend Michelle and got there a half hour before the doors opened. The line was small, but it grew quickly and by the time we were inside, there were hundreds swarming around us. We nailed some good seats in the arena and settled in.

eo-wilson-with-bookI had been reading Wilson for years now, admiring both his science as well as his remarkable way of expressing it. Two books (“Ants”; “On Human Nature”) have won the Pulitzer, and Wilson has gracefully eased his way into the ranks as one of the top scientists in the world. Wilson’s appeal, though, is that of a philosopher, a very wise man who understands how the sciences, the humanities, and the arts are fully woven together in the study of human knowledge.

The benefits of an event like this are more than just the actual lecture: It is seeing others you know who have been moved by Wilson’s work—good folks from the Friends of the Wekiva River, a former director of Florida Audubon, the woman who heads the Florida Native Plant Society, the guy who helped lay the groundwork up in Jacksonville for the St. Johns RiverKeeper, some folks from the Earth Kinship conference, earnest conservationists. And Dr. Ray Willis, the archaeologist who has been tenaciously working to shore up both the physical structure and the moral support for an old cabin once used by Archie Carr’s family outside of Umatilla.

Wilson finally comes to the podium. He’s a good ol’ Alabama boy with a doctorate from Harvard. I have seen him on Nova and elsewhere on TV and am instantly comforted by his downhome, unpretentious style. Wilson, who goes by “Ed”, lets us know right off the bat that the next few decades upcoming in the world are pivotal to mankind. This is the time when we will either “settle down” and live sustainably—or when we will “go on and wreck the planet.” The delivery is pure Ed Wilson: No waving of hands or dramatic rise in voice or unnecessary histrionics. This is not a politician campaigning or a televangalist performing or a cult juicer promising nutritional deliverance in an infomercial.

This is a really smart man who has thought deeply about the things that affect nature, that affect you and I. At risk, says Ed, are all those treasures that underpin human life—from fresh water to biodiversity. It is the “living environment” that should be at the core of our concern—not merely the “physical environment”. One is an interactive biosphere of air and molecules, of moving wildlife and caring humans, of the energy between people and place. In contrast, the easier-to-figure physical environment is merely a diorama, bereft of the trillions of ever-changing variations that make life worth living.earthfromspace

Although we see the earth as a great green and blue mass of wonder, an organic disco ball spinning with color and energy through the darkness of space, reality is more precious and fragile: The patina of life covering our planet is just that—a “razor thin edge of biomass” bookended on both sides by an everlasting veil of infinity.

And this earth is a place we are just now beginning to discover. Despite the great inventory of described plant and animal life, it is only an estimated ten percent of what actually exists on the planet. We hear some about island biogeography in which the size of any mass—whether is is an island surrounded by water, or a terrestrial one surrounded by congested sprawl—very clearly decides the size and diversity of plant and animal life within.sandkeykeywest_jpg

I smile at this one because I know Ed did the research work for this years ago in the Florida Keys by testing it on a real backcountry mangrove island there. And I take great pride in knowing that Equinox Documentaries, a non-profit supported by good people, is planning to illustrate how that issue hits home by comparing the paleo-dune of central Florida’s Ridge with the more remote keys.

Ed talks for barely an hour, condensing the wisdom of his life’s work into a sliver of time—biodiversity, conservation biology, the irony that our eco-rich equatorial rainforests are mostly sited in poor countries that need the money and education of the educated, developed world to sustain.

And then Dr. Wilson shows two slides as profound as any: One is of a 13 year-old Ed Wilson searching for ants as a boy in Alabama; another shows an adult E.O.Wilson on his knees in San Jose, Costa Rica, still searching for ants. The message of this one is clear: The things that drive us as children also drive us as adults, especially if you allow the true wonder of unrepressed human curiosity to endure. Caring counts for a lot, especially if it is fueled by hope and brought alive by real-world action.skstoothspringjpg

And so now, we have this: A society is defined not just by what it saves, but by what it refuses to destroy. And I think how that characterizes the good folks here that I know: We’ve all taken our licks, keeping our respective visions alive, if a bit tattered by the trial-and-error process of living.

But more importantly, we haven’t destroyed our sense of hope. And the “living environments” thriving on the razor-thin geography of science and art and caring are far, far better for it.

Thanks, Ed. I needed that.



  1. A very nice essay, Bill! I’ve also been inspired by E.O. Wilson’s writings over the years.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Larry. It’s reaffirming to know that folks like E.O.Wilson have a voice that matters.

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