Renowned biologists Peter Raven and Edward Wilson came together Wednesday at a fireside chat organized by the Yale Peabody Museum to offer their views on what the event’s moderator, Edward Bass, playfully called “a modest debate” — the future of life on Earth.
Speaking to a packed auditorium, Raven and Wilson presented statistics about the current state of the ecological world in light of population and energy consumption trends and called on audience members to be mindful of the decisive role of humans in determining the planet’s future. At the event, Raven and Wilson received the Verrill Medal Award — the museum’s highest honor awarded for outstanding achievement in the natural sciences — for their contributions to botany and bioethics, respectively.
“We are the mind of life on this planet,” Wilson said. “We are the first intelligent, self-conscious, self-reflective species. We are in charge. Are we going to keep it all or destroy it all?”
This question formed the backbone of the discussion.
If humans continue consuming energy and materials at their current levels, 50 percent of species on the planet may disappear in the near future, Wilson said. The current population is “flying blind,” especially given that more than 90 percent of the species on Earth have yet to be discovered, he said.
Raven said the United States has had a particularly large ecological impact because of its disproportionately high rate of consumption of energy and consumer products. As a whole, the United States consumes at a rate 30 to 40 times that of rural Indonesia or Brazil, and the average American uses twice as much energy as the average global citizen, he said.
But Raven said the United States’ consumption trends do not necessarily translate into proportional lifestyle gains for Americans — countries like Germany and Sweden outdo the United States on standard measures of quality of life.
“This means that half of what we use, we waste,” Raven said. “What do we do with this 50 percent?”
Even in the face of such dire global conditions, the biologists said they are optimistic about the prospect for change. The problem, they said, is not that humans lack the ability to act, but that they lack the necessary awareness.
Environmentalism and sustainability are relatively recent debates, Raven said. He said the 1960s marked the first time in American history that “reality began to strike home.”
Wilson said early humans lived in equilibrium with their ecological surroundings — demonstrating the possibility of sustainable living. It is only relatively recently, with current population pressures and consumption habits, that this equilibrium has been knocked off balance, he said.
“The world will peak at about 9 billion people,” Wilson said. “It’ll be a bottleneck we will have to work through … but we can come out at the other end to a paradise.”
But adopting sustainable consumption and living habits does not mean that humans must compromise on their quality of life, Wilson said. In fact, people can steadily increase their quality of life while working to reverse ecological damage, he said.
The single best way to reverse current trends, he said, is to work to change the views of the next generation by exposing children to nature while they are between the ages of four and 10, when they are most impressionable.
“Let them witness the wonder of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly and let them discover what’s hidden under a log,” he said. “Then they grow up to be naturalists, engaged with the realities of the world.”
Students interviewed said they found the talk — which included information relevant to contemporary debates such as global warming and sustainability — inspiring and educational.
But Appoorva Tiwari ’11 said she had hoped the fireside chat would be more like a debate, with the two biologists challenging each others’ views instead of agreeing on all the points they raised.
Although she found the discussion both stimulating and informative, Rosa Li ’09 said she attended hoping more specific discussion about the two scientists’ personal experiences. Given that both are such widely respected figures, she said she was disappointed that the material presented at the event did not reflect the breadth of their accomplishments and richness of their personal backgrounds.
“It was a little preachy and feel-good,” she said. “This could have almost come from almost any environmentalist.”
Wilson, often called “the father of biodiversity,” has discovered hundreds of species and formulated theories about the links between science and ethics. Raven is a world-famous botanist and environmentalist and an expert on plant evolution and the rainforest.