The Melinda Denton Lecture

What is biological diversity and why is it important to us? By Peter Raven

From the June 1995 issue of the Environmental Review newsletter


On March 6, 1995, Professor Peter Raven delivered the First Annual Melinda F. Denton Memorial Lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. Professor Denton was Chair of the Department of Botany and Curator of the University Herbarium at the time of her death in March 1994.

Dr. Raven is a leader in identifying issues and providing solutions to environmental problems and ecological crises, particularly as they affect the world's tropical regions. Dr. Raven is Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and Englemann Professor of Botany at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also Home Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, Chair of the Report Review Committee of the National Research Council and a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. In 1986, he received the International Prize for Biology from the government of Japan, in 1990 he shared with E.O. Wilson the Prize of the Institut de la Vie in Paris, in 1992 he shared with Norman Myers the Volvo Environment Prize in Sweden, and in 1994 he shared with Artuo Gomez-Pompa the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. From 1985 to 1990 he was a MacArthur Fellow. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and several foreign academies of sciences and is a past president of a number of groups, including the American Insitute of Biological Sciences, the Organization for Tropical Studies and the Botanical Society of America. Dr. Raven is a member of the Committe on Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society, and Co-chair for the Editorial Committee of the Flora of China project.

He is the author or editor of eighteen books, including textbooks in biology and botany, and more than 450 scientific papers.

The Biodiversity Crisis: What It Means for Us.

Peter Raven:

This is a great honor for me to present this first lecture in honor of our colleague Melinda Denton. She was not only a dear friend and colleague here in Seattle but of many botanists and systematists worldwide. We miss her because of her pragmatism, her cheerful optimism, and her way of getting on with things. What I would like to offer to you as a response to the worldwide problems and challenges we face now is precisely that kind of pragmatism, cheerfulness, and constructive spirit that we will all have to find a way of expressing if we are to be able to accommodate to the world conditions, not as many of our fellow citizens wish they might be, but as they in fact actually are.

I want to talk to you tonight very broadly about biodiversity. I hope that by presenting an overall view and by focusing on some of the connections, I can provide the inspiration for many of us to take up a more engaged position with respect to these crises.

In the 4.5 billion-year history of our planet and the 3.5 billion-year history of life on Earth, life has existed on land for only about 430 million years and forests have existed for only 300 million years. And following the great extinction event at the close of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago, when two-thirds of all species were eradicated, the number of species of terrestrial organisms has gradually been creeping back upward until the time when our ancestors evolved into the genus Homo about two million years ago, and further evolved into our species Homo sapiens, about 500,000 years ago. It is a matter of great concern in thinking about the global ecosystem to reflect that the packing of organisms, the communities that humans evolved into, and the communities in which they formulated and developed agriculture only about ten thousand years ago, were biologically the most complex communities that had ever existed on land. When we human beings try to replace those systems with others that are more directly focused on the kind of productivity that we want, we are modifying enormously complex systems about which we know next to nothing and which we have been studying seriously for only a few decades in the half million years of our history, and the 4.5 billion years of Earth history.

The challenge before us, stated very broadly and plainly, is how we can make the transition from destroying and using up those biological communities as if they and the planet Earth were infinite in capability of supporting us, to a society that will allow us to go on living in relative stability and harmony with the Earth indefinitely. That is not the case now. But let me first of all tell you something about biodiversity, then tell you something about the rate and reason it is being destroyed; about its meaning for us, why the loss of biodiversity is so extraordinarily serious, and then to conclude with some ideas and observations on what we can, if we wish, do about it.

First about biodiversity: Some groups of organisms are pretty well known; for example, there are about 20,000 species of butterflies in the world; there are about 700 in the U.S. and Canada, there are about 6,000 in Latin America, and there are about 3,600 in Peru. Some localities in the Amazon in eastern Peru have 1,500 species of butterflies -- twice as many in a single square mile as there are in the U.S. and Canada. For most butterflies, we have an idea of what they are and where they are. Similarly, there are about 250,000 kinds of flowering plants; 30,000 of them are orchids, almost entirely tropical. Fewer than 300 species of the 30,000 are in the U.S. and Canada. But they, like most other flowering plants, have been named and catalogued to some degree. And of course terrestrial vertebrates are quite well known. All vertebrates are quite well known except for the fresh water fishes of South America, where there are at least a couple of thousand species that have never been catalogued. But of the estimated 45,000 kinds of vertebrates in the world, aside from those South American fishes, we probably have described ninety-eight percent of them: given them a name and catalogued them to some degree. The birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and most fishes in the world are reasonably well-known.

On the other hand, there are a lot of groups of organisms that are very poorly known. Over half of the 1.4 million described species of organisms in the world are insects. The best estimate I could derive from the literature of the number of kinds of insects in the world is about several million, with 750,000 described. In the mites, a large order of arthropods related to insects, there are 35,000 described species, and the traditional estimate is that there are probably a million species in the world. For nematodes, a type of round worm, the estimate is that there are between 500,000 and 750,000 species existing, but only 13,000 of them have been named.

And finally, consider the fungi, of which there are 70,000 described species; the most current estimate is that there may be 1.5 million species of them in the world. Those million and a half species of fungi, along with bacteria, are the primary decomposers in the biosphere; they are present on the roots of about eighty percent of all flowering plants, forming associations that play a vital role in transferring nutrients to the roots of those plants. Fungi are the principal agents of plant disease and are extraordinarily important agents of disease in animals, including humans. They are the principal agent in rotting wood and other stored organic products, yet there are probably twenty people or fewer in the U.S. now studying the systematics of fungi. This is a kind of disconnect that means we are very unlikely to achieve any kind of comprehensive knowledge of fungi any time soon, despite their utility in industrial processes, as sources of antibiotics, and as primary ingredients of beer, wine, and bread. We know very little and we are not making a very serious effort to learn more.

There are about 1.4 million described species of organisms on Earth. My best estimate for the total number of species of organisms in the world is something like 10 million species. This is smaller than some estimates but would suggest that we have named only about fifteen percent of the total biological diversity. The problem is even worse when you consider where the named species of organisms are found, because nearly a million of those named species of organisms occur in temperate regions like the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia, leaving about only 400,000 in all the tropical regions of the world put together. Now if you realize that two-thirds of the flowering plants in the world and about 30,000 of the species of vertebrates are described from tropical regions, that leaves you with about 200,000 species of named organisms other than plants and vertebrates for all the tropical regions of Africa, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia combined. To put this in context, recall that we can estimate that probably six or seven million kinds of organisms exist in the tropics. That means that when you lose a tropical forest, you lose a community of organisms in which you probably have named fewer than five percent of the organisms in the community and of which you are plainly ignorant of virtually every other fact involving the relationships among those organisms, which make possible sustaining ecological relationships.

The Vu Quang ox -- Pseudoryx nghentinhensis -- is a 200 kilogram mammal with horns about half a meter long, was discovered in the forests of Central Vietnam in the summer of 1992, and it is now known from about thirty localities in these forests. It is related to oxen and the fact that an animal like that could be present in this large forested area and was never seen prior to 1992, is the best proof positive I can offer you that we hardly know anything about life on Earth, even in groups of organisms that we consider to be really well known. And if we know so little about the kinds of organisms in the world just ponder again how tragically little we know about the relationships between organisms, especially in the tropics. Whatever we know about the relationships of a community are based on knowing about no more than half of the kind of organisms that make up the community, and only a tiny fraction of the ecological relationships that make up the community. We have little or no knowledge of how the community functions in protecting the sustainablity and the beauty and the grandeur of a particular piece of real estate.

Why is Biological Diversity Declining?

Driving the destruction of biodiversity throughout the world are the familiar three interconnected factors: human population, consumption rate per person, and appropriateness of technology, or choice of technology. Population is a fundamental challenge but by no means is it the only one. And it is as much a challenge for us here in the U.S. as it is for people who are living in Brazil or Nigeria or any other country.

The total human population amounted to a couple of million people at the time of the development of agriculture as recently as 10,000 years ago. When our ancestors were building Stonehenge and the great pyramids, there were fewer people in the world than there are in California now. At the time of Christ, there were 130 million people in the world, and we did not reach a billion people until about 1800, 2 billion people in 1930, 2.5 billion people in 1950 and 5.7 billion people now, forty-five years later. From 1950 until 2020, a seventy-year stretch, well within the lifespan of an individual human being in an industrialized country, the world population is in the process of growing from 2.5 billion people to 7.5 billion people. Ladies and gentlemen, given that human population, after going along flat for the first 500,000 years of our history, with growth from 2.5 billion people to 7.5 billion people in one seventy-year period, anybody who says or implies that the world is now more or less like it was in the past, or that the problems we are confronting now are like the problems of the past, or that since we could solve some past problem we can solve the problems now and count on that confidently -- anybody who says that is either a fool or a charlatan. There is nothing at all about the situation of the world now that resembles any situation that the world has ever faced in the past. We have to accept that and deal with it. While the world population has grown from 2.5 billion people in 1950, to 5.7 billion people now, the proportion of the global population in industrialized countries like the U.S. has decreased: Where there were two other people in the world for every person living in a country like the U.S. in 1950 there are four now, twice as many, and there will be five by the year 2020. That is a profound change in the way the world is put together and in the way the world functions.

The reason this change is so profound is because we who live in industrialized countries have most of the world productivity, and most of the world economy, most of what supports life on earth in our grasp. We have eighty-five percent of the world’s economy, we have eighty percent of the world’s industrial energy -- oil, coal, and gas -- we have eighty-five percent of the world’s iron and steel, we have ninety-five percent of the world’s aluminum. And that means that the eighty-five percent of the people who live in the rest of the world have fifteen percent of the world’s money, six to five percent of the world’s aluminum, and fifteen percent of the world’s iron and steel. And our contribution to pollution and wasting of natural resources is proportional to our control of the economy and to our control of natural resources. About 4.5 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S.; that is about the proportion of the world’s population that has lived in the U.S. since 1870. Since the 1870s, the U.S. has controlled about twenty-five percent of the world’s economy and caused about twenty-five percent of the world’s pollution.

On the point of the impact of the American population, let me just give you one anecdotal way of illustrating that: The U.S. wastes more energy per capita than the citizens of any other nation on earth. We waste about twice as much energy per capita as they do in Sweden or Germany or Switzerland. If the U.S. still had the population we had in 1943 -- about 135 million people, instead of the 270 million people we have now or the 350 million we are going to have by the middle of the next century -- we could waste energy just as much per capita as we are now, but we would not have to import any oil, we would not have to burn any coal, we would not have to drill around any shores, we would not have to use any nuclear energy, and we would not be worried about the Alaska wildlife refuge. We would not even have to practice any energy conservation. The doubling in our population since 1943 is precisely what has brought about our preoccupation with foreign oil, our drilling around our shores, our threatening our national refuges, our use of inappropriate or polluting forms of energy and all the rest. Basically we are living at a standard thirty to forty times the standard that most people in the world are living, and using thirty or forty times as much per capita as they are using. And yet we like to fall back on a hazy idea when talking about global problems: population is the problem.

Let me point out that it is the developing countries of the world that have been consistently pursuing population leveling strategies since the early 1970s. During the presidency of President Salinas in Mexico, I had an audience with him along with the author Peter Matthiessen and other people. Peter turned to President Salinas and said, "Your Excellency, I hesitate to say this but wouldn’t it be wonderful if yours were the first Catholic country to develop a population policy." President Salinas looked at him and said, "Don’t be ridiculous, we have had a population policy since 1971. As an official government policy, we have lowered our rate of birth per couple from 4.9 to 2.9 and we are going for 2.1 by the end of the decade." That statement highlights a complete lack of understanding shared by many people in industrialized countries, although President Salinas said it in a much nicer way. He did not say this, but let us think about the broader picture. We have no population policy in the United States. All we have in the U.S. is a lot of bad feelings that our town, our county, or our state did not grow as fast in population or in economic development as the next town, county, or state. As long as we have that growth mentality, the twenty-five percent of the damage on the Earth’s productive capacity that we personally carry out will never be diminished.

In the developing world where 4.3 billion people live, about 1.5 billion of them exist in a condition the World Bank defines as absolute poverty. That means those people cannot expect to find food, shelter, or clothing predictably on a daily basis. What it particularly means is that the women and children who live in those places and who have to travel often twenty kilometers out and back to find firewood, or to find drinking water since there is no potable water anywhere near them, spend their entire lives doing that. For over a quarter of the people in the world, the conditions are such that women can make no contribution to the development of their society because they have to spend their entire time gathering firewood and water. And the children can get no education because they have to spend their entire time helping their mothers. That is the most brutal form of prejudice you can imagine. We have established in the U.S. that there is no room for discrimination based on gender, race, age, or any other criterion you can think of, not only for moral reasons, not only because it is right, but simply because this nation cannot afford to waste all of that talent by that limitation of possibilities for individual people. So when we fail to recognize that our activities and our attitudes project the same kind of discrimination worldwide, that makes it impossible for the 3,000 culturally and linguistically distinct groups of people in the world to contribute the philosophical diversity that could be such an important ingredient of our working with and saving this planet, we limit our own possibility for getting out of the dilemma we find ourselves in. It is not only immoral, it is just plain stupid.

Any sensible or feeling observer would suppose that the wealthiest nation that has ever existed in the history of the Earth would somehow find it in its power to deal with some problems if it really wanted to do so. Anybody looking at the situation in the U.S. objectively would have to conclude that we are not dealing with our own problems. When the Clinton Administration came in, we were spending $6.2 billion for foreign development assistance. We are spending about another $10 billion on Israel, Egypt, and Russia. By comparison, we sell about $40 billion worth of arms around the world every year. But after looking at that assistance program of $6.2 billion outside of Israel, Egypt and Russia, the first thing the Clinton Administration did was to cut $2.2 billion out of that total. And now -- with the $4 billion remaining as our way of spreading sustainable development, peace, and harmony with nature around the world -- we have more or less a bipartisan consensus that that is an unacceptable amount, which soon will be eliminated from our $1.7 trillion budget with its $200 to $300 billion deficit. That is not only wrong; it is incredibly stupid. How can we think -- we who are the richest nation in the entire world and dependent on twenty-five percent of the world’s economy for our livelihood, for our wealth, for our prosperity -- how can we possibly hoodwink ourselves into thinking we have no interest in the development, the peace, the stability, and the security of other nations?

Now of course the traditional form of agriculture in forested areas in the tropics involves harvesting the trees, cutting them down and burning them on small areas, and using the nutrients that flow out of the trees to temporarily fertilize a little area of forest and then moving on to another area. But as population grows in the tropics, the opportunity to do that on a cyclical basis disappears along with the increase in population density. An area of tropical, moist, lowland forest in Brazil, which used to be about fifty percent larger than the lower forty-eight states, is now about sixty percent of the size of the lower forty-eight states; and we are clearcutting, or taking out of it an area about the size of the state of Indiana every year.

Let me stress that the primary forces in the cutting and permanent conversion of those forests are exactly the same combination of forces that result in the cutting and clearing of forests here in the Pacific Northwest or in Alaska, namely, tax advantages to people who take the forests and convert them into something else. The tradition is that the people who are gaining the greatest advantage from this activity are supported by the government in doing that. There is nothing inherently moral or immoral about that; that is the tradition. We may wish to change the tradition, but that is why forests are being cut all over the world. So, many people working under these traditions, along with other people simply needing to use the forest resources to survive, together are reducing those forests to tiny patches.

Now it is widely supposed that the lack of sustainablity or the real ecological crisis is something that is going to go on in the future, something we can avoid if we are provident. Many people say things like, "We are feeding people kind of adequately now, but we are going to have to feed twice as many of them in fifty years and therefore we are going to have to use our cultivated land a lot more intelligently." There may be a grain of truth in that, but how prosperous do you think the human race is, in which 1.5 billion people -- more than a quarter of the total -- are living in absolute poverty, in which about 400 million people are getting less than eighty percent of the UN recommended daily caloric intake, so that they are literally starving, or in which about 35,000 children under the age of four die every year because of starvation and complications of starvation and diseases associated with it? Many people can say that is a pretty good world mainly because they are looking at the world from the standpoint of Seattle or Tacoma or St. Louis, rather than from the standpoint of people who are living like most of the people in the world. People who say we can use that viewpoint as a base and develop our strategies from there are missing a very simple point: we are not nearly managing the world sustainably now. You can demonstrate that very clearly.

Since World War II, we have lost nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s topsoil; we are not making topsoil at anything approaching replacement rates. We are, in fact, losing each year an amount of topsoil about equal to all the topsoil on all the wheatlands of Australia. We have cut down about a third of the forests of the world without replacing them, since the end of World War II. We have increased by about a quarter the amount carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which sets us on the course of global warming. We have destroyed enough of the stratospheric ozone layer to increase the incidence of malignant skin cancer by about twenty-five percent at the latitude of Seattle. And we are driving an extinction event without parallel since the end of the Cretaceous period sixty-five million years ago, when two-thirds of all the organisms on land disappeared permanently and the whole character of life on Earth was changed. One way of summarizing all this is to point out that human beings right now, at over five billion people, are using about forty percent of the total net photosynthetic productivity on land, and in doing so we have put together the kind of world I have just described. It is not a world in equilibrium, and anything we do to make it better will have to redress the fact that we are, as Herman Daly put it, treating the world as if it is a business in the course of liquidation. The real question before us is how we turn the corner into a stable relationship with the world, how we overcome our short-term tendency just to use everything up?

In terms of biodiversity, I have already pointed out to you that we do not know much about many groups of "primitive" organisms and that means that rates of extinction are difficult to compute. Yet because of the known relationship between numbers of species and sizes of habitat in which they occur, and because there are some groups of organisms that we do know well, we can, by looking at rates of destruction of habitats throughout the world, come up with a rough estimate that about twenty percent of all species of organisms in the world will become extinct within the next thirty-year period. Now that is not just a bunch of insects in the canopy of tropical trees. That would amount to about 50,000 of the 250,000 kinds of plants in the world. It would amount to about 1,800 of the 9,000 kinds of birds in the world. It would amount to about 900 of the 4,500 kinds of mammals in the world. Depending on exactly what we do, we could easily lose more than two thirds of all the organisms in the world before the next century is over. Let’s consider a few local examples before going on.

The island of Madagascar is a California-sized island that lies 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. About seventy percent of all the organisms that are found there are found nowhere else. Madagascar has about 10,000 species of plants -- about two-thirds found nowhere else -- whereas all of tropical Africa has about 23,000 species of plants in an area very much larger. Madagascar is a zone of survival for a biota that used to occur on the continent of Africa, and it is also a place where many new species have evolved. All forty-five species and races of lemur occur either on Madagascar or on a few neighboring islands; that is about one quarter of all non-human primates and, since they are our close relatives, they are therefore a group of organisms of very great interest to us. But every single one of those species of lemurs is threatened or endangered as judged by World Conservation Union standards. And the reason they are threatened or endangered can be demonstrated very graphically by a set of satellite-generated maps of the forests in northeastern Madagascar which show the reduction from a hypothetical beginning point when the island was mostly forested, to the 1950s, to 1984 when the island was mostly deforested. Now we are down to about half of that. As a result, most of Madagascar, instead of being beautifully forested, is grassland with introduced African mainland grasses that are used for grazing.

You can understand why the destruction of such a large number of unique living things that inhabit this world with us should be a matter of serious concern, but as a matter of practical concern we can make the point very easily in Madagascar. The rosy periwinkle is now a common backyard plant, but it is native only to Madagascar. In 1971 the Eli Lilly Company put on the market vinblastine and vincristine, which are two alkaloids derived from that plant. Vinblastine is one of the most effective drugs used to treat Hodgkins disease, and vincristine, when used in combination with other drugs, has raised the chance of surviving childhood leukemia from about one chance in twenty to about nineteen chances in twenty. But just ask yourself how many species like rosy periwinkle are going to survive and for how long in these grossly altered ecological communities? And how are we possibly, with our very limited state of knowledge about global biodiversity, going to have the slightest hope of finding out about them unless we begin to take species extinctions seriously and do something about it while there is still some time?

Western Ecuador is another area of particular concern, and the other area I will use to illustrate local extinction. Western Ecuador, where the forests occur on relatively fertile soil, was about eighty percent forested in 1950 and is about two percent forested in the early 1990s. Almost all the forest has been removed and it has been converted to farms. Where there were in 1950 three roads going from the Pacific up to the heavily inhabited highland areas in Ecuador, there are now about thirty roads. Pictured here is an orchid called Epidendrum ilense, which has been seen exactly once in nature. [See page 8. ed.] It was on a felled tree in a pasture in Western Ecuador; one individual was collected. Fortunately, it was brought into cultivation and it is widespread in botanical gardens now. But I give that as an example that illustrates so wonderfully the kind of aesthetic reason or the idiosyncratic, personal reason that we might have for wanting to save biodiversity. It also illustrates very well a quote from Ed Wilson and Paul Erlich, who in their Crafoord Prize speech said, "Many of us, including the present authors, wonder whether human beings, one of ten million or more species on Earth, have the right to destroy such a large proportion of what are as far as we know our only living companions in the universe." That statement delineates the moral consideration that inspires many people worrying about the way in which we are passively destroying biodiversity throughout the world.

Cal Dodson’s field station in Western Ecuador in Rio Palenque is built out of a tree in the laurel family called Caryodaphnopsis theobromifolia. In 1950 this tree species was the leading source of timber in Western Ecuador for both outdoor and indoor construction, and this species now survives as nine individuals on one 100-hectare plot around this field station. Not a very good basis for running a timber industry.

Al Gentry of our staff was the leading expert on the plants of Western Ecuador and was killed in a plane crash in mid-1993 along with Ted Parker and another Ecuadorian biologist. Al’s passion for those plants drove him to distraction when he saw hundreds of species of plants that he had observed for the first time immediately become extinct as the ridges they were on were cleared off. Probably 2,000 species of plants have either become extinct in Western Ecuador or are on the verge of extinction now.

Just to remind you before we talk about remedies, let me give you just a sampling of the economic reasons for worrying about biodiversity. Cacao, the major ingredient in chocolate, is a reminder that plants in commerce go throughout the entire world and that much of what we use to support ourselves one way or another, comes from the tropics.

Although the U.S. is agriculturally the most productive nation on earth, all but a very few of our cultivated plants were brought into cultivation somewhere else in the world. So when we look for genetic material to enrich our crop plants we have to go somewhere else to find that genetic material. The only plant crop species that I know of that were domesticated within the borders of the U.S. and where we can hope to find genetic material here to improve them, at least by conventional breeding methods, are pecans, sunflowers, cranberries, blueberries and maybe some squashes. Everything else that makes up the bulk of the human food supply -- wheat, potatoes, soybeans, squashes, corn, rice, beans, oats, you name it -- was domesticated and has its reservoir of genetic material somewhere else in the world.

Zea diploperennis -- a wild relative of corn -- was discovered on a mountain range near Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1978 by scientists from the University of Guadalajara and the University of Wisconsin. Unlike corn, Zea diploperennis has just one row of kernels and also unlike corn, it keeps coming back from the same root, that is, it is perennial. Zea diploperennis is interfertile with corn and, also unlike corn, it has in it genes that confer resistance to seven of the nine major viral diseases that are the major factors lowering the yield in corn throughout the world. So it is economically a very important plant to have discovered. But this plant’s entire native range is now just one rambling pasture. This unique perennial corn with all its highly desirable genetic attributes, could easily have gone extinct without ever having been seen.

Two thirds of the people in the world depend directly on plants as their source of medicine; only a third of us use prescription drugs as the main source of medicine. For those of us who do depend on prescription drugs, the dependency is nevertheless direct. Tubocurarine is a modified derivative of curare, which is a muscle relaxant used by certain natives of the Amazon in their hunting. And without this derivative of curare, open heart surgery would not be possible. No surgery requiring diaphragm muscle relaxation would be possible without this drug. We would not know about this drug if we had not had the example of people actually using it.

Most of the twenty biggest-selling prescription drugs in the U.S. are either derived from a natural product, modified from one -- as are cortisone, birth control pills, or other steroids -- or synthesized based on a natural product model. A good example of the latter is acetylsalicylic acid -- our common aspirin -- which is manufactured now from non-botanical sources, but which is modelled on compounds originally found in willows and other plants.

Another example of this latter category is a plant that we at the Missouri Botanical Garden found in Cameroon in West Africa. It is a species of Ancistrocladus which we collected under a contract from the National Cancer Institute to get samples for pharmaceutical screening. A compound from this plant -- Michelamine B -- proved to be active against all major types of human AIDS viruses. In the process of animal testing it turned out that this compound is a neurotoxin, probably too strong to use in human beings. But here is the key point: The compound attacks the AIDS virus in a completely different way from that of all the other compounds currently used to treat AIDS. So by the discovery of this compound, people who are working on that horrible disease are able to gain special insights on how the virus works and are able to make strides towards controlling it. This process of testing, refining and modifying characterizes the research on most natural products.

We have looked at only a tiny fraction of the plants and marine animals and other organisms who use these compounds in their own defenses against predators, fungi, and other diseases, and which have generated incredible metabolic diversity in the course of their evolution. We have only looked at a tiny fraction of those to see what they might be able to produce.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Further Loss?

How to deal with the enormous problems of preserving biological diversity before it is all lost? I hope that you would already realize what I am about to say: Biological diversity cannot be preserved without attending at the same time to the intertwined and feedback-related problems of human population, consumption, and appropriate technology. We cannot save biodiversity without addressing social justice. We cannot save biodiversity without making the world stable in terms of global warming, in terms of ozone, in terms of cutting down forests, or in terms of all the things you need to do to create a stable world. On the other hand, we depend on biodiversity to help us build a stable world. It has been said that the twenty-first century will be the age of biology. What does that imply? It implies that organisms produce things that human society wants or needs, and that potentially can be used sustainably. To do that we have to understand organisms; we have to preserve the biodiversity before we can use it.

Let me illustrate this with an example from the Philippines.

There are about 85 million people in the Philippines and the population will double in about twenty-five years. Do we also consider that two-thirds of the people in the Philippines are living in absolute poverty? Do we think about the fact that for most people in the Philippines, the idea of being in a state of revolution against the government follows naturally from the fact that there is absolutely nothing to hope for? Or that having depleted natural resources, and having no real options for their lives, it is natural that they would be living in a state of instability and revolution and trouble and difficulty? Do we think enough about dispensing foreign aid to the Philippines in such a way that we contribute to stability, to security, and to the long range future of the country?

To me the situation is epitomized by the fact that the two little girls in this picture are getting drinking water in a stream about two hundred yards below a gold mine on the island of Mindanao, where mercury is being used to separate the gold ore from the rock. And they are going to take that contaminated water back and cook with it. What kind of a future have they got? If instead of thinking about internationalism as a junior year in France or some such thing, we could think about it as a challenge to know and understand and feel what it is like to live like most people in the world live their lives, then we could really begin to save biodiversity.

The most effective way of saving biodiversity, especially in view of the fact that we have not yet heard about most of the organisms, is to preserve areas that have all their organisms in them, intact as natural communities, whether we know about them or not, and to keep them as long as we can.

In addition, we have to concentrate more on the principles of restoration ecology: How you put together groups of organisms in nature, how you understand the properties by which cut-over pastures in rainy areas become forests, become stable, by which you get back forests in areas that have been depleted and run down by inappropriate land use in the past and put together something worthwhile. But again, until we reach stability in population, consumption, and technology, we won’t be able to do this very well on a wide scale, and indeed to do it at all requires enough biodiversity being around to get started.

Of course we need to work on agroforestry systems and other kinds of agricultural systems: no-till farming in the U.S. and cutting back on excessive use of chemicals. Finding systems appropriate for cultivating and using the best methods on the relatively small amount of productive land that we have is the best we can do.

Genetic engineering, the ability to change the characteristics of organisms so that they can resist their own pests and provide their own fertilizers, has to be an important component along with all these other ways of improving agriculture for the future. Half the pesticides in the world are used on cotton crops. In the country of Nicaragua alone, around 300 people poison themselves every year using pesticides, and that is just a tiny slice of what happens throughout the world where pesticides are overused. The same story is true of fertilizers and all other chemical applications. Being mindful of the risks, and of the need to protect against dangers and overcome problems, it makes sense to use genetic engineering to allow plants to build their own defenses. By doing that we reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and pesticides and get away from the need for poisoning so wide a fraction of life on Earth while doing it. But remember it is only twenty-two years since the first transfer of a gene from one unrelated organism to another. It is only about fifteen years since the first transfer like that occurred in plants. We are just scratching the surface and as we lose biodiversity we are also losing the genetic diversity that would make it possible for us to do a good job of that.

We also need to study and learn about the kinds of organisms there are on earth while there is time. A number of you in this room will be pursuing careers related to biological diversity. Those careers are a very important contribution to the whole problem set we are talking about this evening and they are particularly important when it comes to applying training and support opportunities to scientists and engineers in developing countries. One of the most unfortunate things about the world’s ability to manage itself properly is that only six percent of the scientists and engineers live in developing countries. Developing countries right now have about seventy-eight percent of the world’s population and six percent of the world’s scientists and engineers and about eighty percent of the world’s biodiversity. If you then reflect that most of those scientists and engineers are crowded into a few countries -- China, India, Brazil, Mexico -- you can immediately realize that more than a hundred countries in the world have no scientific or engineering establishment at all. And when you come to asking a country like Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Ecuador, or Peru, to agree to some international convention or to leave species alone, or to manage their own resources sustainably, you have to realize there is virtually nobody there to contribute the information that is absolutely necessary to do that in a form in which it can be trusted by the government. In that case, countries cannot be expected to participate of their own free will in international conventions, or even to use their own resources sensibly. Institutions like the University of Washington have an enormous opportunity for service in training people from around the world and helping to set them up to confront those problems in which every person in the world has a tremendous interest.

Captive breeding can also be an important part of the mix for biodiversity. It is a very expensive strategy for dealing with animals; keeping one species of vertebrate animal going costs some multiple of millions of dollars per year in any kind of responsible or long-term way. And you obviously are not going to maintain very many of them in that way. But on the other hand, why on earth has not the world decided as a community to try to save plant genetic diversity, when there are only 250,000 species, when they are dripping through our fingers, and when it would be perfectly feasible -- using just an infinitesimal part of the world’s arms budget -- to be able to save virtually all of the kinds of plants that there are in the world in 1995? When will the preservation of the organisms that contribute so much to our lives on earth seem to be as important to us as our own health protection? In the U.S. for example, we spend about a sixth of our GNP on health. We spend about half of that huge amount on health care in the last year of life. And yet you have to ask, why not deploy those dollars to other forms of making ourselves able to live in a healthy environment? Isn’t there any way we can make some sensible, collective decisions about how much we are going to allocate to health care? So far, it is not clear that we can.

We do not have the regional or the national mechanisms that will allow us to make decisions that are for the benefit of most people. We really do deal with the world as if it is a business in the course of liquidation. And by dealing with the world in that way we are satisfied to have a whole variety of different interests pick apart our heritage and destroy the things that make us want to live in certain places. Yet we seem unwilling to express ourselves politically, we seem unwilling to get our politicians to get it high enough on their agendas to do what really is, in any prudent consideration whatever, in the interests of most of the people. We have to overcome that unwillingness, we have to vote. We have to move these issues higher on the agenda in your block, in your city, in your state, in the U.S., and then in the world. Unless we do that, we are not living responsible lives.

I have already mentioned the need for internationalism. Let each of us think about what we can do to promote a real kind of internationalism, where we -- the people in our church groups, the people in our clubs, the people in our social and business circles -- can have some hope of getting to know other people around the world. Without getting to know them, clearly we are not going to care or do much to preserve them or make their lives happier. Arguments about where our economic benefit lies are not really going to succeed; it is going to take getting to know people around the world and how they really live. Of course we must start with the U.S. A lot of people have said that unless you can be good to one another, unless you really care enough about your fellow human beings to worry about their predicaments, you are unable to deal in a responsible and caring way about the environment. The task of doing that really begins with each and every one of us. That is not some kind of moralistic tale; it is an absolute truth. But until most of us can begin to understand the way in which most people in the world live, we are not likely to take effective action to improve their lives, no matter how important it is to us at an intellectual level.

This set of organisms with which we are associated on Earth frames our picture of beauty, it frames our lives, it holds our destiny. It is the set of conditions, the set of pieces that we can use to secure our own future. In an intellectual sense, in an aesthetic sense, in an economic sense, and in any other senses, we need to care about it. Even though the problem of preserving biodiversity cannot be solved in isolation from the problems of achieving global sustainability, the problem of preserving biodiversity, addressed head-on, can be the objective by which we learn to make the world a sustainable place. If we deal with our local problems, we can deal with wider problems. We can eventually come to understand that the views of the world as sent back to Earth from the Apollo space mission were not some kind of cartoon; they were a reflection of the fact that the world on which we live is one finite planet, one beautiful and magnificent place, the only place that we can live, the only place in which we can realize any of our deepest hopes and expectations. The perfidious kinds of rules we have created that delude us into thinking that the world is infinite and unlimited, that individual rights give us a license to deal with this single planetary home in a destructive way, have to give way to a world consciousness. When we can finally do that, we will be able to produce a world that will be sustainable and in which there is some hope of getting beyond these few hundred years into some kind of peaceful, stable horizon beyond.

The world will not become a sustainable place because everybody in the world suddenly realizes its importance and we all are levitated together towards some higher state of consciousness. The world will be a better or worse place because we, some individuals, some people, somewhere, some groups of individuals chose to commit themselves to the realization of those goals, because they understood that the way in which they realize those goals would set up the world in the future. Certainly a hundred or two hundred years from now the world will be badly damaged, but there will be bright spots and there will be more beautiful spots, and there may even be spots that will be rich in biological diversity. How many of those spots there are, where they are, what they are like, and what things people have to enjoy -- those decisions will be set by the individual commitments that we make now. Many of you are already deeply committed and all I can ask you to do is to renew that commitment by renewed action in your personal lives and in your collective lives.

To the memory of our colleague Melinda -- we all appreciated so much her cheerful and progressive and optimistic attitude -- I can only say that with a similar kind of attitude applied to this set of problems we might have some hope of making a contribution that would really be worthy of us. We all know that we are going to die at some point. Our lives are all finite. It is very clear that the only contributions that we make are the contributions we make through other people. In the same way, the only way we can effectively honor the memory of anyone whom we admire, is to try to seize some of the lessons and some of the attitudes and some of the objectives of that person and make them come true in our own lives. It is in that spirit that I would like to conclude by saying I consider it a very great honor to have come here tonight and to deliver this first Melinda Denton lecture.

Question from audience: "How do you respond to those who say we have used technology and substitutions in the past to deal with shortages and environmental problems and we can continue to do so in the future?"

PR: The way I respond to that recently is to point out that the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences, supposedly this is a cross section of the best scientists of the U.S. andthe United Kingdom, nearly half of the scientists of the world,issued a statement at a meeting three years ago in which they said, "Unless humanity will address itself to the problems of population growth, find a stable population, the problems of consumption, of finding a tolerable consumption level, that science and engineering, although they will be able to contribute much, will not be able to solve the world’s problems." Subsequently, sixty academies, representing most of the nations on Earth that have academies, meeting in Delhi in October 1993, came essentially to the same conclusion. Before the Earth Summit in Rio, about 3,000 leading scientists, including two-thirds of all Nobel laureates, signed a scientists’ warning to humanity in which they said essentially the same thing: Unless we address these problems seriously, scientists will not be able to point the way out. I would like to point out that if all of these noted scientists and Nobel Prize winners agree that science and engineering are not going to be able to find our way out of this dilemma unless we address these environmental problems, what in the world is it that gives the people who write the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal the right to know that science and engineering will solve all of the world’s problems? Why is it if they are right, that scientists and engineers do not agree with them? It is fine to say you have solved the problem when you have solved the problem. But let's solve the problem first.

Copyright 1995 Environmental Review

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