Tuesday, May 27, 2008


EO Wilson, Hotspots, and Global Warming

Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC pioneers educating for environmentalist careers and building a sustainable college community. When Nobel laureate E.O. Wilson, who created the new sub-field of sociobiology, spoke at the college a few years ago, he highlighted the challenge and adventure of a naturalist’s career, showing scientists in cloud forest canopy walkways such as those we experienced in Monteverde. At the end of his talk, a suitably awed student asked, “And who will carry on this work when you are gone?”, Wilson immediately answered with a smile, scanning the thronged chapel, “Why you will, of course.”

Preserving hotspots, and training those who will safeguard them, is a splendid idea, and organizations like Conservation International are making great strides in doing just that (though preserving the human cultures who live alongside these rich genetic troves has proved a challenge. But during the question period, I raised the issue of the impact of climate change upon these preserves, forcing their inhabitants to shift to more suitable climates, and thus frequently facing the daunting prospect of traversing adjacent areas heavily populated by human beings. Wilson was perturbed. “One problem at a time,” he begged.

Up to the late twentieth century, science advanced through just this approach. But I’m sorry Professor Wilson, we can’t pick and choose our problems; they are all happening at once. During the last half century, the field of ecology has matured, and has necessarily introduced the study of the systemic complexity characterized by many mutually-affecting variables. Wilson was unhappy with the question because he was at Warren Wilson to recruit naturalists. But the question still stands, and we face the awesome task of addressing the whole host of variables in the earth-system unleashed by global warming. We are the Flood, and we need to collectively remember how to be Noahs, not just by preserving ecologically sensitive hotspots, but by fundamentally changing the way we live.

My last post chronicled a happy sojourn in Costa Rica and its hotspots, preserved by an enlightened government and citizenry. The discerning reader might ask, “But what about the ecological cost of ecotourism?” Among the perplexing tasks of sorting variables is weighing the relative carbon costs of flying in ecotourists to the cutting of trees and putting in cattle in unsuitable terrain, as the Quaker “pioneers” did at Monteverde. Raising cattle is perhaps the single most destructive thing that we do. Ecotourism seems to be a progressive move, but just how much do the consumers, the eco-tourists, do to help the equation?

No matter what our efforts to set aside habitat for future genetic diversity, the larger issue always remains the human context for these areas. Excepting the most basic elements of life - the bacteria, algae, fungi, and insects - we have become the dominant life-form, and all other species live within our context - the honeybees surviving in urban and suburban areas while dying in the countryside - or they are in preserves, effectively, zoos.

But there are moments when the primordial still rears up and swallows us, natives who were thrown out of the Garden, now casually and mindlessly raising colonialists of the natural order, addicted to our industrial ways and imagined separation from our ground in Gaia. When Geeta and I arrived at our lodge adjacent to the Corcovado rainforest preserve in the Osa Peninsula, the sound of the cicadas was so deafening I couldn’t hear myself think. I was worried, fearful that I would be trapped for a week amidst this deafening chant, unable to thread my identity along the string of my occasionally brilliant reflections. Mercifully, at nightfall, the chorus abruptly ceased, and I relaxed. But during our stay at this glorious place, each day inevitably produced a time when the chorus rose up to swallow me again, reminding me that in the big scheme of things, I and my thoughts were perhaps not so important after all.

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