On December 26, 2021, Edward O. Wilson, known by most as E.O. Wilson, passed away. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as an array of other awards and honors, Wilson is the author of more than 20 books, a professor, and a bright light in the conservation movement. His work has had a profound influence on me personally and on many who love and work to protect ecosystems.
The thread that runs through Wilson’s work is the celebration of biodiversity. Biological diversity, or “biodiversity,” is defined by Wilson as “the variation of living organisms at all levels.” Biodiversity exists at many scales, from the genetic variation within an individual species to the diversity of different species within an ecosystem, to the variation between ecosystems across our landscape and across the globe. In his writing and his speaking, Wilson is the kind of genius who makes the complex, nuanced concept of biodiversity understandable and even beautiful.
E.O. Wilson was a myrmecologist—a scientist who studies ants—by training, and writes extensively about invertebrates, which he calls “the little things that run the world.” He revels in the vastness and the mystery of biodiversity: the millions of species in existence (there are about 2 million known species on earth) and the millions of species yet to be discovered (perhaps 10 to 30 million species exist). Each of these species occupies a niche and fulfills a nuanced ecological role, and Wilson describes the megafauna of the African savannah and the more than 500 species of bacteria endemic to the human mouth with nearly equal reverence.
E.O. Wilson’s words are timely and critical in the middle of a global biodiversity crisis, a mass extinction event directly attributable to human activity. Wilson abbreviates the primary causes of biodiversity loss into the acronym “HIPPO”—Habitat loss, Invasives (non-native invasive plants, animals, pests and pathogens), Pollution, Population and Overexploitation (the over-harvesting of organisms and resources). Taken along with climate change, these factors comprise global change: the true sum of the threat to our ecosystems and to the species that occupy them.
Wilson advocates for protecting biodiversity both for its intrinsic value—its right to exist—and as an act of self-preservation. Biodiversity is the foundation upon which ecosystems are built, and ecosystems make our world work for humans and for everything else. As we endeavor to build a functional, sustainable world for ourselves and for our children, we lose biodiversity at our own peril.
Biodiversity is also critical to ecosystem resilience. As forests and other ecosystems respond to global change, they face an incredible array of challenges and stressors—to individual species, to the interactions between species, and to the interaction between species and their environment—that fundamentally threaten their ability to exist. Maintaining a diversity of different ecosystems, different species and genetic variability within species provides more pathways for species and ecosystems to adapt to these unpredictable and profound changes.
In his work, Wilson balances idealism with pragmatism. He recognizes the importance of protecting lands and species for their own sake, as well as the importance of taking action. He understands that a functional and sustainable world must involve a balance between protecting ecosystems and protecting each other. Finding ways to produce resources sustainably is a part of that balance, as is promoting justice and equity in our local and global communities.
As insulated as we Vermonters seem to be from its worst effects, we are still experiencing global change and biodiversity loss. Vermont is losing about 1,500 acres of forest a year, with a far greater amount being fragmented with roads and with residential and commercial development. Among other factors, non-native invasive plants, pests and pathogens, climatic changes and shifts in our natural disturbance regimes actively threaten and undermine the health of our remaining forests. We all actively contribute to global change through the resources we consume, which are produced at a cost to ecosystems across the world and our global climate.
As with our forests, our lives are built on complex legacies—the foundations laid by those who came before. Above all, E.O. Wilson inspired countless people to love and to safeguard life on behalf of everyone and everything. Whether or not we will honor his legacy depends on what we do next.
Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester for the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation. To see what he’s been up to, check out his YouTube channel, sign up for his eNews and read articles he’s written on his website.