The world lost a giant among giants when EO Wilson passed away in December.
Wilson was not only an esteemed scientist and prolific author, but also a colossus of the conservation movement. The famed Harvard biologist, dubbed “Darwin’s natural heir,” started out focusing on ants and focused on our planet’s biodiversity. He observed nature, recorded nature, loved nature, and endeavored to save the nature around us.
Wilson was attacked – intellectually and physically – for telling the truth. In his groundbreaking Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he claimed that genetic traits influence animal and human intelligence and behavior – common knowledge today, but then a lightning rod for leftist professors and Marxist agitators. Since Wilson was raised in the South, it was easy for fanatics to accuse him of being a eugenics racist.
At a 1978 symposium on sociobiology, protesters rushed to the stage shouting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” and one of them threw a pitcher ice water on him.
A few Pulitzer Prize winners have done much to quell attacks, but not to eliminate them. A recent article in Scientific American recycles the slurs, using the terms “racist” and “racism” seven times without offering any supporting evidence.
As Wilson worked to preserve biodiversity, it became apparent that the crushing of humans and human activity was the main threat. Habitat depletion – the displacement of natural areas by homes, agriculture, commerce and industry – is the main culprit in the decimation of wildlife. “The monster raging on earth is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is just a flimsy theoretical concept,” Wilson said.
In 1996, the Sierra Club Board of Directors abandoned its longstanding population policy that immigration levels should be reduced to a level that “would achieve population stabilization in the United States.” Two years later, conservation-minded members of the Sierra Club forced the organization to hold a referendum on this policy reversal. Full disclosure, I was actively involved in this referendum effort, which ultimately lost.
Leading environmentalists endorsed the referendum. They understood that reducing population growth was essential to protect the environment and that most of America’s population growth came from immigration. The Club establishment reached out to its liberal donor base and viciously attacked the referendum and its supporters. The club’s then-president Adam Werbach engaged in a scurrilous campaign to hunt racial ambulances, presaging the current Sierra Club’s efforts to dump its founder John Muir for the sin of living in the 1800s .
Werbach implored Wilson and other supporters to withdraw their support for the referendum, to which Wilson, gently but firmly, replied, “I will not change. Population is such an important factor in the future of the environment, and in particular biodiversity, that it should be tackled head-on and openly whenever possible. the initiative calls for a “net reduction in immigration”, no slamming of doors there.
Wilson will be remembered not only for his towering intelligence and eloquent prose that enriched our lives and enhanced our knowledge of life itself, but also for his resolute character in the face of adversity. “I know what it’s like to endure emotional controversy – I’ve been there most of my life,” he said. He candidly addressed population growth even as mainstream environmental groups retreated from tackling this overriding conservation issue.
“Future generations will forgive us for our horrible genocidal wars, because it will go too far in history. They will forgive us all the follies and evil of previous generations,” EO Wilson wrote. “But they won’t forgive us for so carelessly throwing so much of the rest of life under our watch.”
Ric Oberlink is the executive director of the nonprofit group Californians for Population Stabilization.