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Father of Biodiversity: Edward O. Wilson

The reality of our time was captured long ago by H.G. wells' observation that we are in a race between education and catastrophe.


By Alex Wilson and Jane Kolleeny

Edward O. Wilson, an entomologist and biologist, is known for his work in the fields of ecology and evolution. He initiated a debate on sociobiology when he suggested that behavior can be evaluated from an evolutionary framework. He is credited with coining the term “biodiversity” in the books The Diversity of Life and The Future of Life. With the publication of these and numerous other books and articles he has become one of the most important thinkers of this century. Dr. Wilson answered questions from the editors at GreenSource.

Edward O. Wilson
Photo © Jim Harrison, Harvard
Wilson is currently a professor at Harvard, where he earned his PhD. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his books, On Human Nature in 1978, and The Ants in 1991. In 2000, he was named one of the top 100 environmentalists by Audubon and Time magazines.
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GreenSource: The green building movement is seeking to minimize the impact of buildings on the environment, by focusing on limiting land development burden, protecting indoor air quality, and controlling energy, water, and materials use. From a big-picture, biologist’s perspective, what do you think the priorities of this movement should be? For example, should the top priority be reducing energy consumption to slow down global warming, or is it more important to prevent rain forest destruction to protect biodiversity?

Edward O. Wilson: I don’t think in terms of priorities, because all of the big problems and all of the solutions are interlocked. Moreover, it should now be obvious even to supply-side economists that the economy will be boosted by technological innovations to reduce material and energy consumption. A smaller ecological footprint and improved quality of life go hand in hand, and they are the key to future American economic leadership—as was demonstrated by the information technology revolution.

GS: You coined the term “biophilia.” Could you explain that concept and describe how it can inform building design?

EOW: It means the innate propensity to affiliate with the natural living environment and a wide diversity of other life forms. The idea has received a lot of scientific support, and is even in use in preventive medicine and hospital design. One well-documented principle of immediate relevance to architecture is this: when people are given a completely free choice of habitation, they consistently (across cultures) choose three features. They want to live on a prominence, overlook parkland, or be located next to a lake, stream, or other body of water.

GS: The AIA recently came out with a formal target of reducing the energy consumption of new American buildings by 50 percent by the year 2010. This would be a dramatic step, but does it go far enough? How much would we have to reduce carbon emissions to have a significant impact on global climate change?

EOW: If the AIA goal were reached, it would be a huge advance for the United States and provide an example for the world. Obviously, a lot more has to be done in all sectors of life; for example, an energy revolution in the automobile industry and a shift to dispersed wind farm and solar systems as quickly as possible. Even then, and even if the Kyoto agreement were fully implemented, we’ll be seeing a lot of climate change in the decades ahead—mostly unfavorable.

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This article appeared in the June 2006 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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