The Environment

The Aspen Environment Forum Launches with E.O. Wilson and Stewart Brand

June 23, 2012

The Institute’s 2012 Environment Forum began with a sweeping exploration of big ideas— developing the next generation of naturalists and bringing back extinct species, to name a few. Harvard biologist and author of the new The Social Conquest of Earth E.O. Wilson kicked off the forum in conversation with Institute Executive Vice President Elliot Gerson.

Wilson was adamant that a sustainable future would not be possible without raising future generations to revere nature. “You’ve got to get the kid out in the woods, in the natural environment as much as you can, and leave them alone. The worst thing you can do is to take them down the path of some nature park that has the label on each tree and tell them to be careful not to step off the trail because there might be snakes. What a terrible way to introduce them to nature. Turn ‘em loose!”

For those already dedicated to nature and scientific exploration, Wilson is working on a book, Letters to a Young Scientist. “In the book, I am telling you what I know, what I have done, and what I think it will take for you to be a success, and I’m going to tell it to you straight because I’m old enough not to be inhibited by the drag of false modesty. If this is the kind of thing you’re going to do, just go out and do it—we need you to.”

The urgency of cultivating such scientists was highlighted by Wilson’s dire prediction: “If we continue at the present rate of eliminating species, half of them will be gone or reduced to what we call ‘the living dead’ by the end of the century. We’re actually changing the chemistry of the sea, and we could be wiping out not just species, but entire phyla.”

The forum’s second panel addressed just this challenge, with the marquee couple of Long Now Foundation President Stewart Brand and his wife, the geneticist Ryan Phelan, in conversation with Institute President Walter Isaacson. The duo discussed their quest to “de-extinct” the Passenger Pigeon, a species that vanished a century ago.

“The process of bringing back the Passenger Pigeon would essentially be genetic re-engineering,” Phelan explained. “You would take the most genetically related species, along with the sequencing from museum specimens of Passenger Pigeons, and trait by trait, you would change the DNA.”

But with the promise of de-extinction come perils. “The capacity to write DNA is increasing at the order of 10-fold per year, and science shows it’s going to keep doing that for a while,” Brand said, “De-extincting species may be an amateur method by the end of the decade.”

As this threshold lowers, moral questions emerge. “If you take the pressure off extinction, will society act in a less fearful way about protecting life?” Phalen said. “It’s an important question to wrestle with, but we have to think through it with society, as extinction is now probably not going to be forever.”

The importance of facing challenging environmental issues such as these head-on is sure to be a recurring theme in the days ahead. “Time and time, our writers and photographers come back to us with really sobering news about what’s going on in the environment,” National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns said in his welcome address. “I am sobered by some of the things we witness out there, but as I look across this distinguished group of people, I see the power of ideas and good work, and the hope that good work can generate.”

Video of both discussions can be found here.