E.O. Wilson, age 90, an “Alabamian who came up North to have work,” is the “world’s foremost authority on biodiversity.” Raised a Southern Baptist, Wilson is not a church goer, though a religious fervor comes in the form of his dedication to science, conservation, and protecting the planet and its inhabitants. As Caleb Johnson reports at The Bitter Southerner, Wilson believes that people have the power to stop climate change and avoid leaving the Anthropocene era for the Eremocene — the Age of Loneliness, “a term Wilson has popularized that defines an epoch marked by an existential and material isolation resulting from having extinguished so many other forms of life.”
I’d come to Wilson in search of hope. A new decade had announced itself with the warmest January on record, smoke from wildfires in Australia visible from outer space, and a novel virus had just begun spreading outward from China. Here in the United States, the current presidential administration continued weakening environmental rules and laws by stripping protections for streams, wetlands, and groundwater. I needed to quiet my inner cynic and its grim take on a future shaped by more extreme weather events and leadership refusing to act on scientists’ warnings that climate change affects every aspect of our environment, and our health, and will continue doing so if we cannot make major societal changes.
In conversation, Wilson asks lots of questions. No surprise since he spent 40 years lecturing in classrooms. Initially, I mistake these questions for him pondering aloud. When I fail to respond to one about how he can better support literature in Alabama, he says, “I’m asking because I want to know what you think.”
So I tell him. And as I talk, Wilson takes out a piece of paper and a pen and scribbles notes. Later, he’ll reference what he calls “our ideas” and share his plan to turn them into reality. Many things make E.O. Wilson extraordinary, not the least of which is, during his 90th year on this planet, he believes work remains to be done.
Wilson has argued that if we don’t soon change the way we live we will leave behind the Anthropocene and enter the Eremocene, or the Age of Loneliness, a term Wilson has popularized that defines an epoch marked by an existential and material isolation resulting from having extinguished so many other forms of life. To his point, a new study published in Nature suggests that mass extinction will look like a cliff rather than a slope as previously predicted. Ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans could begin as soon as next decade, followed by collapse in tropical forests — the most diverse ecosystems on the planet — in the 2040s. In other words, as Wilson writes, the biosphere will be reduced to “our domesticated plants and animals, and our croplands all around the world as far as the eye can see.”
Scientists conceive of time differently than us layfolk. Millenia rather than days, centuries as opposed to minutes. E.O. Wilson is no exception. He assures me it isn’t too late to avoid an Age of Loneliness. He is also known for popularizing the term biophilia, or the innate pleasure we take in the presence of other organisms.
“We can confer immortality on the rest of life if we wish to do so,” he tells me. I leave feeling somewhat convinced, and I wonder what would happen if more people were imbued with a similar sense of possibility and responsibility toward our present environment.