August 29, 2006

Get rich with E. O. Wilson

In the article Apocalypse Now E. O. Wilson writes:
Dear Pastor, [...]

In destroying the biosphere, we are destroying unimaginably vast sources of scientific information and biological wealth. Opportunity costs, which will be better understood by our descendants than by ourselves, will be staggering. Gone forever will be undiscovered medicines, crops, timber, fibers, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities. Critics of environmentalism forget, if they ever knew, how the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar provided the alkaloids that cure most cases of Hodgkin's disease and acute childhood leukemia; how a substance from an obscure Norwegian fungus made possible the organ transplant industry; how a chemical from the saliva of leeches yielded a solvent that prevents blood clots during and after surgery; and so on through the pharmacopoeia that has stretched from the herbal medicines of Stone Age shamans to the magic-bullet cures of present-day biomedical science.

These are just a few examples of what could be lost if Homo sapiens pursue our current course of environmental destruction.
Investing your money in finding new uses for wild organisms can make you rich. But I would rather buy stock of pharmaceutical companies, which do very little or no bioprospecting and much laboratory synthesis. It is true that there is a vast untapped potential in little known organisms. The exploration of the world's biodiversity for pharmaceutical and other industrial uses is like the exploration of outer space - we have probed just a tiny fraction. Eliminating half of the stars of the universe and eliminating half of the biological species would still leave enormous quantities of stuff to be explored. Biodiversity is such a big haystack that making it half as small would still allow bioprospectors to keep busy looking for needles for centuries.


  1. Wilson is just trying to make a case for saving biodiversity. Don't tell anyone I said this, but humanity would probably thrive even if we destroy every mamal and bird species save our own domesticated animals.

    The world would be that much less interesting. Life is not a matter of right or wrong, it is primarily a power struggle. The free market is brutally efficient. Finding ways to use it to save biodiversity is the key.

    Ground rules that create level playing fields that do not allow any competitor to directly destroy biodiversity might work. The free market isn't a religion. It can be directed with rules and level playing fields.

  2. biodiversivist, what do you mean with "ground rules" and "level playing fields"?

  3. Biodiversivist9/09/2006 04:27:00 PM

    The soccer team shooting at a goal at the bottom of a hill has an advantage. You have to have a level playing field. Both teams get to use a goalie. Referees are needed because without them both teams would cheat. Cheat and you get red flagged.

    Slavery is illegal. Although lots of competitors would use slaves to gain an advantage if they could, because they can't, competition continues unabated. If there were similar global ground rules that did not allow the destruction of ecosystems, competition would also continue unabated. Log your forests unsustainably, or in a manner that sends a species toward extinction and you get red flagged. Refuse to play by the rules, nobody is allowed to buy your products.

    Not fair says India, who has hundreds of millions of potential slaves. Not fair says Brazil who has not yet destroyed the Amazon. If you want to play, you have to play by the rules, or you can't play at all. Slavery ended because enough people finally decided that it should.

    Stopping the extinction event will take a similar global meme, creating level playing fields that everyone will accept given time.