Podcast: Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy, "the Godfather of Biodiversity"

July episode of Conservation Conversations with Sean O'Brien

In the first episode of Conservation Conversations with Sean O'Brien, Sean speaks with Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation who is often called “the Godfather of Biodiversity” for introducing the term biological diversity to the scientific community in the year 1980. From the amazing biodiversity of the Amazon, to the connection between the environment and social movements, Sean and Tom cover a wide variety of topics in this first interview.

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Full Transcript

Sean: Welcome to Conservation Conversations, the podcast where we discuss emerging technologies, global trends, and the future of biodiversity conservation with some of the world’s leading experts. I’m your host Sean O’Brien, President and CEO of NatureServe, where we’ve been working for 50 years to protect endangered species and ecosystems.

Before I introduce you to our first guest, let me tell you a little bit more about who we are and why we started this podcast. NatureServe is the global leader in the use of science, data, and technology for conserving biodiversity and preventing extinction. With this podcast, we want to introduce our audience to some of today’s key players in conservation, and share the amazing work being done around the globe to protect our planet’s rich biodiversity.

Today, in our very first Conservation Conversations podcast, we’ll be starting at the beginning of the modern history of biodiversity with Dr. Thomas Lovejoy. Tom is often referred to as the godfather of biodiversity, and is one of the most important figures and a thought leader in modern biodiversity conservation. Tom is also a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University.

With that, let’s get into it.

Well, I’m here today with Tom Lovejoy from the UN Foundation, and the person who is credited as being “the Father of Biodiversity” as we think of it today and we think of that term. And Tom, I just wanted to start off by asking you what attracted you to studying biology? Like was there some inspirational moment or some event that caused you to want to be a biologist

Tom: Well, there was, but first let me straighten one thing out. Somebody once introduced me as the father of biodiversity before a talk, and I said, “No, no, no, that’s not biologically possible.” And so they came up with godfather.

Sean: [laughs] I did notice on Wikipedia it says godfather, and I thought that sounded a little more ominous. So I went with father.

Tom: Well in any case, so, I was always when I had the opportunity outdoors, and was really interested in animals. And when I was looking for a school to go to in 1955, the first one that we visited was The Millbrook School, which has a zoo, and that’s all I needed to hear, right? 

Sean: Right.

Tom: And I said this is where I want to go, and luckily, I got in. Well it turns out, now I had no idea about science. I had no idea about biodiversity or the variety of life on Earth. The biology teacher, whose name was Frank Trevor had created the zoo, and he also taught biology. You had to take it the first or second year, and I said you know with great wisdom, I said I’ll take it the first year and get it over with. And here I am, right? 

Sean: Right.

Tom: So basically in three weeks he flipped my switch and marched with me and the other students through the plant kingdom and then through the animal kingdom. So by the time I wasn’t even 15, I understood the outline of life on Earth, or what today we would call biological diversity. 

Sean: Isn’t it interesting how many people’s story includes an inspirational teacher?

Tom: Well it’s so true, and this guy did it for many people. And the zoo still exists, and the students help take care of the animals. And they breed endangered species, and they’re accredited by the AAZA, and it’s a great place. 

Sean: That’s great. So you were obviously interested in the 50s, and then went to college in the 60s and did fieldwork in the 60s. And one of the things that I think about, because I started doing fieldwork in the late 80s, and even then, you could get yourself into a situation where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for assistance. Whereas today, you can use a cell phone or a satellite phone pretty much anywhere on the planet, and if something goes wrong, there’s help can be on its way. I’d love to hear some story about when you were first getting started and going out in the field, what was it like back then? Because I think in many ways it wasn’t that much different than what Darwin experienced more than a hundred years earlier. 

Tom: Well, you know, it wasn’t scary. I didn’t even know about the options that were coming, right?

Sean: Right.

Tom: And so you just, you know, you try to do sensible things, and not fall into quicksand and stuff like that. And you know, you just were sensible to the extent that you always had somebody who knew where you were, or were going, or what you were trying to do. So if you were late or something, they’d go chase after you. But it was really pretty magical. So I actually had dreams of doing my PhD on montane forest birds in East Africa. I was besotted with East Africa. And my freshman advisor, who by that point was at the Smithsonian, came back to New Haven on a brief visit in my first year in graduate school, and said if I wrote a letter to a person at the Rockefeller Foundation, I could probably get the funding to spend the summer with them in the Amazon. And that’s how it started. And at that point the Amazon was essentially 97% intact. Imagine that – an area as big as the 48 states and 97% intact. And of course, it was just brimming with all kinds of biological diversity, a lot of it undescribed. And I never looked back. It was like being in a biologist’s equivalent of a Christmas stocking with no end to it. 

Sean: Yeah, and it is remarkable to think about 97% intact and just how much has been lost that we don’t know we have lost because it was never catalogued. 

Tom: True.

Sean: And that is really terrifying. We just don’t know what’s out there. So that is of course one of the things that we’re trying to do now at NatureServe is catalog the biodiversity of at least the Americas, which is our primary service area. But even that, even just in North America, that’s very difficult, because we constantly discover new species, even here in the United States. And then finding someone who can actually do research on them and discover what their life story is, it’s very challenging. 

Tom: That’s right, and there are these huge sort of knowledge frontiers like soil biodiversity, totally essential to how everything else works, but mostly sort of overlooked and forgotten. And when you think about the prairie soil systems, or the root systems of those grasses, which went down 12, 14 feet, accumulating just immense stores of carbon, which John Deere’s plow of course made available for a purely wasteful form of agriculture that we practice. We’ve lost a lot of that soil carbon. And, you know, when you get beyond the vertebrates and maybe well-known groups like butterflies or something like that, there is just so much still to be discovered. 

Sean: Absolutely. One of the things that we are thinking about now a lot is how technology, which is changing so quickly as we talked about a little bit before, that was just in terms of communication, but now I think about remote sensing, whether from shoebox satellites or other kinds of satellites, from drones, lidar surveys, the kinds of things that we can do with remote chemical sensing – the frontiers for biology and understanding the planet are sort of hard to comprehend, especially — 

Tom: Well you know, it is amazing, I mean most of those things you were describing didn’t exist when I was a graduate student. The whole sort of approach of telemetry getting a little gadget on an organism that will tell you where it’s flying to or going to, it only just started. They were big heavy clumsy things that you couldn’t much with. And now National Geographic is on the verge of announcing 10m2 square remote sensing data for free for the entire world updated with artificial intelligence annually. I mean, imagine what that will do to change things. 

Sean: It’s astonishing. 

Tom: I was just talking yesterday with somebody who I think will do it, and he’s got a serious plan to do lidar for the entire terrestrial world. And happily, he’s going to start in the Amazon. 

Sean: That’ll be amazing, because partly we will learn a lot about the biology of the Amazon, but we’ll also learn a lot about the human impacts on the Amazon from prehistory, which would be fascinating.

Tom: That’s right. He was the guy who did that city of the monkey god in Honduras, and I met him just as he had sort of figured out that there had to be Mayan ruins under that forest. It’s really cool what they can do.

Sean: Yeah, it really is. So I wanted to ask you a little bit actually about the UN Foundation and the work that you do there, and what the foundation is doing related to the pandemic and other issues that are facing the planet today outside of conservation specifically.

Tom: Sure, well the UN Foundation, as you know was started by Ted Turner. And all of his money has already been spent. That was what he stipulated, that it be spent. So, it’s been very successful in raising other money and helping in the kinds of things the UN is engaged in, but it can’t do it all. There’s always been a climate and energy element in their agenda, and our CEO Elizabeth Cousins was actually our number two in our mission to the UN in New York, and personally negotiated for the United States on the sustainable development goals. So Elizabeth does not need a lot of education about the important things you and I care about.

Sean: Right.

Tom: She’s actually been with her husband and son to my camp in the Amazon a few years ago. And so one of the really important things to keep an eye on is how the whole process of renegotiating the sustainable development goals actually works out. Most people in the United States don’t even know about them. But most other countries take them seriously. And there are 17, 3 of which are just totally obviously environmental. And I would have to say of the 17, those 3 are lagging behind the most. We’ve made some progress, but that needs to be fixed because otherwise the other 14 won’t be sustainable. 

Sean: Right. We have a program at NatureServe called the indicators project where we do automated tracking of biodiversity indicators. And a lot of that is around the Convention on Biological Diversity and of course the three sustainable development goals that you’re just referencing. And we’re trying to work with country governments to help them be able to report against those goals in a more effective way for exactly the reason you’re talking about, so that we don’t lag behind on the biodiversity goals compared to some of the other goals. And it’s very challenging but very important work. And of course as you know, these things are in the process of being renegotiated and being made more complicated by the travel restrictions, but hard to imagine from our perspective anything more important being negotiated in the next year. 

Tom: Well that’s very true. You know what people mostly are unaware of is that anything we call an environmental problem, we call it that because it affects living systems. Which means that biodiversity integrates all the environmental problems, so trying to do something for biodiversity means you have to address all of them, not just the things that affect biodiversity directly, like a bulldozer, acid rain, or whatever it might be. So there is no better measure of the sustainability of the planet than the state of its biodiversity. 

Sean: So that actually is a great segue into something that I’ve been thinking about a lot right now, which is we have these major issues on the planet right now, whether it’s the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter movement, and all of the issues related to social justice there that are just so important to get right. And at the same time in the background we have these constant threats with climate change and extinctions, and how can we make progress on those, also keep attention on those, while also focusing on these issues while we have a chance to make a difference with  issues related to racial justice and of course saving people’s lives in the pandemic.

Tom: They really are part and parcel of the same thing. So if you think about the trajectory of environmental problems going forward, we’re basically talking about what could potentially be the greatest environmental justice issue of all time because of a degraded planet we would be leaving future generations. So it’s incredibly important to sort of have that perspective, realize, you know, that there are large segments of populations in many countries that are hugely disadvantaged. And in contrast, you know, Pavan Sukhdev once did a really interesting analysis of what he called the GDP of the poor. And Amazonian indigenous peoples actually had very high GDP, and it just all came from nature. So trying to think about it in that larger context, both immediately and in the longer term, is essential if we’re going to be successful.

Sean: And so many people who are disadvantaged in the classic sense of GDP are in areas that are going to be disproportionately affected by, say, higher temperatures, where parts of the planet may be essentially uninhabitable because of higher temperatures and the degradation of ecosystem services or nature services to mankind as those fall apart. It’s going to be a huge challenge for so many people. 

Tom: Very true. 

Sean: I worry a lot about that and making sure that we’re focusing on those justice issues in the environmental movement. You know one thing we talk about here, because our focus is on threatened and endangered species, is this idea of extinction and the so-called sixth extinction. And I’m just curious your personal view. Do you think the idea of calling it the sixth extinction resonates with people, does it mean anything to people, or is it just confusing, or does it work as a message? 

Tom: So my fellow academics get into long, twisted debates about that question. I don’t think there’s any question that we’re at the beginning of it, which doesn’t mean that all the rest of it will inevitably follow. You know I did the first projection of extinction rates in 1980 for the global 2000 report for the President. And I’ve often been criticized as having predicted the numbers in that report, and then they didn’t happen. Well, that’s not the point. You do a projection in the hopes that it will change of course. 

Sean: Right.

Tom: And so there was a lot of progress made, but it’s just been insufficient. And you know you put that together with there being three times as many people alive in the world today as when I was born, and what it will take to give them an adequate quality of life and feed them appropriately, it’s a big challenge. It’s not impossible, but if we keep going these old conventional ways, we’ll make a mess out of it. 

Sean: That’s true. Well Tom, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I do want to see if you have any things that have been, that you have been thinking about and percolating that you think are important that you want to preview for our listeners and audience about you know, what is Tom Lovejoy thinking right now?

Tom: Well, there are two things I want to flag. One is climate change. It is essentially a biological issue, right? All the fossil fuels are ancient ecosystems, and there’s also a huge amount of carbon in the atmosphere from destruction of modern-day ones. And we’re already headed towards levels of climate change which would be really hard on life on Earth, with the wonderful possibility, if we wake up, that some really at-scale ecosystem restoration could actually pull a major amount of that carbon back and allow us to get to a soft landing at 1 1/2 degrees. So don’t ever let anybody tell you that two degrees is okay, because I have, you know, been studying biodiversity and climate change for 30 years. And beyond 1 1/2 degrees, the planet becomes biologically unmanageable. Ecosystems start to come apart. So let’s recognize the planet works as a linked biological and physical system, manage it that way, and embrace what nature can do for us. 

But the other point I just wanted to flag is the pandemic. And while I was building a reputation for studying birds in the Amazon in graduate school, I was also studying the antibodies those birds carried, the arthropod-borne viruses like Venezuelan encephalitis. So I know sort of first hand that it’s the natural state of things for pathogens to be circulating in natural systems. And the challenge before us is how to manage our relationship with the natural systems of the Earth and all that they can promise us in ways that lower the probability of pandemics. And we certainly did it to ourselves this time, through the way we’ve been destroying nature, penetrating nature, and trading wildlife, and having wildlife markets. And it’s so interesting, I’ve been reading a lot about oenology recently, and all the people who study that who don’t come from a biodiversity background like me, all agree with that. They’ve seen that for years. So let this be the wake-up call that lets us embrace the biology of our planet and all that it can do for us for good and avoid what it can do for us for bad. 

Sean: Yeah, that’s so interesting, and I agree with you that both of those are such critical and important issues going forward. So I appreciate you bringing them up. And of course, as you said, they both relate to biodiversity and the biological world. So trying to make sure that people continue to focus on conservation of biodiversity is absolutely important going forward. 

Tom: Yeah, biological diversity is the ultimate environmental challenge, and the ultimate opportunity for humanity. 

Sean: Great. Well thank you Tom, appreciate your time.

Tom: Nice to talk with you.

Sean: And we hope that we can work together and make progress on these issues.

Tom: Happy to make trouble with you anytime. 

Sean: Sounds good, thanks. 

That wraps up this episode of Conservation Conversations. I’m your host Sean O’Brien, and until next time, thanks for listening.