A Conversation with Norman Myers

by Liz Brownlee

UVM Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning (FNEP) students sat down with Dr. Norman Myers this week for a casual conversation.  He is on campus this week for multiple talks, including a “Gund Institute Tea” this Friday. 

 We bantered back and forth about biodiversity, social engagement, and the future of the planet.  Dr. Myers is quite the personality – his answers are full of stories and anecdotes, and he loves challenging the audience with some questions of his own.  Below are some of the questions from our conversation.

 Dr. Myers revolutionized conservation some thirty years ago when he introduced the idea of “biological hotspots,” which concentrates efforts on small areas of the planet that host a huge array of native species. Dr. Myers is also a UVM Marsh Professor-at-large.  Meet this environmental mover and shaker this Friday and ask questions of your own this Friday, Oct. 7, at the Gund Institute’s weekly “Gund Tea” in Room 133 of the GreenHouse Residential Learning Community.


FNEP: Why do we care about the diversity of life on earth (biodiversity)?

Myers: The one most important thing in the world is biodiversity and mass extinction.  How do I demonstrate that?  In 1958 I went to Kenya (as a photographer).  Within minutes of stepping off the plane I was in a preserve, staring at a lion’s tonsils, looking a giraffe in the eye.  There was the giraffe, doing its own thing in its own world.  I say to hell with everything else.  There was a rightness about it.  I’m shocked and appalled that we’re still letting these species disappear.

In the 1980’s science thought we were losing one species per year.  I found that we’re actually losing one species per day. The worse news is that the rate of extinction is to increase soon. It’s because we are not only destroying species’ habitats, but also evolution’s ability to create and adapt.

If I had a million dollars to devote to research, I wouldn’t put it to counting daisies. I’d put it to figuring out why we’re letting this holocaust continue.


FNEP: Where are the leverage points?  Where are the places we can put a concentrated effort and make large amounts of progress?

Myers: It’s biodiversity hot spots.  These are the best places for our funds. Some conservationists say it’s performing triage, but the reality is we’ve been performing triage for fifty years.  In the 1980’s we spent $17 million to save the California condor – it’s great that we saved the bird – but at that same time we could have addressed mollusks in the Mississippi River and saved 200 species.  Investing funds in one species automatically keeps money from other ecosystems and species [in other places].  So we need to address priorities for ecosystems and for evolution.


FNEP: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Myers: Your question is, “Why do I stick with this game?” I could have made more money selling used cars. But isn’t it exciting to be the generation that faces this thing and wins? It’s exciting to be alive for such a cataclysmic problem, and know that I’m trying to stop it. It’s empowering to know I can [help stop it].

Listen, I have an advantage over you lot.  When I was a little boy and the War was on, I used to listen to Churchill every night. The US and England were hiding, and Hitler was winning at every turn.  Churchill came on the air and said, “No! We can do it.  We can change this. We can win.” And he knew he was speaking rubbish.  But he kept talking and we did win.


FNEP: The difference between the War and mass extinction is that we had a common evil to oppose.  Today, not everyone agrees it’s a priority: we want to save a bird but we also don’t want to see kids starve.

Myers: But sometimes one problem’s solution can solve others, too.

And who would have thought that in 1950 that Americans would stop smoking, that the Berlin Wall would fall, that Apartheid would end?


FNEP: Those efforts are characterized by social pressure, good leadership, and subsets of people who cared deeply.  They knew what the world looked like without their problem, they could aim towards it. How do we do that with biodiversity and conservation?

Myers: Do you know the story of Henry V from Shakespeare?  The English are backed into a corner by the French, they are outnumbered ten to one.  Henry spoke to the troops: “If you don’t want to stand together, shoulder to shoulder and fight them, here’s money – leave.”  By the next morning, there were twice as many fighters.


FNEP: One major issue with saving biodiversity is the shear number of people on the planet.  But how do you begin a conversation about fewer people and less consumption when it’s every species’ imperative to reproduce and prosper?

Myers: I’m encouraged by a conversation I heard about (because it means the conversation is happening). It happed at the Vatican.  Someone pointed out that the edict of “Go forth and multiply” was issued when the Earth’s population was two.  He pointed out that the smallest families on Earth are in Italy.  And the smallest family size in Italy occurs in Rome.  And the smallest family size in Rome is…well, you get the idea.

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