Assistant Secretary for Research, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
For 3 days in late September 1986, a group of about 60 distinguished scholars and scientists addressed capacity audiences at the Forum on BioDiversity at the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences on the importance of biodiversity on our planet. In accordance with their dissimilar professional backgrounds, the speakers approached the topic from many directions. Judging from the active audience participation, the listeners clearly understood the perils to their own well-being presented by a loss of the Earth’s biodiversity. This book is based on that forum.
In this chapter I summarize what we heard (what the authors of this book have written), what we learned, and finally, what we might do to slow, or hopefully stop, the rapid, human-induced extinction of the Earth’s great variety of plants and animals.
The first keynote speaker (Chapter 1) warned that the diversity of plant and animal species is declining at a much faster rate than generally is realized. This disturbing assessment is exacerbated by our ignorance of just how many different species exist, especially among the terrestrial and marine invertebrates of the tropics. These creatures are both difficult to collect and even harder to identify, since few taxonomists in the world have the expertise to name them. There is a grave danger, therefore, that many as yet uncollected small plants and insects will inadvertently become extirpated without our even knowing that they once existed. Some of these unknown plants and animals could play important roles in our well-being, or even survival, yet they may never be recognized.
All forum participants stressed the need to maintain biodiversity, and a consensus soon emerged that the greatest threat to this goal today is from human activities. Human populations are expanding most rapidly in the tropics—the very area where biodiversity is the greatest. Thus pressure on the land to support even more people