Wilson, Lovejoy, and a Legacy of Enduring Optimism

Reflections on the loss of two conservation pioneers

January 24, 2022

As if 2021 wasn’t difficult enough, it didn’t end before taking two great conservation pioneers. Thomas Lovejoy, widely known for his work to preserve the Amazon rainforest, died on Christmas. Famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, died the next day.

Over the last month, I read a host of tributes to these giants. Elizabeth Kolbert at the New YorkerCarter Roberts of the World Wildlife Fund. Richard Margoluis of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. I can’t offer anything more profound than what has already been said about the contributions of these two men to conservation and the movement to preserve our planet. But I can share how they impacted me personally, as well as Rare as an organization.

Thomas Lovejoy, who spent much of his early career directing the conservation program at the World Wildlife Fund, was a longtime friend and mentor. His influence is felt across Rare. He coined the term “biodiversity,” but also inspired us to put people and human well-being on the other side of the coin. His “debt-for-nature swaps” inspired our blended finance work. And his encouragement helped propel Rare to establish the Center for Behavior & the Environment, saying the work would provide a much-needed change to the field.

My friend and longtime advisor, Tom Lovejoy, and me at the 13th Convention of the Parties on Biodiversity (CBD COP13) in Cancún in 2016.

E.O. Wilson was very kind and generous with his time. In 2006, I had the chance to interview him (Take a look — it’s brief). While this conversation took place 15 years ago, his insights remain true today.

Looking back on the lives of these two leaders, we’ve marveled at their contributions to conservation, to science, and to humanity. Looking ahead, their enduring legacies — beyond ants, the Amazon, and “biodiversity” — will be the next generation of scientists. Lovejoy and Wilson, each of whom spent decades teaching, spoke about this in recent years. Those of us in the conservation and science communities, who looked to these men as mentors, share the responsibility to help shape it for the better: more open, more inclusive, more diverse.

E.O. Wilson and me in 2016.

Another legacy is their enduring optimism. This was notable in all the obituaries and tributes I read. Despite the overwhelming planetary challenges they confronted every day. I keep coming back to this quote from Wilson:

“You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give.”

This is right in line with Rare’s ethos. We are an organization of optimists. We celebrate successes and bright spots. We have the courage to take risks and when we fail, we “fail fast.” And we have a mindset of solutionology fueled by creative ideas that illuminate the path forward.

I am grateful for all these men gave to conservation. And I am inspired to help carry forward their legacies in the work Rare does everyday. As we mourn the passing of a generation of pioneers in our field, we can do no better than to move forward guided by just four words from E.O. Wilson.

“Aim high. Behave honorably.”