Living on Earth: Remembering Naturalist Tom Lovejoy

Broadcast date: week of January 7, 2022

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Environmentalist Tom Lovejoy is remembered for his decades of researching and bringing people together to protect the Amazon rainforest and other ecosystems on the planet. (Photo: Courtesy Carmen Thorndike)

Host Steve Curwood and White House Deputy Director for Climate and Environment Jane Lubchenco continue their conversation on the legacy of leading naturalists EO Wilson and Tom Lovejoy. They discuss how environmentalist Tom Lovejoy brought people together to help protect the planet, from the Amazon rainforest to a cabin on the outskirts of Washington, DC


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Like EO Wilson, biologist Tom Lovejoy has dedicated his career not only to the study of life, but also to communicating the biodiversity crisis to the public. He spoke with Living on Earth in 2010 about the growing awareness of this emergency and the UN’s efforts to address it. Let’s share an excerpt from this interview.

LOVEJOY: I think what drives him today is a greater sense of urgency than before because people can see a lot of this biodiversity start to disappear. It allows you to finally focus and spend less time negotiating and more time thinking about how to actually protect the biology of the planet and even the future of humanity.

CURWOOD: Tom Lovejoy’s work focused on tropical rainforests and he was famous for showing and talking about the incredible diversity of life in the Amazon. Over the years, it has hosted politicians including Vice President Al Gore and celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John at Camp 41, a research station deep in the Amazon where people slept in hammocks to reduce the risk of scorpions slipping into their sleeping bags. Around the station were creatures and plants never before recorded by science in the Global North. And when I visited Camp 41 in 2002 and saw a scientist documenting a previously unrecorded potoo, it’s a species of bird, I too went from biodiversity to a simple intellectual construction to feel like real and exciting. We spoke about the legacy of Tom Lovejoy and EO Wilson with biologist Jane Lubchenco, who is currently Deputy Director of Climate and Environment at the White House. Jane, how has Tom Lovejoy shaped our understanding of the importance of keeping this vital ecosystem intact?

Tom Lovejoy holding a Cecropia leaf at Camp 41 in the Amazon in 2014 (Photo: Slodoban Randjelovic)

LUBCHENCO: Tom first went to the Amazon as a graduate student, and he focused on birds. And according to him, he really fell in love with the whole rainforest. And at the time, logging was increasing in the Amazon. And he quickly realized the potential threat to the health of rainforest ecosystems, not only to the birds he cared about, but to mammals, insects and trees, etc. And he was inspired, in fact, by the work that Ed Wilson and Robert MacArthur and Dan Simberloff had done on island biogeography. And he started to think about how does the size of the patch that remains in the rainforest after logging affect biodiversity? And at the time, there was a controversy raging in the conservation world, it was called the SLOSS, SLOSS debate, and it meant “Single Large Or Many Small” plots. And the question was, if you are able to create habitat for biodiversity, is it better to have one large plot, say ten acres just for the sake of argument, or ten small one acre plots. And there were arguments on either side, having to do with, well, if it’s just one patch, a wildfire, disease, might wipe it out; if it is broken down into smaller ones, at least some of them might persist. Contrary to the idea that some of the very large, very mobile creatures, say a panther, for example, might need a very, very large habitat. And so you would lose these great charismatic species if you only had small plots. So there was a debate. And Tom said, let’s test this idea; it is the scientific approach. And so he worked with colleagues in Brazil, with landowners and the government and created this experience that is still going on today. And it was created in the late ’70s, I think, maybe ’79. And the experimentation was basically to create plots of one, ten, or a hundred hectares and then follow them through time and see. how biodiversity has evolved in these plots. These experiments have provided us with a tremendous amount of information about how the size of the plot affects the type of species found there and the health of the entire system. And in fact, there’s no question that bigger packages are better. And so this first experience of Tom provided a tremendous amount of information that guides conservation action today.

Tom Lovejoy first traveled to the Amazon as a graduate student to study birds and fell in love with the whole rainforest. Here he is with a group of curious lemurs. (Photo: Courtesy Carmen Thorndike)

CURWOOD: So Tom Lovejoy was also well known for telling the story of the Amazon and biodiversity. And he attracted a swarm of politicians and celebrities who visited him in the Amazon or just paid attention to what he did and said; what was tom’s skill there? How could he bring these types of people to the story of biodiversity and why do we have to hold on to it?

LUBCHENCO: Tom was a great communicator, but he was also a connector. And he understood people, he understood what might interest someone. And he would argue very carefully to someone as to why he should care about the Amazon or biodiversity or birds or whatever. So part of Tom’s legacy is this gift he had to share the excitement, enthusiasm and passion he had for nature with others, and to train them in this respectful vision of nature, nature protection, living with nature. And he understood how important it was to do it with the local people. Much of the work he did in the Amazon was with Brazilian students, Brazilian scientists, Brazilian politicians also went to Camp 41. And so it was not a question of nature against people. It was very holistic. And the same was true – you know, Ed also appreciated the importance of, of working with people. But Tom in particular really took that home and made it real. And now there are lots and lots of young Brazilian scientists who are spectacular in part because they sort of started with Tom.

Lovejoy in a deforested section of the Amazon rainforest c. early 1980s (Photo: Courtesy Carmen Thorndike)

CURWOOD: So Jane, if you could pick a memory of your work with Tom Lovejoy, what would you think of?

LUBCHENCO: Mmmm … I spent a lot of time with Tom in a lot of different places. But I think his house, which he called Drover’s Rest in McLean, Virginia, was a very special place. He often dined there. Fantastic food, great wine; his wine cellar was quite large, and people knew that Tom was quite the oenophile. But he would bring together unusual groups of people and have these engaging conversations. Always a fire in winter, a fire going in the fireplace in this old cabin which just had a lot of character. And Tom was such a gifted host, everyone would be comfortable but he had thought a lot about the people he introduced to each other, so it wasn’t just the same group. Often times when I was there it was that everyone was new to me, or I only knew one other person. And so he was still doing the matchmaking. And always with the idea of ​​stimulating a conversation that would be intriguing, interesting, we could learn from each other, but also end up with a higher goal focused on conservation, on nature, on big ideas, on making Something. So you never felt like you were being handled, it was always a very natural fun and very engaging, and anyone who went to Drover’s Rest would always say yes next time around because it was a very special experience. .

Tom Lovejoy at Camp 41 in the Amazon rainforest (Photo: Zachary Smith)

CURWOOD: It was, it was like being inside a, reminded me of an old sailboat, a big old sailboat, it’s being inside this cabin that I was sort of in the captain’s quarters in a big old ship with the big lumber there. And Tom always makes a joke, not overdoing it, but just shedding some light and having fun –


CURWOOD: – with, I don’t know how many bow ties the man had, but I’m not sure I saw the same one twice.

LUBCHENCO: He had a lot of bow ties. And it was always very special, because my dad was a bow tie guy too. The first time I saw Tom I think I loved him just because he was wearing a bow tie!

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] So how do you think the work of Ed Wilson and Tom Lovejoy is to be remembered?

Hammocks and mosquito nets in the dormitories of Camp 41 (Photo: courtesy of the Center for Amazon Biodiversity)

LUBHENCO: Well, both were gifted scientists. They took very different paths; Ed was an academic who made one discovery after another. And then he came to appreciate the biodiversity crisis and to be a leader in safeguarding biodiversity. Tom took a very different path. He was more of a science adviser, a science communicator, an instigator of new things geared towards conservation. Such different paths, but they found themselves in much the same place of being champions of biodiversity and eloquent communicators, by their writings, by their speeches, to motivate people to care about nature and to help be part of the solution. Their heritage lives on, in our hearts, in our minds. And we need to do justice to their legacy by picking up the mantle of what they were working on. It is time for all of us to come together.

Left to right: Tom Lovejoy, Jane Lubchenco and atmospheric scientist Bob Watson, all Blue Planet Prize winners, speaking to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo 2017 (Photo: Blue Planet Prize of the Asahi Glass Foundation)

CURWOOD: Jane Lubchenco is a marine scientist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among many honors, and she is currently Deputy Director of Climate and Environment at the Biden White House. Thank you very much for taking the time with us today.

LUBCHENCO: Steve, it’s just my pleasure. Thank you very much.


Listen to the EO Wilson part of this interview

Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker | “Honoring the legacy of EO Wilson and Tom Lovejoy”

Listen to LOE’s 2010 interview with Tom Lovejoy on safeguarding global biodiversity

The Washington Post | “Thomas E. Lovejoy III, an environmentalist who has dedicated his career to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, dies at age 80”

Statement by Jane Lubchenco paying tribute to EO Wilson and Tom Lovejoy

About Jane Lubchenco

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