| ALAS, POOR YORICK! I KNEW HIM: Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Kenya, 1981. |
IMAGE: William Campbell/Sygma/Corbis
And you thought you had a lot to live up to: Richard Leakey is the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, the pioneering researchers on human origins in Africa. Although he initially decided not to follow in his parents’ footsteps, Richard Leakey eventually became an accomplished paleoanthropologist in his own right. Then he followed that up by becoming a African political activist, and later a high-ranking official in the Kenyan government. A lifelong fighter for nature conservation, he’s set up programs in Africa to stop the poaching of elephants. Not bad for a man who dropped out of high school, was told 40 years ago his kidney disease would kill him in a matter of months, and lost both legs below the knee in a 1993 plane crash. Now he is a teacher at Stony Brook in New York and slated to appear in Portland on Thursday, Oct. 2, as part of the Linus Pauling Memorial Lecture Series. While his early life was spent working on human origins, these days his biggest concern is human extinction.
WW: What are the biggest problems facing the planet today?
Richard Leakey: I think the population crisis is a big one, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. If everybody lives the way that we live in the West, it’s going to be a serious problem for the planet. That, set against the backdrop of climate change, is going to have a huge impact on things such as water. We’re going to see difficulties expressed in greater famines, more serious floods and larger periods of drought. [It’ll have] significant implications for the state of the planet even 50 years hence.
How do we negotiate the fact that there’s a population problem, yet all of our efforts are pushing us toward ever longer lives with expanding uses of resources?
We’ve got to create a future philosophy where we all wish to live well but we don’t measure how well we live in terms of what we throw away at the end of each day. Secondly, we’ve got to address poverty, because it’s the people who live in the poorest parts of the world who have the largest families. Part of the reason for that is the old adage that if you have one child who doesn’t do well, nobody supports you. If you have 10, you’ve got a one-in-10 chance that somebody’s going to support you in old age. It could take a long time to slow population growth to the point where it starts reducing, but there’s no reason for it to continue to increase as it has been over the last 50 years.
Some suggest human ingenuity and technology will come up with a solution for all of our problems.
Who will technology save? The rich nations? But if Bangladesh goes underwater in the next 30 years, as it probably will as a result of the sea-level rise, you’re going to have 65 million people on the run, most of them poor, most of them poorly educated. Hell, we have a hard time dealing with half a million refugees in the world today. What then? How then? Can we sustain 7 billion people on the planet? Almost certainly not. Could there be an epidemic that could wipe out half the world’s population? Certainly yes. When will it happen? Probably soon. There are all these different questions you can raise, but we can’t give up.
Doesn’t the planet warm and cool in cycles?
That’s certainly a part of it. But given the effects it’s going to have with our current population, our question should be, “What the hell can we do about it to make sure that we minimize the negative impact on our species and the planet?”
What truths need to become part of the new worldview of our species?
We are not exempt from extinction. We cannot take for granted our continued presence on this planet and we must come to grips with the fact that it is the survival of the species that is important, not the survival of cultures or groups. It’s a question of what can we do to make sure that the planet is habitable by us and by other species.
You’ve had an adventurous life. At nearly 64 years of age, what’s left to do?
I think everybody makes more of my accomplishments than I do. What I want to do is continue to be able to make some sort of contribution in some way and not to be a burden to anybody. I would hate to get to a stage where I was alive but unable to do anything anymore. So I look forward to being active, and I’m hoping that in doing that I will be spared an Alzheimic, wheelchair-bound last period. I don’t know how one prevents that, but one can work at it.
ATTEND: Richard Leakey appears as part of the Linus Pauling Memorial Lecture series at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, at 7 pm Thursday, Oct. 2. $38.25-$55. Tickets available at the PCPA Box Office, through Ticketmaster, or by calling 232-2300.