Acceptance Speech – Rome, 20.11.2014


David Tilman

2014 Balzan Prize for Basic/Applied Plant Ecology

For his huge contributions to theoretical and experimental plant ecology, work that underpins much of our current understanding of how plant communities are structured and interact with their environment.

Mr. President,
Chairmen and Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Balzan Laureates,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is an immense honor to receive the Balzan Prize, precisely because Balzan Prizes are awarded across the breadth of scholarly activity in the sciences and humanities. What a uniquely human endeavor is scholarship. We search for knowledge and cherish its discovery. Indeed, it is the human quest for knowledge, our reverence for wisdom, and our desire to pass these on to future generations that we celebrate here today. I have been fortunate to be part of the global network of scholars we call academia, and humbled to be awarded a Balzan Prize.

It holds deep meaning for me to receive this award in a nation that has contributed so much over so many centuries to culture and scholarship. As a young college student I loved mathematics, physics and especially reading the Roman classics in their original language, Latin. However, I knew I could only be personally satisfied if my chosen area of scholarship also addressed problems vexing humankind. Ecology became that subject for me.

Without knowing it, I was following a path blazed by the great Italian mathematician and ecological theorist of the early 1900’s, Vito Volterra, a path that few others had followed. I wished to help change ecology into a predictive science because I felt that predictive knowledge was essential for solving major environmental problems.

The successes that I have been fortunate to have come partly because I happened to enter a profession in which mathematical skills, mechanistic perspectives and love of experiments had rarely been applied. However, the greatest cause of any successes came from the guidance, mentoring and encouragement of Steve Hubbell, Peter Kilham, Susan Kilham and John Vandermeer while at the University of Michigan for my doctoral studies. I am forever indebted to them and to the many students and collaborators with whom I have been privileged to work.

The major mystery to which I have dedicated my studies has been biodiversity. Why does the earth have so many interacting and coexisting species? Does human-driven loss of this diversity impact the functioning of ecosystems and the supply of ecosystem services vital to humanity? Our long-term experiments and related mathematical theory have helped explain why and how so many competing species can coexist with each other. They have revealed that the number of species in an ecosystem is the single most important factor determining how productive and stable an ecosystem is. Based on our work and that of hundreds of other researchers around the world, there is now little doubt that the loss of biodiversity is diminishing the capacity of ecosystems around the world to provide a stable and sustainable supply of goods and services vital to society.

An ecological mystery may be solved, but a larger one – one that addresses the essence of humanity, one that I fervently hope that a future winner of the Balzan Prize will have solved – replaces it. Why are we, whose very livelihood depends on the knowledge accumulated over the ages, so reluctant to act on new environmental knowledge? Why do we ignore scientifically sound warnings about the loss of biodiversity and the impacts of human-caused climate change even though we know there are ready solutions to these problems? We need a new ethic, an ethic for sustaining a human-dominated Earth so that, in 2000 years, young scholars reading ancient texts written in the archaic, or perhaps extinct, language of English can have lives as full as we have today. I look forward to challenging the next generation of scholars with questions such as these, and thank you for the great honor of the Balzan Prize.

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