Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

Alumnus Honored for Lifetime Studying and Defending Biodiversity

The Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) presented its “International Award of Excellence in Conservation” to Thomas E. Lovejoy (BA 1963; PhD 1971, EEB) at a ceremony in March.

Thomas E. Lovejoy

Thomas E. Lovejoy

“Tom’s work in the field of conservation is a remarkable study of how one person can make a difference through the creative application of knowledge,” says S.H. Sohmer, president of BRIT. “He has been engaged for decades in helping conserve the Amazon rainforest; and his other programs, like his innovative debt-for-nature swap concept and his conservation biology initiatives, are helping save Earth’s precious biodiversity.”

Lovejoy credits Yale with launching his career.

“I had incredible mentors: G. Evelyn Hutchinson [who taught at Yale, 1928-71, and is considered the founder of modern ecology], Dillon Ripley [ornithologist and former director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History], and my freshman adviser Philip Humphrey who introduced me to the Amazon in 1965.”

Once, Lovejoy recalls, when Frank Stubbs, a trustee of the Mary Flagler Cary Trust, came to campus to discuss ecology with Hutchinson, he was included in the meeting. “Frank Stubbs kept calling both of us ‘Dr.’ until Hutchinson interjected: ‘I think you should know that neither of us is ‘Dr.’: Tom is too young and I am too old!’” Hutchinson was about 70 years old at the time, and had earned a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge, but didn’t pursue a PhD because it was not possible to combine geology, chemistry, and biology at Cambridge at the time.

Not long ago, Lovejoy returned to campus to participate in the 2012 “Biology at Yale” reunion conference. He maintains numerous ties with the University, serving on the External Advisory Board of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies after chairing it for many years. He also serves on the Leadership Council for the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and is an Associate Fellow at Davenport College.

Lovejoy’s career has spanned academia, government, and the non-profit sector. He is currently the University Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation, which mobilizes businesses and non-governmental organizations to help the UN tackle issues such as climate change and global health.

“As much as I revere academia, it is abundantly clear that the world is better served when some of us serve in a complementary fashion, but outside of it. My students love the discussions of problem solving that I bring to the classroom.”

Lovejoy has spent his adult life dedicated to the environment. In the mid-1960s, he began studying ecosystems in the Amazon rainforest as his dissertation research.

This work led to the establishment in 1978 of the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, the largest long-term experiment in the history of landscape ecology. The project was responsible for showing that fragmentation of habitats is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, along with climate change. Lovejoy was one of the first to point out that the Amazon rainforest was in crisis, and he was a pioneer in educating the public about this problem, creating and advising the public television series “Nature.” One of his outstanding practical innovations was the concept of “debt-for-nature swaps,” in which a portion of a nation’s foreign debt is forgiven in exchange for investments in conservation. Debt-for-nature swaps are now among the largest sources of financing to support international environmental projects.

In 1980, in the early years of the environmental movement, Lovejoy coined the term “biological diversity,” and made the first projection of global extinction rates in a report to then President Jimmy Carter. Over the years, he has served on advisory councils in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations and was the biodiversity adviser to the president of the World Bank and lead for the environment for the Latin American and Caribbean region at the Bank. He has been assistant secretary for environmental and external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution, executive vice president of World Wildlife Fund-US, and was appointed Conservation Fellow by the National Geographic Society. From 2008 to 2013, he chaired the Scientific and Technical Panel for the Global Environment Facility, which provides funding for developing nations in support of international environmental conventions.

Thomas E. Lovejoy and lemurs

Lovejoy in Madagascar, enjoying the company of some lemurs.

The list of his awards is long and impressive. When the Graduate School accorded Lovejoy its highest honor — the Wilbur L. Cross Medal — in 1994, the citation called him “Scholar, naturalist, author, adviser to governments worldwide and educator of the public,” and noted his “contributions to the understanding of the world’s natural history and environmental problems,” his work creating the television program “Nature,” and his participation on more than one hundred boards or committees (many of which he chaired) “concerned with some aspect of the conservation of nature and natural resources.”

Recently, Lovejoy was awarded the 2013 World Wildlife Fund “Leaders for a Living Planet Award” in recognition for his “environmental leadership and outstanding and inspirational work in conservation.” The government of France appointed him to l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques, an honorary society established by Napoleon in 1808. In 2012, he was presented with the “Blue Planet Prize,” an award sponsored by the Asahi Glass Foundation in Japan that honors outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that helps solve global environmental problems. In 2011, he was given the inaugural Joao Pedro Cardoso Medal of the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil, for his work in conservation and environmental policy. In 2002 he received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement – the same prize his mentor Hutchinson received in its very first year – and in 2008, the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Conservation Biology and Ecology, shared with William Laurance, of James Cook University in Australia.

He is currently working with Lee Hannah on a new book about climate change and biodiversity, his third on the topic, which will be published by Yale University Press in 2016. The previous two were also published by YUP. He is author or co-author of numerous books and articles on ecology, conservation, and global warming. Lovejoy has three daughters and five granddaughters.