Norman Myers, who has died of dementia aged 85, was the scientist who first calculated that every year, worldwide, an area of tropical rainforest the size of England and Wales was burned, bulldozed or felled to ranch beef for US hamburgers.

That, more than 40 years ago, was not orthodoxy. Satellite imagery over the next decade proved him right. He also predicted – and explained his reasoning, in his second book, The Sinking Ark (1979) – that species were being extinguished at the rate of one a day, rather than the accepted figure of one a year. This too was challenged, and later Myers conceded he had been wrong; he should have said 50 species a day.

By then he had launched a career as an environmental consultant, ultimately to advise the White House, United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the European commission, governments, charitable foundations and the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change.

He was one of a group of scientists that endorsed the argument, first made in 1983, that in any cold war nuclear exchange, there could be neither winners nor even many survivors: the soot and debris from incinerated cities would stay in the stratosphere, screen out sunlight and plunge the planet into a nuclear winter, reducing humankind by starvation.

He predicted the explosion of environmental refugees, driven from their homes by the million by climate crisis, natural disaster, erosion, drought and other human changes to the planet. Myers was one of the prophets of the Anthropocene – the epoch of human domination of the entire planet – long before anyone had coined the term.

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His early predictions often initially provoked bitter argument, but would soon be backed by other outspoken greats of conservation biology, among them Edward O Wilson and Paul Ehrlich in the US, and finally be embraced as orthodoxy. Another pioneer environmental scientist, Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, once told me: “I don’t think Norman’s been seriously wrong on anything.”

By the close of his career, Time magazine had named Myers one of its Heroes of the Environment, the UN Environment Programme had listed him in its Global 500 Roll of Honour, and the British government in 1998 had made him a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG). He had been lauded with distinguished or visiting professorships at – among other universities – Oxford, Cornell, Vermont, Cape Town and Utrecht, and fellowships in Washington, Tokyo, Canada, India and Japan.

He had by then delivered 300 professional or scientific research papers and almost 20 books, which sold more than a million copies in a dozen languages. For many years he contributed to the Guardian’s science pages. He was introduced worldwide as Professor Norman Myers of Oxford, although paradoxically, for much of his life, his connection with Oxford was that he had studied French and German poets at Keble College, and lived in Headington, just outside the city.

He was born at Higher Lees farm at Whitewell, near Clitheroe, in Lancashire to John Myers, a farmer, and Gladys (nee Haworth), a teacher, in a house, Norman would remember “with no electricity or gas” and water from a stream shared with the cows. He went to Clitheroe grammar school, began national service as a gunner in the Royal Artillery before being discharged after an injury, and took a degree in modern languages at Oxford.

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In 1958 he joined the Colonial Service and was posted to Kenya, and ultimately to the Masai tribal region, as a district officer. He learned both Swahili and Masai, fell in love with Africa, and stayed on after independence to become a Kenyan citizen, a schoolteacher and then a professional photographer, especially of wildlife.

“It would mean days of sitting in my Land Rover by a waterhole waiting for the damned lion to jump on board a zebra and this would give me lots of time to read books and scientific papers about what makes a lioness tick,” he told me. “Then I began to get interested in species generally.”

His track record was unusual: the spoor of a trailblazer rather than a career scientist. He completed a doctorate in conservation and development at the University of California at Berkeley in 1973, and returned to Kenya to begin surveys of cheetah and leopard numbers. He had already heard that conservationists calculated extinction rates at one species a year, but these were always well-observed birds or mammals.

“And I thought what about all the creepy-crawlies? And came up with a figure of one a day. And then I got interested in the tropical forests because they contain more species and are being depleted faster,” he told me.

He returned to Britain, and to British citizenship, in the early 1980s, settled in Headington and continued to introduce – increasingly with colleagues – new thinking about conservation and development. He identified, for instance, the conservation opportunity of the “biodiversity hotspot” arguing that perhaps one third of all the planet’s living things were to be found in 25 “hotspots” that added up to just 1.4% of the Earth’s land surface.

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He pushed for clearer understanding of the economic value of wild things and their genetic value as sources of new pharmaceuticals, natural pesticides and foods, and he challenged the perverse role of government subsidies that damaged both the environment and the economy.

He was an enthusiastic marathon runner, and once held – briefly – the record for running to the summit of Kilimanjaro and down again, a distance of 36 miles and a climb of more than 13,000ft, in 13 hours and 20 minutes. He liked to take Cicero and Virgil in Latin on safari, and enjoyed Racine, Balzac, Proust and Goethe in French and German.

In 1965 he married Dorothy Halliman. They separated in 1993 and divorced in 2012.

He is survived by their two daughters, Malindi and Mara, and two grandchildren, Juliette and Alexander.

Norman Myers, environmentalist, born 24 August 1934; died 20 October 2019



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