The Future of Life. Edward O. Wilson. xxiv + 229 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. $22.
Edward O. Wilson's latest book, The Future of Life, offers an encouraging vision that solutions to the environmental problems facing humanity are within reach.
The book opens with a personal letter in which Wilson speaks apostrophically to Thoreau ("Henry! May I call you by your Christian name?"), identifying with a naturalist's aesthetic—praising, for example, the "rightful hardwood domination" in primary forest over "scraggly second-growth." This homily establishes a tone of personal concern for the destiny of the planet.
Chapters then describe the main problems facing humanity. One is population growth, which, encouragingly, is decelerating, in part because of a "quirk in the maternal instinct." Instead of choosing "the satisfactions of a larger brood," women are opting "for a smaller number of quality children." (Wilson later refers to this as "one of humanity's fortunate irrationalities.")
Wilson details the extinctions resulting from habitat loss and compares early humans to an invasive species that usually displaces native biota as its species range expands. He interestingly explains the survival of large mammals in Africa as resulting from humanity's origin in the savannas of Africa, where they "coevolved with the rest of the native fauna and flora."
Wilson notes the ecosystem services that are lost when the biosphere is decimated, and he believes that our security will also diminish, because "the more species that inhabit an ecosystem, such as a forest or lake, the more productive and stable is the ecosystem." In part to counter the loss of diversity, Wilson approves of genetic engineering ("the benefits outweigh the risks"), and he joins with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in endorsing the development of transgenic crops.
Rather than regenerate diversity with genetic technology, Wilson prefers conservation, which "aims to pass on to future generations the best part of the nonhuman world." The naturalist aesthetic with which the book begins, as well as the drive to conserve nature, are both viewed as expressions of a genetically determined "human instinct" called biophilia, the "innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally." Biophilia is best revealed among certain groups of people: "To see most clearly the manifestations of human instinct, it is useful to start with the rich." Yet "wealthy people are also by and large profligate consumers," and this unbridled consumption is a matter of "growing concern among leaders of science, religion, business, and government, as well as the educated public."
Wilson envisions that the solution to the world environmental crisis will begin "with ethics." People have "an instinct to behave ethically." A continuing refinement of ethics will lead the wealthy to cease profligate consumption and join the solution rather than exacerbate the problem.
A new awareness of ethics will emerge through "the growing prominence of the environment in religious thought." Although he mentions that "Pope John Paul II has affirmed that 'the ecological crisis is a moral issue'" and that Patriarch Bartholomew I has pronounced of environmental destruction that "these are sins," Wilson also endorses "evangelical sects" and quotes Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood: "God doesn't like a clearcut. It makes his heart turn cold."
Wilson envisages a pivotal role for the wealthy in returning the biosphere to a healthy trajectory of development. "The two hundred richest corporations of the world" have "resources equal to the combined wealth of the poorest 80 percent of the world's population. Their leaders and principal shareholders . . . are likely also to have the education and awareness to understand the environmental and humanitarian issues of global conservation." Also, Wilson believes that "science and technology are themselves reason for optimism."
He details a 12-point strategy assembled by "scientists and conservation professionals" that offers the path for the future. This science-based strategy will be administered by nongovernmental conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, supported by the wealthy and endorsed by both established and fundamentalist religions.
This alliance of scientists, the wealthy, and nongovernmental and religious organizations will take the lead in global conservation, because "for the most part governments are hesitant, even timid." The Nature Conservancy alone is raising $1 billion to buy land to set aside as nature reserves, and it has already acquired a total of "11.5 million acres, an area the size of Switzerland." Ultimately, "an investment of about $28 billion is needed to maintain at least a representative sample of the Earth's ecosystems." This alliance will thus purchase much of the Earth to conserve it. Such "megaprojects . . . are mainstream conservation writ large for future generations."
What will keep scientists, the wealthy and religious leaders working together? The biophilia gene: "The environmental values of secular and religious alike arise from the same innate attraction to nature."
Still, what would happen if religious groups objected to the 12-point strategy devised by scientists, preferring criteria emphasizing spiritually significant locations? Many of the religious groups with the deepest connections with nature, especially indigenous traditions, are omitted from a conference table consisting of patriarchs and fundamentalists.
Wilson concludes interestingly with "a tribute to protest groups. They gather like angry bees. . . . Who are these people? . . . They are people who feel excluded."
True. How could they not feel excluded from a plan by scientists, religious leaders and the wealthy to buy up much of the world in the name of conservation? What is to prevent this holy conservation alliance from oppressing people, as those who control science, religion and wealth have often done in the past? I believe that the next step to developing Wilson's vision for the future of life is to work out a democratic process for conservation, rather than relying on a biophilia gene to keep everyone on the same page.
Still, the book is a valuable beginning to a discussion of how scientists, religious organizations and the general public should set about finding solutions to our truly serious environmental problems. This forward-looking book offers a refreshing change of pace from the doom-and-gloom rhetoric that marked much environmentalism in the past.—Joan Roughgarden, Biological Sciences, Stanford University