Environmentalism is a large-scale lesson in sacrifice. Each time conservationists compel us to grudgingly concede a patch of land to nature, we are losers to the earth, which we cherish but at the same time resent. Nature’s gain is our loss: regulate emissions and we relinquish our SUVs; halt oil drilling and we pay more for gas; protect the forests and we lose jobs. The debate on conservation is shaped today in these terms, but beneath it lies a paradox. The age-old conflict between man and nature ceases to exist if we recognize the scientific truth: man is himself a part of nature.
This shift in the debate presents the possibility that the cause of the earth is perhaps, in the end, the cause of everyone. In the meantime, to the public eye, it seems like the only people who are concerned about environmentalism are the 20-something protesters clad in sea turtle costumes spotted at various international trade conferences. Pitted against corporations unwilling to pay for conservation measures, environmentalists have watched the ice caps melt and the United States reject the Kyoto Protocol. Considering our other more immediate concerns, when, if ever, should we begin to take the condition of this planet seriously?
Now, more than ever, says one of science’s loudest and most impassioned voices, the eminent and very eloquent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in his latest book, The Future of Life. “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium,” Wilson writes. “But it is not the cosmic war and fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.”
Wilson wants to appeal to the biophilia he insists lies in each of us, albeit in different degrees—from the latent to, in his case, bursting at the seams. Wilson devotes a large portion of The Future of Life to illustrating the sheer sophistication of life on this planet: its diversity, its resilience, and ultimately, its fragility. Wilson begins his book with a letter written at Walden Pond to Thoreau, another man whose writing has spawned a popular appreciation of nature: “I am here for a purpose: to become more a Thoreauvian, and with that perspective better to explain to you, and in reality to others and not least to myself, what has happened to the world we both have loved.”
Wilson follows with a cogent outline of the environmental crisis threatening the earth, focusing on the rapid destruction of species that we have not even begun to classify. He points to man’s rapid growth as an unnatural cause for the demise of biodiversity. At six billion, as of October 1999, the global population is reaching a breaking point.
The Future of Life is distinguished by its understanding that though life on this planet has innate value, environmentalists must ultimately sell their cause also in terms of money. Even Theodore Roosevelt justified his unprecedented conservationist policy by appealing to economics; if this country wanted to sustain long-term economic growth, he argued, burning out its natural resources was counterproductive.
Wilson understands the motives of mankind; his fervent environmentalism does not lead him to hate humans for their needs. He makes the impressive admission that capitalism and improving the quality of life for billions of poor people is inevitable and necessary; no one should try to stop it. But, he insists, “The choice is clear: the juggernaut will very soon either chew up what remains of the living world, or it will be redirected to save it.”
He offers a litany of suggestions at the book’s end on what should be done: immediately protect those habitats with the greatest concentration of species, such as rainforests; make conservation reserves profitable for the people living around them; stop logging old-growth forests altogether. He even makes the audacious demand, admittedly “at the risk of being called an extremist,” that eventually only half the world be allotted to humanity, the other half to nature. Disappointingly, Wilson does not expand on this point perhaps for fear that he will scare off his readers. If he really wants us to radically change the way we think about our relationship to the earth, then a fuller argument for this unusual but important idea would have been invaluable.
As with any book that argues so strongly for preserving the environment, the question arises: is the writer a radical? To some, Wilson is, but not for his views on the environment. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his books, The Ants and On Human Nature, the latter of which incited a torrent of controversy by introducing to popular audiences the science of sociobiology, the study of the genetic basis of human behavior.
The Future of Life is impressive in its passion, but the intellectual daring that distinguishes Wilson from any other writer with the same message only appears towards the end of the book . Only a reader who is already familiar with his different ideas would pay much attention to them since they seem more like brief side trips than fleshed out concepts.
For instance, strains of Wilson’s sociobiology appear in his explanation of man’s indifference to nature. Humans are committed only to a restricted physical space and a limited number of people, he explains. This is because those who are more focused on pleasing a small circle of people live longer and produce more offspring. His focus on biophilia is another nod to sociobiology. Wilson thinks we are hard-wired to love the earth. Wilson’s concept of concilience, which attempts to link science with the humanities, also runs through the book. He includes the fascinating idea that in our increasingly globalized society, our one unifying history may be found only in the history of this planet. But sadly, nearly all of these interesting ideas flash by in deference to Wilson’s more pressing need to sell his point that we must save the earth.
Wilson’s style in this book seems less sophisticated than in other works. In one strange aside, Wilson speculates on what he would say in conversation with a Sumatran rhino called Emi if she could speak: “I would respond with another reassuring touch of my hand. We know more about the problem now, Emi; it is not too late.” Placed at the end of a crucial chapter that outlines Wilson’s argument that humanity is a “planetary killer,” anthropomorphizing this rhino nearly trivializes everything Wilson has just said.
But this effort to humanize nature is in a sense understandable. Wilson wants this book to help change the human perspective so that people understand their existence as unified with all other living beings on earth: “When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we degrade the greatest heritage this planet has to offer and thereby threaten our own existence.”
Wilson is sympathetic to those who argue that saving the environment comes at the cost of humanity, but he insists that we need not compromise: “To lift a stabilized world population to a decent quality of life while salvaging and restoring the natural environment is a noble and attainable goal.” He argues that by modifying and redirecting development, humans can preserve the planet’s biodiversity without impeding economic development. Wilson’s task is massive, and those who pick up his book may already be a convinced audience. But by pointing out humanity’s carelessness without adopting an accusatory tone, his effort to save the planet is yet another addition to an already impressive legacy.