The Future of Life


Edward O. Wilson

Reviewed by Walt Hays

Reprinted with permission from Timeline, September/October 2002, bimonthly publication of the Foundation for Global Community,


"The biospheric membrane that covers Earth, and you and me, is the miracle we have been given. And our tragedy, because a large part of it is being lost forever before we learn what it is and the best means by which it be savored and used." Edward O. Wilson

Biologist Edward O. Wilson, one of the world's most influential scientists, has written two Pulitzer Prize-winning books. In his latest book, The Future of Life, he adds to material from his earlier writings to address what he considers the central issue of the 21st century-how to raise the poor of humanity to a decent standard of living without destroying most of the other life around us. While the issue of mass extinctions is not new to readers concerned about the environment, Wilson brings it home in a powerful way, combining both encyclopedic knowledge of life and communication of his love for it in a way that reaches the reader's heart.

The twentieth century was a time of great advances, but also a time of terrible wars and destruction. While preoccupied with these events, humanity was "mostly too busy to notice" that we were also decimating the natural environment, recklessly drawing down the nonrenewable resources of the planet, and "accelerating the erasure of entire eco- systems and the extinction of thousands of million-year old species." While others have described this gloomy trend, Edward O. Wilson goes beyond documenting the problem, and lays out both a cogent case for preservation of species and a plan to achieve it. In the end, he says, "success or failure will come down to an ethical decision, one on which those now living will be judged for all generations to come."

Wilson opens the book with a Prologue in the form of a fictional letter to deceased author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. He briefly describes how the world has changed since 1845, when Thoreau built his shanty on Walden Pond and began his writing. Then, leading to the theme of the book, Wilson analyzes how it happened that "an amateur naturalist perched in a toy house on the edge of a ravaged woodland became the founding saint of the conservation movement." By stripping life to its bare essentials, Wilson suggests, " . . . you hit upon an ethic with a solid feel to it: nature is ours to explore forever; it is our crucible and refuge; it is our natural home; it is all of these things. Save it, you said: in wildness is the preservation of the world."

The letter closes by thanking "Henry, my friend," for discovering and articulating that ethic, which Wilson describes as the foundation for what is needed to emerge from our current environmental bottleneck.

The first chapter, entitled "To the Ends of the Earth," expands the context, with a marvelous description of the abundance and exuberance of life on Earth. It notes that some form of life exists wherever there is water, no matter how forbidding the other conditions. From places like the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, whose soils are the "coldest, driest, and most nutritionally deficient in the world," to the walls of volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where a certain bacterium reproduces best at 221 degrees F., life has searched out and inhabited every available niche. While somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million species have been discovered and named, estimates of the total number range from 3.6 million to over 100 million. Some are closer than we think:

"You do not have to visit distant places, or even rise from your seat, to experience the luxuriance of biodiversity. You yourself are a rainforest of a kind. There is a good chance that tiny spiderlike mites build nests at the base of your eyelashes. Fungal spores and hyphae on your toenails await the right conditions to sprout a Lilliputian forest. The vast majority of the cells in your body are not your own; they belong to bacterial and other microscopic species. More than four hundred such microbial species make their home in your mouth."

The chapter concludes with a paean to the glory of it all, and a hint of what is to come:

"Such is the biospheric membrane that covers Earth, and you and me. It is the miracle we have been given. And our tragedy, because a large part of it is being lost forever before we learn what it is and the best means by which it can be savored and used."

Chapter Two elaborates on our current "bottleneck" of overpopulation and consumption. To start with, for every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption would require four new planet Earths. That is with today's population of about six billion. Considering all factors, Wilson estimates that world population will peak at the end of this century somewhere between nine and ten billion.

One sign of hope is that the worldwide average of children per woman fell from 4.3 in 1960 to 2.6 in 2000. (The number required to attain zero population growth is 2.1.) The primary factor in this decline is the gradual empowerment of women, which has led them to choose to have fewer children, a development which Wilson describes as a "fortunate, indeed almost miraculous gift of human nature to future generations." It could have gone the other way, he notes, with liberated women choosing larger families: "Demographers of the future will, I believe, point out that humanity was saved by this one quirk in the maternal instinct."

The chapter describes in detail how China is struggling with the tension between population and environment, and asserts that it deserves close attention, "not just as the unsteady giant whose missteps can rock the world, but also because it is so far advanced along the path to which the rest of humanity seems inexorably headed." The next chapter, "Nature's Last Stand," documents in vivid and painful detail how humans have already wreaked havoc on other life. For example, while Hawaii seems like an unspoiled paradise, in actuality it is a "killing field of biological diversity": "When the first Polynesian voyagers put ashore around A.D. 400, the archipelago was as close to Eden as any land that ever existed. Its lush forests and fertile valleys contained no mosquitoes, no ants, no stinging wasps, no venomous snakes or spiders, and few plants with thorns or poisons. All these infelicities are abundant now, having been introduced by human commerce, both deliberately and accidentally."

Wilson gives dramatic examples of how various factors have interacted to cause extinctions, the main

ones being summarized by conservation biologists under the acronym HIPPO:






He then notes that while tropical rain-forests are the "headquarters of global diversity," they are also the "leading abattoir of extinction," describing the process in excruciating detail. He explains how global warming will accelerate extinction even further, by changing habitats much faster than species can adapt. He also gives specific examples of the destructiveness of invasive species, such as the chestnut fungus, accidentally introduced into New York on imported logs of Asian chestnut, which virtually eliminated the American chestnut tree. Finally, he imagines that if present trends continue, the most memorable heritage of our century could be an "Age of Loneliness." The testament we leave might conclude: "Accept our apologies and this audiovisual library that illustrates the wondrous world that used to be."

In Chapter Four, entitled "The Planetary Killer," Wilson describes Homo sapiens as a "serial killer of the biosphere," with evidence that is fascinating as well as chilling. Throughout history, wherever people entered a virgin environment, they immediately set about wiping out species, starting with "the big, the slow, and the tasty." One of the most interesting examples is New Zealand, which Wilson says was a "vast biological wonderland" before the Maoris came ashore in the late thirteenth century. Because it is remote from Australia and other landmasses, the islands lacked native mammals. As a result, large, flightless birds called moas, with an eagle as their only known predator, evolved and radiated into niches that would otherwise have been filled by creatures such as woodchucks, rabbits, deer, and even rhinos. Upon the Maoris' arrival, however, they systematically butchered the moas, with the result that by the middle of the fourteenth century they were all gone.

With the exception of well-known episodes of mass extinction that occurred many millions of years ago, the prehuman extinction rate averaged one species per million per year. For the reasons described, however, the rate has now jumped to between one thousand and ten thousand species per million per year. Wilson summarizes by stating that "the somber archaeology of vanished species has taught us the following lessons:

The noble savage never existed.

Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse.

Paradise found is paradise lost."

The next two chapters develop the reasons for halting the slaughter. In answering the question raised by Chapter Five, "How Much Is The Biosphere Worth?," Wilson notes that in 1997 an international team of economists and scientists calculated the value of services provided to humanity by the natural environment at $33 trillion per year. As a case in point, when development of the Catskill Mountains began to degrade New York's water supply, the citizens passed a major bond issue to rescue forested land from further development, thereby enabling them to enjoy "the double gift from nature in perpetuity of clean water at low cost and a beautiful recreational area at no cost."

Preservation of species may also be critical for agriculture. According to Wilson, the world's food supply "hangs by a slender thread of biodiversity." While only three domesticated plants (wheat, rice, and corn) currently stand between humanity and starvation, at least ten thousand wild plants could be adapted as domestic crops- if they survive. Moreover, "all the quarter million plant species-in fact, all species of organisms-are potential donors of genes that can be transferred by genetic engineering into crop species in order to improve their performance." Wilson acknowledges and summarizes legitimate concerns about genetic engineering, but states that most scientists and economists who have studied both sides of the argument agree that the benefits outweigh the risks. They envision an "evergreen" revolution, which would lift food production above the level attained by the green revolution of the 1960s, "using technology and regulatory policy more advanced and even safer than those now in existence."

Biodiversity is also vital to medicine. In the United States, 40 percent of all prescriptions and nine out of the ten leading prescription drugs are derived from organisms, which over millions of years have evolved mechanisms to fight various ailments. Yet only a tiny fraction of biodiversity has been utilized, and its potential is being rapidly destroyed. As just one example, it turns out that the deadly toxin secreted by the poison dart frog of Central and South America is two hundred times more effective than opium in suppressing pain, without harmful side effects. And while the natural substance is too toxic for use on humans, chemists first isolated the key molecule and eventually synthesized a similar one that eliminated the toxicity but retained the valuable properties. However, when scientists set out to collect frog toxin for chemical analysis, one of two rainforest sites it occupied had been cleared and replaced by banana plantations, supporting Wilson's assertion that the search for natural medicines is "a race between science and extinction."

Studies also show that sustainable harvesting of rainforest products can generate more income than clearing the area for farming or ranching. One such study demonstrated that a single harvest of wild-grown medicinals from a tropical forest plot in Belize was worth as much as $3,327 per hectare (2.5 acres), while other researchers estimated that tropical forest converted to farmland yielded only $228 per hectare in Guatemala. And Wilson adds that the value of sustainable use can be boosted even higher when "plant and animal food products, fibers, carbon credit trades, and ecotourism are added to the mix."

Wilson believes there is a still deeper reason to save diversity, which is the subject of Chapter Six, entitled "For the Love of Life." Some argue that destruction of species doesn't matter, because our technology will enable us to engineer new ones better suited to human needs. Wilson calls that a terrible gamble. Supposing for the sake of argument that it can be done, however, he offers the following response:

"With that distant potential in mind, should we go ahead, and for short-term gain, allow the original species and eco-systems to slip away? Yes? Erase Earth's living history? Then also burn the libraries and art galleries, make cordwood of the musical instruments, pulp the musical scores, erase Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Goethe, and the Beatles too, because all these-or at least fairly good substitutes- can be re-created."

"The issue," according to Wilson, "like all great decisions, is moral," and he analyzes the values that make the case for preservation. For one thing, each species is a "masterpiece" which offers "an endless bounty of knowledge and aesthetic pleasure." Another value is the genetic unity of all life-we all descended from the same distant life form. Still another is stewardship, which Wilson believes arises from emotions "programmed in the very genes of human social behavior."

Wilson also elaborates on the theme of one of his earlier books, Biophilia, which sets forth the hypothesis that humans will instinctively love nonhuman life if given knowledge of it. That hypothesis is supported by many studies showing that exposure to natural settings relieves stress, and Wilson argues that many of the common ailments of modern society could be delayed or even avoided by reconnection to the natural world. After these impassioned arguments, the reader can hardly wait for the final chapter, entitled "The Solution." Wilson is "guardedly optimistic" that such a solution exists, because "the problem is well under-stood, we have a grip on its dimensions and magnitude, and a workable strategy has begun to take shape."

An important first step is to "disarm," by dropping the stereotypes that environ- mentalists and "people-firsters" pin on each other. Wilson provides amusing examples, and confides that after years of dealing with them he is "a little battle- fatigued." Experience with socialism has proven that it is not the answer, and "the juggernaut of technology-based capitalism will not be stopped"- but its direction can be changed through the development of a long-term environmental ethic. Science can help in many ways, such as raising per-capita food production, decreasing consumption of energy and materials, and giving us better information about the condition of the planet. Religious leaders, having been silent on the issue for long, are also starting to interpret sacred texts as calling for stewardship of creation.

Over the last two decades, scientists and conservation professionals have put together a strategy for protection of most remaining ecosystems and species, the key points of which are the following (each elaborated in the book):

Salvage immediately the world's hotspots, those habitats that are both at the greatest risk and shelter the largest concentration of species found nowhere else.

Keep intact the five remaining frontier forests [e.g., the Amazon, the Congo block of Africa, and northern temperate forests], which are the last true wildernesses on the land and the home to an additional large fraction of Earth's biological diversity.

Accomplishment of the strategy will require cooperation among three groups-the private sector, government, and science and technology. Wilson relates powerful examples of how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with the environment (e.g., the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International), whose role Wilson describes as recently as the 1970s as just "evangelists and beggars," now operate more like the most successful businesses and have grown strong enough to initiate significant preservation actions on their own.

The $30 billion cost of carrying out the total strategy, however, while cheap in relation to world domestic product, is more than the strongest NGOs can afford, so governments will eventually have to "take over the heavy lifting." An important first step in that direction would be to end subsidies that aid individual industries at the expense of both the environment and the country as a whole. A 1998 study estimated annual subsidies worldwide at $390 billion to $520 billion for agriculture (e.g., the recently passed U.S. Farm Bill), $110 billion for fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and $220 billion for water. These and other subsidies combined exceed $2 trillion. The average American alone pays $2,000 a year in subsidies.

Governments can also play a vital role in entering into treaties that protect the environment, such as the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the Kyoto Treaty (rejected by the current administration). The strength of a country's conservation ethic is also measured by the wisdom and effectiveness of its legislation, and Wilson contends that the Endangered Species Act, whose implementation he describes, is the most important conservation law in the history of the United States.

"At the risk of seeming politically correct," Wilson also offers a tribute to nonviolent protesters, like Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived 180 feet up in a redwood tree for two years in an attempt to save the surrounding forest. He describes such protestors as "the early warning system for the natural economy," and "the living world's immunological response."

The central problem of the new century, Wilson repeats, is how to raise the poor to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible. He expresses hope that his book justifies a conviction that the problem can be solved:

"In the end, however, success or failure will come down to an ethical decision. I believe we will choose wisely. A civilization able to envision God and to embark on the colonization of space will surely find the way to save the integrity of this planet and the magnificent life it harbors."

The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

Alfred A. Knopf New York. 2002. $22.00


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