The Barnes & Noble Review
Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has long been one of the most prominent scientific voices to speak out about the crisis of species extinction that has engulfed the earth in the past half century. In this eloquent and readable book, Wilson unstintingly portrays the nightmarish scenario into which we are passing but also offers constructive ideas on how it might still be averted.
Beginning with a tour of microbial ecosystems that demonstrates how few of the planet's species we have even named, much less understood, Wilson tracks the staggering toll taken on the world's ecosystems by a proliferating Homo sapiens. He touches on the planet's hotspots, from Madagascar to China: particularly rich zones of plant and animal diversity that are the most critically threatened. In Hawaii, for instance, thousands of unique species evolved in isolation over centuries, only to be rapidly decimated by human activities and the introduction of alien species with which they cannot compete.
It is a grim toll, and one that we have heard with depressing regularity in recent years. But Wilson follows this sobering litany with a chapter of concrete hopes for the planet's future, from debt-for-nature swaps to the proliferation of environmental groups. One of the book's most interesting sections resurrects the idea of biophilia, "the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike forms," which Wilson introduced several years ago. We all have deep and abiding connections with nature, and if they can be nourished (education will play a large role) and channeled into moral decisions, we still have a chance to save the planet's biodiversity from our other, baser motives.
Ever the scientific optimist, Wilson places faith in the ability of technology to get us out of the fixes into which it has put us: For example, he advocates the highly controversial genetic engineering of crops. But, intriguingly, Wilson has yielded some of the ground claimed in Consilience, where he placed science at the pinnacle of human endeavor. Here, this great scientist argues that our ability to protect what's left of the planet's biodiversity ultimately depends, more than anything, on an ethical commitment. Unless we harness what's noblest about ourselves as a species, we risk being the only ones left on a silenced, emptied, and impoverished planet. (Jonathan Cook)
There are a staggering number of species on Earth, and half may go extinct by century's end. Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Wilson is one of our most eloquent spokesmen for the necessity of conserving Earth's dwindling biological heritage, for reasons as much practical as sentimental and moral. Letting species disappear while hoping someday to re-create them in the test tube, he says, is tantamount to destroying great masterpieces, knowing we have copies. We must not only celebrate nature's beauty and spiritual virtues but also be prepared to argue for its value in economic terms. A hardened veteran of policy debates, Wilson knows how to make a pragmatic case for conserving biodiversity. This beautifully written book is many things: It is a bracing wake-up call about the ecological catastrophe that is looming on our horizon, an inspiring exhortation to accept our responsibility as nature's stewards and a realistic blueprint for reversing the current extinction trendthat is, saving species and ecosystems in ways that generate, rather than impede, economic growth. The future of life may be bleak, Wilson warns, but it remains in our hands to save it.
Legendary Harvard biologist Wilson (On Human Nature; The Ants; etc.) founded sociobiology, the controversial branch of evolutionary biology, and won the Pulitzer Prize twice. This volume, his manifesto to the public at large, is a meditation on the splendor of our biosphere and the dangers we pose to it. In graceful, expressive and vigorous prose, Wilson argues that the challenge of the new century will be "to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible." For as America consumes and the Third World tries to keep up, we lose biological diversity at an alarming rate. But the "trajectory" of species loss depends on human choice. If current levels of consumption continue, half the planet's remaining species will be gone by mid-century. Wilson argues that the "great dilemma of environmental reasoning" stems from the conflict between environmentalism and economics, between long-term and short-term values. Conservation, he writes, is necessary for our long-term health and prosperity. Loss of biodiversity translates into economic losses to agriculture, medicine and the biotech industries. But the "bottleneck" of overpopulation and overconsumption can be safely navigated: adequate resources exist, and in the end, success or failure depends upon an ethical decision. Global conservation will succeed or fail depending on the cooperation between government, science and the private sector, and on the interplay of biology, economics and diplomacy. "A civilization able to envision God and to embark on the colonization of space," Wilson concludes, "will surely find the way to save the integrity of this planet and the magnificent life it harbors." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Start by looking at the cover: stark white letters on a solid black background. The future of life looks grim indeed. A hole cut through to the page behind seems to offer hope: it reveals a brilliant Costa Rican golden toad, a detail of a stunningly beautiful painting in the style of 17th-century Dutch flower artists. The distinguished biologist, Edward O. Wilson, invites us to think about the reality represented by both the cover and the painting. Between 1987 and 1988, the entire population of golden toads vanished. And all 60 of the other plants and animals in the painting are also endangered or extinct. Wilson explains clearly and eloquently why their loss matters and what Americans can do to reverse the destruction of living creatures and their wild habitats. His arguments and examples range from the economic (preserving a watershed is cheaper than flood control measures) and medical (another threatened amphibian, the poison dart frog, has yielded a powerful new kind of anesthetic) to the aesthetic and the quality of human experience. In a devastated environment, no one can have a really good life. An important book for any collection that deals with science, nature, the environment, and the future of our lives. KLIATT Codes: A*—Exceptional book, recommended for advanced students and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 229p. notes. index.,
A plea to save our biological heritage and a plan for doing it; from Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Wilson. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Never one to shrink from the Big Picture, Harvard antman Wilson (Consilience, 1998, etc.) addresses the decline and fall of species but sees the potential for the survival of biodiverse life on earth if . . .
From the Publisher
“Wilson, perhaps our greatest living scientist . . . offers the most powerful indictment yet of humanity as destroyer.” –San Francisco Chronicle Observer
“His book eloquently makes one thing clear: . . . we know what we do, and we have a choice.” –The New York Times Book Review
“The Future of Life makes it clear once again that Wilson is one of our most gifted science writers.” –The Washington Post
“[An] elegant manifesto. . . . [A] nuanced and evocative explanation of just why biodiversity matters.” –The New Yorker
“Wilson writes with a magisterial tone. . . . The Future of Life is the work of a man with deep convictions who is also utterly reasonable.” –Bill McKibben, The Boston Globe
“A critical report card for planet Earth, an urgent manifesto on global action, an eloquent plea . . . A literate, even poetic recounting of current scientific information that is readily accessible to lay readers. A more engaging and persuasive single volume on this crucial subject is difficult to imagine.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“A no-nonsense appraisal of the problem of species extinctions and a pragmatic road map for renewal. . . . The Future of Life takes the reader on a fascinating and ultimately hopeful journey.” –San José Mercury News
“Our contemporary Thoreau, Wilson elegantly and insistently makes the case that to choose biodiversity is to choose survival.” –Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Wilson knows his subject too well. It behooves the rest of us to listen.” –San Diego Union Tribune
“One of the most clear-eyed pictures of how bad things have gotten.”–Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“The Future of Life offers an encouraging vision that solutions to the environmental problems facing humanity are within reach. . . . A refreshing change from the doom-and-gloom rhetoric that marked much environmentalism in the past.”–American Scientist
“A landmark new book.” –Houston Chronicle
“The biosphere’s Paul Revere defines the incalculable value and fragility of ‘the totality of life.’” –Outside
“Wilson is a member of an important but very rare species: the world-class scientist who is also a great writer.” –Nature
“A short book of breathtaking scope. . . . Wilson brings genuine authority to these weighty pronouncements.”–New York Observer
“[A] readable gem. . . . Wilson manages to avoid dark gloom while still cataloguing the damage we have wrought.” –Toronto Star
“Takes the reader on a fascinating and ultimately hopeful journey. . . . A concise primer remarkable in its breadth and clarity.”–Austin American-Statesman
Read an Excerpt
A Letter to Thoreau
Excerpted from the Prologue
I am at the site of your cabin on the edge of Walden Pond. I came because of your stature in literature and the conservation movement. I came because of all your contemporaries, you are the one I most need to
understand. As a biologist with a modern scientific library, I know more than Darwin knew. I can imagine the measured responses of that country gentleman to a voice a century and a half beyond his own. It is not a satisfying fantasy: the Victorians have for the most part settled into a comfortable corner of our remembrance. But I cannot imagine your responses, at least not all of them. You left too soon, and your restless spirit haunts us still.
I am here for a purpose: to become more 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. . .
The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes--cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.
No one in your time could imagine a disaster of this magnitude. Little more than a billion people were alive in the 1840s. They were overwhelmingly agricultural, and few families needed more than two or three acres to survive. The American frontier was still wide open. And far away on continents to the south, up great rivers, beyond unclimbed mountain ranges, stretched unspoiled equatorial forests brimming with the maximum diversity of life. These wildernesses seemed as unattainable and timeless as the planets and stars. That could not last, because the mood of Western civilization is Abrahamic. The explorers and colonists were guided by a biblical prayer: May we take possession of this land that God has provided and let it drip milk and honey into our mouths, forever.
Now, more than six billion people fill the world. The great majority are very poor; nearly one billion exist on the edge of starvation. All are struggling to raise the quality of their lives any way they can. That unfortunately includes the conversion of the surviving remnants of the natural environment. Half of the great tropical forests have been cleared. The last frontiers of the world are effectively gone. Species of plants and animals are disappearing a hundred or more times faster than before the coming of humanity, and as many as half may be gone by the end of this century. An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. 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.
The situation is desperate--but there are encouraging signs that the race can be won. Population growth has slowed, and if the present trajectory holds, it is likely to peak between eight and ten billion people by century's end. That many people, experts tell us, can be accommodated with a decent standard of living, but just barely: the amount of arable land and water available per person, globally, is already declining. In solving the problem, other experts tell us, it should also be possible to shelter most of the vulnerable plant and animal species.
In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is urgently needed. Not just any global land ethic that might happen to enjoy agreeable sentiment, but one based on the best understanding of ourselves and the world around us that science and technology can provide. Surely the rest of life matters. Surely our stewardship is its only hope. We will be wise to listen carefully to the heart, then act with rational intention with all the tools we can gather and bring to bear.
Henry, my friend, thank you for putting the first element of that ethic in place. Now it is up to us to summon a more encompassing wisdom. The living world is dying; the natural economy is crumbling beneath our busy feet. We have been too self-absorbed to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions, and we will suffer a terrible loss unless we shake off our delusions and move quickly to a solution. Science and technology led us into this bottleneck. Now science and technology must help us find our way through and out.