The Future of Life
by Edward O. Wilson
I have a habit of searching out old-growth
trees wherever my travels take me. On a recent trip with my children,
we hiked through the woods where we met a particularly large, old
cherrybark oak. I can only speculate that its age was over 300 years
old. It has lived its life in relative isolation among some even
older cypress trees at the very tip of Illinois. This is an immense
tree of more than seven feet in diameter and a circumference of
22.5 feet. By some miracle, it has escaped the lumbermans
saw over the centuries, and is now protected in a growing nature
preserve that was originally established by the Nature Conservancy.
It is Edward O. Wilsons contention that organizations like
the Nature Conservancy and other NGOs can save the Earths
biodiversity by establishing reserves all over the globe. This is
just one of many ideas that he supports in his book, The Future
of Life. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author begins with a letter
to Henry David Thoreau that is a delight to read, and contains a
number of interesting observations in an attempt to explain what
has happened to the natural world that both men have loved so deeply.
Sadly, Wilson reports toward the end of the letter that the natural
world is under severe stress at the beginning of the third millennium,
being supplanted everywhere with human activity. He speaks to Thoreau
of two truths that we must acknowledge if we are to inhabit the
natural world without damaging it irreparably for future generations.
First we must document the natural world in its present state in
order to know what the truth really is. Secondly, then, we can determine
how to employ this knowledge to the best effect. As a result, anyone,
now and in the future, who accepts the stewardship of nature will
have these truths as their foundation.
This is an eloquently written, well-reasoned look at the environment.
Throughout the book Wilson decries what he calls the divisive gladiatorial
approach taken by opposing viewpoints of the developers who want
progress at any cost, and the environmentalists who put conservation
before development and other human needs. He repeatedly presents
both sides of the debate in an attempt to find the common ground
that will bring all factions together in global conservation. He
feels that the focused and directed combination of government, private
sector, science and technology as well as religion will be able
to accomplish any protection and conservation goals we set.
Wilson attempts to be conciliatory and to use what he feels is best
from science and technology in order to save more natural areas.
Although he acknowledges that the race is on between the technoscientific
forces that are destroying the living environment and those that
can be harnessed to save it, he still has an abiding respect
for and belief in science and technology that is sometimes misplaced.
He believes a global land ethic is urgently needed, and that science
and technology can help alleviate the problems caused by the deadly
triumvirate of overpopulation, massive consumption and the accelerating
loss of biodiversity.
Wilson is at his best when he discusses biophilia, the love of all
life. He states, A sense of genetic unity, kinship and deep
history are among the values that bond us to the living environment.
They are survival mechanisms for ourselves and our species. To conserve
biological diversity is an investment in immortality.
As lofty as that goal is, he realizes that the central problem
of the new century is how to raise the poor to a decent standard
of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life
as possible. He proposes a 50/50 land use compromise; 50 percent
of land for humanity, and 50 percent for all the rest of life, noting
that 10 percent is protected presently, at least on paper. This
is one of the 12 strategies for protecting Earths remaining
ecosystems and species he describes in a final chapter entitled
Even considering all the environmental problems we face, Wilson
is basically optimistic. He writes: 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. I certainly hope Mr. Wilson is correct.
The Future of Life
by Edward O. Wilson
© 2002 Alfred A. Knopf
$22, 229 pages
by Sara Oldfield
For a visual reminder of what is presently
being lost in the home of more than half the worlds living
species, refer to the just-published, Rainforest. This reasonably-priced,
large format book by Sara Oldfield is illustrated with 200 stunning
color photographs that highlight species from all of the various
types of earths rainforests. Some of these lifeforms are so
impossibly beautiful that it would be criminal to deny them the
space to go on living and reproducing.
Oldfield is global programs director of Fauna & Flora International,
the worlds longest established international wildlife conservation
organization. The book is arranged by descriptions of habitat, animals
and plants in each of nine types of rainforest. The specific threats
to the long-range viability of each region are examined, as is the
nature of human interaction in each area. While the text is informative,
the photographs vividly depict the beauty of rainforest ecosystem
and why we should not casually let any plant or animal become endangered,
This is the perfect book to peruse while reading Wilson. Its photo-documentation
depicts exactly what is at risk. It also contains a useful listing
of organizations that are working to save the worlds rainforests.
The author includes a map of original rainforest areas, but it would
have been very helpful to have also included another map showing
how much has been lost in order to visually demonstrate the urgent
need for preservation.
Unlike the cherrybark oak I went to see, there are many old-growth
trees in forests all around the world that have no protectiontrees
that are vulnerable to the habitat destruction that occurs each
by Sara Oldfield
© 2003 The MIT Press
$29.95, 160 pages
These books have been reviewed by Richard Walthers (email@example.com),
founder of PRAIRIE Fish, a Chicago, IL-based consulting firm dedicated
to design and sustainability issues.