The Future of Life

Posted: 1 July 2002

Author: Edward O Wilson
Knopf, New York/Little, Brown, London, 2002, $22/£18.99 hb

Author Info: Edward O Wilson is a distinguished American entomologist whose books include On Human Nature, Consilience, and The Diversity of Life.

"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."

This chilling prophecy comes from Edward O Wilson's latest book, the Prologue of which is addressed to the naturalist Henry Thoreau. But although the situation is desperate, Wilson notes encouraging signs, such as the slowing of population growth. And he calls for a 'global land ethic', based on 'the best understanding of ourselves and the world around us'. And he stresses that our world is now known to be far richer than previously conceived.

Destruction of natural habitats, the spread of invasive species, pollution, uncontrolled population growth, and over-harvesting are the main threats to our natural world. Wilson explains how each of the elements works to undo the web of life that supports us, and why it is in our best interests to stop it.

In doing so, he argues, in the chapter 'How much is the biosphere worth?', that it actually makes economic sense to preserve the environment and illustrates how new methods of conservation can ensure long-term economic well-being. But it is a moral and even aesthetic issue too.

Despite the dire warnings it contains, Wilson's book is essentially optimistic - and visionary. In the chapter 'For the love of life' he defines what he calls biophilia, the instinctive love of life. The ethical systems of our great religions may have their root in a natural sympathy for the genetic unity of life. And even aesthetics may be bioethical. As Theodore Roosevelt observed nearly a hundred years ago in a speech defending the preservation of California's forests, "There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty."

In his final chapter, 'The solution', Wilson argues that the central problem of this 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. Some examples he gives of successful past achievements and future projects suggest that a solution is possible.

In the end it comes down to decisions by those in power about how the available resources are allocated - and that is an ethical decision, "one on which those now living will be defined and judged for all generations to come".

Reviewer: Jeremy Hamand