The Future of Life
On the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has published an important new book on the state of life on Earth. There is a sense of urgency about Wilson’s book, because half of the world’s species may be extinct by the end of the twenty-first century. In seven carefully reasoned chapters, Wilson describes how the biodiversity crisis has come about and what its implications are. He explains why preserving biodiversity is essential to human survival for economic, psychological, and aesthetic reasons. In clear and lucid terms, he explains the global implications of the massive human transformations of the planet’s ecosystems. The human ecological “footprint” has simply become unsustainable in comparison to the rest of the natural world. Life has flourished with unparalleled abundance since the beginning of the Cenozoic Era about 66.4 million years ago, but human activity now threatens to reverse this trend with an accelerating rate of human-induced extinctions that will create a much-impoverished world by the end of the twenty-first century. Humankind is entering a metaphoric bottleneck in its battle between the preservation and extinction of life.
In his prologue, Wilson uses a cleverly worded open letter to naturalist icon Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) to assess the present global environmental state of affairs. Wilson invokes the spirit of Thoreau and their kinship as naturalists to underscore the urgency of the current ecological crisis. His assessment is bleak: “The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes.” A global Armageddon is approaching—the destruction of the biosphere by humanity. “We are inside a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption,” Wilson observes, that is straining Earth’s natural resources to their limits. What is needed, Wilson concludes, is a new global land ethic that will enable humankind to preserve what is left of Earth’s magnificent biodiversity. A more encompassing wisdom is needed to balance the natural economy and the market economy.
Since humans seem to be able to value the natural world only in economic terms, Wilson raises the intriguing question of the financial worth of the biosphere. The value of the combined services of the biosphere is estimated to be about $33 trillion, or twice the 1997 combined Gross National Product (GNP) of all of the world’s economies, which is about $18 trillion. These services “include the regulation of the atmosphere and the climate; the purification and retention of fresh water; the formation and enrichment of the soil; nutrient recycling; the detoxification and recirculation of waste; the pollination of crops; and the production of lumber, fodder, and biomass fuel.” The true value of a healthy biosphere actually is much greater, because all of these functions are essential for human life and, once the biosphere is destroyed, it almost certainly could not be rebuilt, at least not with current knowledge. Wilson uses the example of the probable extinction of the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker to underscore his argument that the loss of a species cannot simply be written off as an acceptable cost of progress. Each species is a unique and irreplaceable treasure. Unfortunately, average people simply do not understand the connection between their actions and the destruction of the biosphere.
In “Nature’s Last Stand,” Wilson reviews the conventional ecological assumptions about the causes of loss of biodiversity. The major threats to biodiversity are expressed in the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population, and overharvesting. The prime mover for all of these incursive forces is human overpopulation—too many people consuming too many natural resources too quickly. The prospects for preserving biodiversity are bleak, but the trajectory of species loss depends on human choice. Humans must find a way to resolve the current impasse between environmentalism and economics, between long-term and short-term values. That means figuring out how to feed billions of new human mouths over the next few decades while saving the rest of life at the same time. Wilson sees potential economic benefits in preserving biodiversity both in terms of new agricultural crops and in bioprospecting for new pharmaceuticals. The preservation of the natural world is essential for long-term material prosperity and health.
Humanity is inflicting on itself and on Earth a mistake in capital investment. Humans are currently spending down Earth’s natural resources to make increasingly large payments to the wealthiest industrial nations to improve standards of living. Unfortunately,...
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