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The Future of Life Paperback – March 11, 2003
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From The New Yorker
The central thesis of this elegant manifesto is not unfamiliar: the impact of human population growth and "wasteful consumption" on the biological diversity of our planet has been nothing short of disastrous. What distinguishes Wilson's book, though, is its nuanced and evocative explanation of just why biodiversity matters, and its surprisingly optimistic diagnosis of how this natural balance might be preserved. Wilson, an eminent evolutionary biologist, shows the extent to which human prosperity, even in the information age, rests on the foundation of a diverse natural world, since the more species any ecosystem has, the more stable and productive it will be. And he writes movingly of the need to accept the responsibility of environmental "stewardship." That stewardship doesn't require Draconian government regulation, in his view; instead, we could rely on non-governmental organizations, private corporations, and intelligent use of the free market. If we act wisely, the world will remain a place where, as the scientist Michael Faraday put it, "nothing is too wonderful to be true."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“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
“Wilson is a member of an important but very rare species: the world-class scientist who is also a great writer.” —Nature
“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 Jose 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
“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
Top customer reviews
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Ecosystems are different game. The best way to preserve them is via laws and by outright purchase. He is a big fan of the Nature Conservancy, which takes the very direct approach of buying up the pristine wildernesses of the world. He admits, that doesn't go into much detail about what to do about it, that setting up a nature reserve side by side with villages full of hungry people in underdeveloped countries is not really going to work. The people will invade your preserve and take bush meat despite your best efforts to stop them. Nevertheless, he is on the side of the angels, and the organizations to which he gives copious credit in the book are indeed deserving.
He tiptoes around the biggest issue, that of consumption in the rich countries. Everything we do to support our lifestyles damages the environment. While he is pretty good about talking about the environmental impact of our preference for meat over grains, he does not go into the cost of our proclivity for building large homes located a long way from anywhere. It results in cutting forests for timber, destroying farmland for home sites and roads, and asphalting things over to the point where the ground cannot breathe. Likewise, our gargantuan appetite for stuff demands huge mines to get raw materials and huge consumption of carbon and fouling of the waters to manufacture and distribute everything. Live simply, that the planet may simply live!
The solution that Wilson does embrace is fewer children. In the decade since he wrote the book the Western world has tilted way below replacement level fertility, 2.1 children per woman. He doesn't even talk about which people have children. It is not the people who are likely to read his book. University educated women, whom one hopes are the smartest and society, are the least likely to have large families. We are falling to zero population growth the wrong way, with the people who are smart enough to understand why it is important being the ones who are deciding not to have kids. At a minimum, the issue is more complex than he lets on.
Here's what I like best about the book. Biodiversity is a bit of a hard sell. As Wilson himself notes, whether or not the ivory billed woodpecker is extinct makes no difference whatsoever in the life of anybody living. The preservation of species is largely a moral issue. He would like to say that we have received an endowment from mother nature herself, and certainly from our forebears, and we have an obligation to pass it on as close to intact as we can. Why? So our grandchildren can enjoy walking through a Costa Rican rain forest and marveling at the diversity of colorful frogs and gorgeous orchids just as we can. So they can wake up some spring morning and hear the frogs croaking in a pond near their house.
Beyond that, Wilson does as good a job as I have seen in providing a financial justification for preserving biodiversity. Biodiversity implies that there are a number of species in a habitat, which means that if one of them gets in trouble there are others to fill in the gaps. My example would be the way that several species of oaks have filled in the niche formerly filled by chestnuts in eastern US forests. The chestnuts are gone, a tragedy, but we still have climax forest up and down the East Coast. In fact, we have more and more of it as the forest reclaims marginal farmland that has been abandoned. He also explains at length the value of biodiversity, or at least the availability of a vast number of species, for medical research and as a source for genetic engineering. Credit, too, for a realistic, balanced approach to GMOs.
Wilson starts out with a wonderfully lyrical open letter to Henry Thoreau, but the style gets rather pedestrian once he gets into the meat of his argument. The book should get five stars because he is so clearly on the side of the angels. However, I think this is less than his best work. It is a bit tedious. So for the writing, not the ideas, I give it only four. It is not up to the almost impossibly high standard he set for himself with "Consilience."
Add to that, Earth's life-cycle mechanics being thrown out of whack by global warming and dwindling green cover resources that help regulate it, water scarcity, pollution, and we have a dire pan of worms on our hands. Wilson maintains, however, that our vast accumulated reservoir of technology and abundant earth resource-cycle knowledge can help us through the bottleneck and on to a more rational, thoughtful, and harmonious future with Earth's regulation processes influencing all of our ethical and moral guidelines in our activities on Earth.
On the front cover is a beautiful art rendering of what, at first appears to be an expertly produced flower arrangement. But taking a closer look at it reveals a collage of plants and animals that are extinct or on the verge of extinction and then on pages viii to x is a diagram and list of the cover species and listed by common and taxonomic names.
Next, is the Prologue which is a letter to Henry David Thoreau. It is actually a dialogue of Wilson having a posthumous conversation with Thoreau at Walden's Pond where in part, he explains to H.D.T what state of environmental affairs we are now in- very moving!
Wilson's writing style is very gentle, sometimes poetic, and an easy flowing discourse packed with compelling punch lines for thoughtful consideration of the subject matter at hand: hopeful survival of all Earth's flora/fauna. And he posits this can be accomplished in dialogue such as:
"In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is urgently needed." and, "Surely the rest of life matters. Surely our stewardship is our only hope. We will be wise to listen to the heart, then act with rational intention and all the tools we can gather and bring to bear." And, "The great dilemma of environmental reasoning stems from this conflict between short-term and long-term values."
For those that are familiar with the works of Thomas Berry- "The Dream of the Earth" and "The Great Work", Chet Raymo- "The Path", et al., Hawkin and Lovins- "Natural Capitalism" and many more such fine thinkers and doers, will no doubt be impressed with the ground that Wilson covers with his very realistic, but guarded pronouncement that we humans will get through the bottleneck if we immediately start listening to the voices of reason and start embracing what life-style changes we need in order enhance our survival possibilities. To be sure, it is a crap shoot in our survival odds, but Wilson helps bump-up those odds with his guarded enthusiasm based on a life-time of biology and environmental study. There is an abundance of resources and organizations mentioned all through this great work. Thank you, Prof. E. O. Wilson!