The Future of Life

By Edward O. Wilson
Copyright 2002
Alfred A. Knopf
$22.00, 229 pages


By Sara Oldfield
Copyright 2003
The MIT Press
$29.95, 160 pages

Reviewed by Richard Walthers


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 to meet a particularly large, old cherrybark oak. I can only speculate that its age was over three hundred 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 7 feet in diameter and a circumference of 22.5 feet. By some miracle, it has escaped the lumberman's 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. Wilson's contention that organizations like the Nature Conservancy and other NGO's can save the Earth's 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 Pulitizer 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 millenium, 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, and then determine how to employ this knowledge to the best effect. Then 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 devisive 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% of land for humanity, and 50% for all the rest of life, noting that 10% is protected presently, at least on paper. This is one of the twelve strategies for protecting Earth's remaining ecosystems and species he describes in a final chapter entitled The Solution.

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.

For a visual reminder of what is presently being lost in the home of more than half the world's 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 earth's 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.

Sara Oldfield is Global Programmes Director of Fauna & Flora International, the world's 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, or worse.

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 world's 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 protection and are vulnerable to the habitat destruction that occurs each day.