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The Future of Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Jan. 8 2002
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Today we understand that our world is infinitely richer than was ever previously guessed. Yet it is so ravaged by human activity that half its species could be gone by the end of the present century. These two contrasting truths—unexpected magnificence and underestimated peril—have become compellingly clear during the past two decades of research on biological diversity.
In this dazzlingly intelligent and ultimately hopeful book, Wilson describes what treasures of the natural world we are about to lose forever—in many cases animals, insects, and plants we have only just discovered, and whose potential to nourish us, protect us, and cure our illnesses is immeasurable—and what we can do to save them. In the process, he explores the ethical and religious bases of the conservation movement and deflates the myth that environmental policy is antithetical to economic growth by illustrating how new methods of conservation can ensure long-term economic well-being.
The Future of Life is a magisterial accomplishment: both a moving description of our biosphere and a guidebook for the protection of all its species, including humankind.
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Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
- Publisher : Knopf; 1st edition (Jan. 8 2002)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0679450785
- ISBN-13 : 978-0679450788
- Item weight : 454 g
- Dimensions : 14.53 x 2.46 x 21.62 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,049,227 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Unlike The Skeptical Environmentalist, which is written by a statistician, The Future Of Life is written by one of the world's greatest living scientists, Edward O. Wilson, author of 20 books (including Sociobiology, and Consilience), winner of two Pulitzer prizes plus dozens of science prizes, and discoverer of hundreds of new species. Dr. Wilson is often called, for good reason, "the father of biodiversity." Wilson is also one of the rare breed of scientists, like Stephen J. Gould, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking, who can actually communicate their thoughts and findings to the general public. This is particularly important when it comes to Wilson's area of expertise, given that the environment is something which affects all of us and which all of us can play a part in protecting (or destroying).
Wilson's main theme can be summed up as "situation desperate, but not hopeless." Why desperate? Because humans--all 6 billion of them--are the most destructive force ever unleashed on Earth. According to Wilson, humanity's "bacterial" rate of growth during the 20th century, its short-sightedness, wasteful consumption patterns, general greed and rapaciousness, ignorance, and technological power have resulted in a mass extinction: "species of plants and animals...disappearing a hundred or more times faster than before the coming of humanity," and with "as many as half...gone by the end of the century." Americans in particular are an environmental disaster, consuming so many resources (oil, meat, timber, etc.) per person that, according to Wilson's calculations, "for every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet Earths." Well, we don't have four more planet Earths, and at the present time, we are well on our way to trashing the one we've got. In short, Wilson concludes after chronicling the sorry, depressing, nauseating history of man's mass slaughter and destruction of the environment, our species richly deserves the label: "Homo sapiens, serial killer of the biosphere.''
Given all this, how can I say that Wilson's book is not hopeless? First, because human population growth is slowing (finally!), as women gain education, careers, and power over their reproductive choices. Luckily, when given this choice, women increasingly have opted for "quality over quantity," and average family size has plummeted. In most advanced industrialized nations, in fact, fertility rates have now fallen below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), meaning that populations in those countries will actually start to decline (barring immigration) in coming years. Wilson points that the worldwide average number of children per woman fell from 4.3 in 1960 to 2.6 in 2000. This is still far too high, and still means years more of absolute human population growth, but it's at least a bit of hope amidst the environmental carnage and constant drumbeat of bad news.
Second, there is some hope because many humans do love the environment and want to preserve and protect it. Here, Wilson uses the fancy, scientific-sounding term "biophilia" to describe man's "innate tendency to focus upon life and lifelike forms, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally.'' In this instance, I believe Wilson may be overly optimistic. When confronted with the choice of a Big Mac or an acre of rainforest, let's say, most people appear to choose the Big Mac. Or when given a choice of driving their gas-guzzling SUVs and living in sprawling suburbia vs. driving smaller cars, living in cities, taking mass transit, and helping to prevent disastrous global warming, most people choose the SUVs and suburbia. Still, much of this is undoubtedly a result of ignorance and skewed economics (i.e., billions of dollars per year in government subsidies doled out to agriculture, fossil fuel production, wasteful water usage, among other things), and these can be corrected--at least in theory. Also, there are undoubtedly millions of humans who strongly care about the environment--whether for aesthetic, religious, ethical, "biophiliac," or other reasons--and are volunteering, donating money, or altering consumption patterns in order to help save it.
This brings us to the third reason for not losing all hope: humans have the ability to save the environment, and Wilson lays out a clear, realistic, step-by-step plan for doing so. Ironically, one of the very characteristics of environment which causes it to be so vulnerable --its concentration of biological diversity in a small areas ("hotspots") --means that it is possible to target that land and save it. Wilson estimates that biological "hotspots" cover "less than 2 percent of the Earth's land surface and [serve] as the exclusive home of nearly half its plant and animal species." In Wilson's calculations, those "hotspots" can be saved "by a single investment of roughly $30 billion." Just to put this in perspective, the U.S. gross domestic product is over $10 trillion, or more than thirty times the $30 billion needed to save the "hotspots."
The Future Of Life ends on a note of cautious optimism: although right now we find ourselves in a "bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption," Wilson believes that the race between "technoscientific forces that are destroying the living environment" and "those that can be harnessed to save it" can be won. In order for this to come to pass, however, humanity needs to take action immediately along the lines that Wilson lays out. Ultimately, The Future Of Life is a passionate, brilliant, clarion call to arms by a great scientist, and a great man as well. If we don't hear Wilson's call, we will have only ourselves to blame. And whichever way things turn out, we can't say we weren't warned.
On a purely personal note, I found this book to take off where several of my earlier academic and professional experiences had introduced questions. I encountered some of the scientific issues in Wilson's book in my freshman year in college in a course on evolution and, later, in a seminar on recombinant DNA, at the same time when Wilson's pioneering book on sociobiology was published. In my professional life, as a non-scientist, my travels to many of the countries Wilson refers to in this book opened my eyes to some troubling prospects. I have included in various travelogues to friends and family tales of the possibly shortest world record of discovery and extinction of species in the Indian Ocean island Madagascar, and of the probabability, within fifty years or less, of total submersion of island nations in the Pacific like the atolls of Kiribati.
Wilson brings to his analysis of these and other issues of species extinction, climate change, depletion of fresh water and arable land, a rare combination of eloquent, accessible, and level-headed statement of scientific evidence on one hand, and clarity of policy prescription on the other. Both as a non-scientist passionately favorable to a much higher level of scientific literacy among the general public and as a professional committed to international economic development, I was delighted at this exposition on the prospects of humanity.
Wilson is fundamentally optimistic about the options available to deal with pressing environmental challenges, even while he firmly asserts his belief in the clear and present danger of many past and present patterns of production and consumption. He uses an admittedly caricatured dialogue between an "economist" and an "environmentalist" to illustrate purported tensions between prevailing patterns of economic consumption and production and evidence of resource strains on the biosphere. But, unlike some other presentations on similar issues, Wilson does not cast his arguments in simplistic neo-Malthusian terms or in diatribes against globalization. Instead, he coolly appeals to what he considers as a growing consensus among many professionals, scientists, conservationists, economists, and others - with the exception of QUOTE the most politically conservative of their public interpreters UNQUOTE - that the essential facts point to some inevitable choices in how we continue to exploit resources of the biosphere.
While his 12-point policy prescriptions on pages 160-64 may seem broad, and even unsurprising, the strength of his book lies in the fact that he compactly marshals an array of complex scientific and economic evidence while avoiding pretensions of scientific certitude where evidence is lacking. He does not shy from admitting that certain of his positions - shared by many others - for example, on preserving species diversity, cannot be fully supported by scientific evidence or economic argumentation, but he does not shy away from making reasonable and transparent appeals to humanist values. QUOTE The case against humans for the extinction of the megfauna is built solely on circumstantial evidence, but the facts would win at least an indictment in any court of law UNQUOTE I confess I was left unsure how deeply to concerned at his report of the epitaph in a London zoo to the last member of a rare species of snails QUOTE 1.5 MILLION YEARS B.C. TO JANUARY 1996 UNQUOTE
I would not disagree that many of his policy prescriptions or analysis are hardly novel. I am nonetheless encouraged that they are articulated by one of the world's most renowned biologist. Outside of its policy prescriptions, many of the purely scientific speculations in this book are presented with great eloquence. While I clearly enjoyed the entire book, I especially found the first chapter on species diversity enlightening, with its exposition of why the emergence of numerous species in very extreme and isolated terrestrial conditions suggest the high probability of finding life elsewhere in similar conditions elsewhere in our galaxy.
If nothing else, I am sure many readers will enjoy the superb imagery in Wilson's imaginary letter to Henry Thoreau in the preface in which Wilson describes a gargantuan battle between an army of red and black ants so vividly that you can easily imagine the same graphic prose to describe the triumph of a superior army of human enslavers against their vanquished victims whose offspring submit into voluntary servitude at birth from some innate instinct.
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The first is a misleading title. The book does not deal with the future of "life" because the future of humanity is not discussed. This is a great pity. Humanity is moving through a phase-jump, acquiring the unprecedented ability to terminate its existence, to change its core attributes, and perhaps to clone itself and also to create life. These "gifts" of science and technology are fateful, also for human action on endangered species. Therefore the problem with the book is not only a misleading title, but missing a variable critical for its actual concern.
This leads the second error, namely quite some tunnel vision. Not only is the future of humanity ignored, but the future of the climate is not discussed despite its profound significance for the biosphere, directly and indirectly. If temperatures and sea levels rise they impact on many species and their habitats, including "hot spots" of species diversity. And climate changes will constitute heavy stressor on humanity which will unavoidable receive priority over other biosphere concerns.
The third fundamental mistake is the mood of optimism, especially pronounced in the last chapter. All the describe species preserving activities, however important, are inadequate, determined government action being essential as clearly recognized by the author. But such action depends on politics. Here the author becomes utopian, assuming that democratic public pressures and activities of NGOs based on a widely accepted pro-nature ethos will cause political leaders to give species preservation high priority.
Public pressures do demand action to reduce visible pollutions and other glaring environmental damages. But, given a global culture of consumerism and the propensity of human being to be mainly concerned with the short range, mentioned by the author as probably hardwired by evolution, no determined large-scale species-preserving action can be realistically expected to result in the foreseeable future from public pressures.
The example given by the author of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea as a candidate for being made into a "wildlife sanctuary of a future unified Korea" (p. 185) demonstrates that he misapprehends geostrategic realities. And the trust he puts in neurosciences to help humanity to "anticipate and step away from political and economic disasters" (p. 156) casts further serious doubts on his outlooks.
All this serves to reinforce my view that being an outstanding biologist and naturalist and the ideas of sociobiology and consilience are not enough of a basis for dealing with the realities of humanity. More is needed for designing effective humanity-craft policies - however urgently needed, including for species diversity preservation as ably discussed in this book.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Having previously read Wilson's 'Diversity of Life', I wanted to read this more up to date book. What really strikes me about this writer is his continued optimism that somehow mankind will adopt a different approach to bio diversity and pull back from the brink before wiping out most of the life forms that we share the planet with. I sincerely hope that his optimism is well placed.