Reviewed in Canada on July 16, 2016
“I’ve written [this book] as the last of a trilogy that describes how our species became the architects and rulers of the [new] ‘Antropocene’ epoch [the time of human alteration of the entire global environment], bringing consequences that will affect all of life, both ours and that of the natural world, far into the geological future.”
The above comes from this fascinating, well-written book by E. O. Wilson. He is a biologist (his specialty is the study of ants), researcher (especially in biodiversity or biological diversity), theorist (he proposed the biophilia hypothesis: an instinctive bond exists between humans and other living systems), naturalist (conservationist) and a best-selling author (of more than twenty books).
Wilson is now Professor Emeritus in Entomology (the study of insects) at Harvard University and a lecturer at Duke University. He has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize (twice).
Simply put, this book is about nature. Wilson is deeply concerned about it. He shares this concern with the reader by dividing his book into three logical parts: first he identifies “THE PROBLEM,” then he tells us about “THE REAL LIVING WORLD,” and finally he proposes “THE SOLUTION” to the problem that is affecting our living world.
In the first part (nine chapters) he tells us that the wide variety of life-forms on our planet remains unknown to science. The species discovered so far that can be studied well-enough to assess (namely, animals and flowering plants) are declining in number at an increasing rate.
There were three chapters in this part that I found particularly interesting: “Why extinction is accelerating,” “The impact of climate change: land, sea, and air,” and “The most dangerous worldview.” (I found the last chapter mentioned here to be both disturbing and sad.)
The second part consists of seven chapters. A large part of biodiversity still exists in both species (a genetically distinct population of life-forms) and ecosystems (a locality with distinct physical traits and the distinctive species that live within it) of the living world but the time that remains to save this remaining biodiversity is quickly running out. In fact, it can be practically gone by the end of this century. Wilson tells us that “what follows [in this part] is an image of [biodiversity’s] immense surviving breadth.”
There were four chapters in this part that stood out for me: “The unknown web of life,” “The wholly different aqueous world,” “The invisible empire,” and “The best places in the biosphere.” (The “biosphere” is all the organisms alive in the world at any moment, which together form a thin spherical layer around the planet.)
In the last chapter mentioned here, Wilson tells us that “the selections [of best places] described…are subjective assessments by myself and those chosen at my request by eighteen senior conservation biologists based on extensive field experience.”
The last part consists of five chapters. The global conservation movement has reduced but not stopped the ongoing extinction of species. In fact, the rate of loss is actually increasing. If biodiversity is to be returned to the baseline level of extinction before the spread of humanity, and thus saved for future generations, the conservation effort must be raised to a new level. As well, there must be a fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relationship to the living environment.
This part contains the key chapter that may be The SOLUTION to THE PROBLEM: “HALF-EARTH: HOW TO SAVE THE BIOSPHERE.” Note that this is a proposal to halt the accelerating extinction of biodiversity.
I thought this rather a ridiculous proposal but was convinced after I read the rest of this part and read appendix 1 whose first sentence states that “There exist organizations and recent trends in large-scale land and marine conservation that lend credibility to the Half-Earth solution.”
At the beginning of each chapter are impressive black & white line drawings from mainly the late 1800s that show elements from nature (birds, animals, etc.). These highlight the beauty of nature.
Finally, a problem that some people may have with this book is that Wilson occasionally meanders off-topic. Personally, this did not bother me because he gives his own distinctive insights which I appreciated. Some readers may not, however, like this and may even condemn the book for this.
Also, there is a one-page glossary that’s sandwiched in-between other back-material making access to it difficult. This is very important (at least it was to me). Thus, it should be located right after the main narrative ends and, in my opinion, expanded to include more key words. As well, the appendices (there are two, not one, as the table of contents asserts) should be titled and their presence made known in the main narrative. (In fact, I almost missed the important appendix that I mentioned above.)
In conclusion, this is E.O. Wilson’s most impassioned book to date that reminds us that “we remain a biological species in a biological world.”
(First published 2016; prologue; 3 parts or 21 chapters; main narrative 210 pages; sources; glossary; 2 appendices; acknowledgements; index; about the author)
<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>