By Melinda Welsh

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This review was published on 2-21-02.

Now or never

The Future of Life by E.O. Wilson

If E.O. Wilson has got it right, the Earth is fast approaching a kind of Armageddon where—thanks to human consumption, overpopulation and shortsighted priorities—an alarming half of the planet’s animal and plant species will cease to exist by the end of the century. A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and renowned Harvard biologist, Wilson is our most influential living scientist, the Einstein of our day.

So we should probably listen to what he has to say.

His latest book, The Future of Life, is astounding in scope and message, a passionately written treatise from the author of Consilience, On Human Nature and The Ants. Already lauded as Wilson’s most essential work, The Future of Life should be required reading for politicians, scientists, business leaders and activists—any and all who might translate his impassioned call to action into deed.

The manifesto begins with an “open letter” across 150 years, to Wilson’s beloved mentor and prophet of the conservation movement, Henry David Thoreau. “Henry!” the scientist begins his prologue. “I am here to explain to you what has happened to the world we both have loved.” He goes on throughout the book to illustrate how human beings—with an astonishing lack of ability to consider long-term consequences of their actions—have decimated the Earth’s natural environment, despite its ability to nourish and protect us as well as cure human illnesses.

Indeed, half of the great tropical forests have been cleared forever. Global warming threatens to permanently alter the atmosphere. Species of plants and animals are disappearing a hundred times faster than before man’s arrival on Earth. Meanwhile, six billion people now populate the world, the vast majority of them very poor. Though population growth is thankfully slowing down, all who arrive on the planet are struggling to raise their standard of living despite the numbing calculation that it would take four planet Earths just to bring the existing population to present American levels of consumption. The central challenge facing humanity in the new century, Wilson summarizes, is to raise the standard of living of the world’s poor, while “preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.”

Is there a way to measure what exactly is being lost? In a crucial chapter “How much is the biosphere worth?” Wilson takes the reader into the realm of economics and puts dollar amounts on all the services provided humanity free of charge by the natural environment, including the regulation of the atmosphere and climate, the purification and retention of fresh water, formation and enrichment of the soil, the nutrient cycle, pollination … the list goes on and on. The dollar estimate of this free bounty is $33 trillion per year, nearly twice the gross national produce of all the countries of the world. This argument alone proves th stupidity of humanity’s treatment of the natural environment.

Ever an optimist, Wilson closes with a detailed set of solutions to the crisis. He suggests preserving the world’s “hotspots” habitats, keeping intact remaining rainforests, ceasing logging of all old-growth forests and supporting population planning and sustainable development policies. To carry this off, he calls for an unprecedented new era of global cooperation between governments, science and the private sector—a new sense of planetary stewardship.

Wilson fervently believes “the forces that are destroying the living environment and those who can be harnessed to save it” have arrived as one, at this crossroads in history. It’s now or never, he warns. Those of us alive in 2002 must either “take to the mats” on behalf of a solution … or know that future generations will forever suffer the consequences.