'Future of Life': Save the planet

January 20, 2002|By Susan Q. Stranahan | By Susan Q. Stranahan,Special to the Sun

The Future of Life, by Edward O. Wilson. Alfred A. Knopf. 256 pages. $22.

Only prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson would be fearless enough to write a book titled The Future of Life and deliver his prognostications in a mere 185 pages of text.

Wilson, whose nature writings have snagged two Pulitzers and dozens of other awards, makes the case for global intervention to save the Earth's biological heritage. Swift and decisive action is essential, he argues.

Amid the scientific and technological advances of the 20th century, "humanity managed collaterally to decimate the natural environment and draw down the nonrenewable resources of the planet with cheerful abandon," says Wilson. "We thereby accelerated the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species. If Earth's ability to support our growth is finite -- and it is -- we were mostly too busy to notice."

The consequences of our binge diet have become increasingly apparent. The ecological alarm bells Wilson cites are well known -- the loss of tropical rain forest; the desertification of large areas of the planet; the impending shortage of potable water in many regions, and population pressures in some of the world's most impoverished nations.

What is the value of a healthy biosphere, Wilson asks. He cites a 1997 study by a team of international economists and environmentalists who estimated the dollar amount of all the "ecosystem services" provided by the living natural environment -- climate control, pollination of crops, purification and replenishment of water supplies, etc. -- at $33 trillion or more annually. Loss of even some of those free services would deal a stunning blow to the world's economic well-being, Wilson says.

He proposes replacing the Gross National Product -- the leading indicator of society's prosperity -- with a "genuine progress indicator," a measure that also incorporates the environmental costs of our economic activity, such as dirty water or air.

It is in such macroeconomic arguments that Wilson's case rings weakest, not surprising for someone whose career has been spent peering at the world through a microscope. When he returns to the inherent value of a world full of 250,000 plant species (any one of which might contain a wonder drug or the ability to feed millions), of creatures inhabiting virtually every square inch of the planet, and of how little we know about the natural world we dominate as "winners of the Darwinian lottery," he regains the high ground.

If our present course is to be altered, Wilson says, attitudes must change and old philosophical differences set aside. "Environmentalism is still widely viewed, especially in the United States, as a special-interest lobby," he writes. "Perhaps the time has come to cease calling it the 'environmentalist' view, as though it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view."

Wilson concludes the book on an upbeat note, offering a set of solutions. Among them: Salvage the world's land and marine habitat "hotspots;" cease logging of old-growth forests everywhere; concentrate on lakes and river systems "which are the most threatened ecosystems of all;" map the world's biological resources; make conservation profitable, and use biodiversity to benefit the world's economy.

These ideas, of course, are not new. Others have proposed them with little success. Adding Edward Wilson's distinguished voice to the chorus, however, will dramatically amplify the sound.

Susan Q. Stranahan's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the National Wildlife Federation Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she reported on environmental issues for many years. Her book Susquehanna: River of Dreams was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993.

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