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Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson offers fixes for the future.



Here is what famed biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests the 900 million underfed people of the world do to improve their fortunes: learn to fish. Or, maybe they could become wildlife experts and guide eco-tourists through pristine natural habitats, stretches of nature that narrowly missed being razed for farmland and now are owned and protected by first-world conservation organizations.

In The Future of Life, Wilson tries to formulate a solution to stem the ecological destruction the human race inflicts on the earth, which, by his estimate, will extinguish half of all animal and plant species by the end of the 21st century. Like many writers attempting this task, however, Wilson loses himself in lovingly crafted descriptions of nature and ends up blaming the ecological ruin on a caricature of industrialization.

That's too bad. Wilson could have written a book that didn't skirt the tougher questions of ecological preservation, one that reconciles the economic systems that keep people clothed and fed with keeping the growth of such civilizations in check.

In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson persuasively expounded on the importance of rejoining the arts with the sciences. In 1975's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he applied the ideas of evolutionary biology to the field of human social behavior. However controversial the notions about genetic determinism Wilson outlined in that book, he did the demanding work of fusing two separate strains of thought. The Future of Life achieves no such synthesis. Wilson fails to explore the forces at work in the ExxonMobil boardroom as closely as he does the fauna and flora of the Gondwanan Islands.

The book has elegant and knowledgeable passages on the diversity of life: "As many as two hundred species of mites, diminutive spiderlike creatures, teem in a single square meter of some hardwood forests of North America. In the same spot a gram of soil--a pinch held between thumb and forefinger--contains thousands of species of bacteria," he writes. He gives little attention, however, to the corporate ecosystems that seek to pave over this beauty. "The CEOs and governing boards of the largest corporations . . . are the commanders of the industrialized world," Wilson writes. Hardly: CEOs kowtow to shareholders, who consist not only capitalist tycoons but also middle-class 401(k) retirement-plan holders, both of whom want nothing more ecological from their investments than an abundance of returns.

Wilson does recognize that any environmental solution will have to address economic needs. He praises organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund for buying up rain forests that otherwise would have been logged or leveled for farmland, though he also notes that "a patch of forest fenced off and patrolled is a cruel insult to hungry people shut out." But if the best environmentally friendly jobs he can offer these hungry people are "as guides and resident wildlife experts," or picking plant specimens for pharmaceutical companies ("bioprospecting"), then the native inhabitants of Brazil would be better off logging the land. Until Wilson, or someone else, can achieve some sort of consilience between economic and environmental concerns, CEOs will continue to pay scant attention to environmental concerns, tree-huggers will read books like these only to feel smug, and biodiversity will continue to shrink.

Joab Jackson writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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