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Whither the future

Book review: Financial Times

The Future of Life, by Edward O Wilson. Little Brown 2002

Future Evolution - an illuminated history of life to come, by Peter Ward, Images by Alexis Rockman. Times Books 2001

Only sometimes do we stand back and wonder at life itself, or the life which is ourselves. Indeed few realize how each individual is a kind of moving zoo of organisms. Most cells in the human body are not our own, and those that are a product of long past coalitions. We are wholly dependant on bacteria to breathe and digest. All around us are other organisms of similar complexity linked to eachother in an ever changing system of mutual dependencies. Together these make up what Edward O Wilson calls the biospheric membrane which covers the Earth. It is that most precious envelope into which we are unwittingly punching holes with almost no idea of the result.

The future of life is the theme of these two very different books. But even the present of life is imperfectly known. New species are being found all the time, some in conditions which biologists would have believed impossible only a few years ago. Who would have expected to find SLIMEs ("subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems"), assemblages of bacteria and fungi, living two miles deep in the interstices of rocks, and flourishing on organic chemicals? But other more familiar species are the casualties of our time. The present wave of extinctions, for which humans are largely responsible, can be compared with that caused by the impact of an asteroid 65 million years ago when the long dominance of the dinosaur family came to an end.

With his usual persuasive eloquence, Wilson describes the human impact on the natural environment, and the many dilemmas it raises. The dialogue between conventional economists and conventional environmentalists is often one of the deaf. Both have their logic, and both can appeal to - or at least fall back on - notions of human nature.

One of the main difficulties is over time scale. Few of us, and even fewer politicians, are used to thinking long. Human damage to the environment has steadily increased, and, with still rising population in need of water, energy and resources, is increasing further. We still nourish a philosophy of consumption. Wilson believes that as things stand, and if nothing is done, at least a fifth of current species of animals and plants will be gone or face early extinction by early 2030, and a half by the end of the century. The lessons he draws from what he calls the sombre archaeology of vanished species is that the noble savage (one of our most cherished myths), never existed; that the garden of Eden, once occupied, became a slaughter house; and that paradise found soon becomes paradise lost.

Another big difficulty is over valuation. How can valuation of something as fundamental as environmental goods, including the biosphere itself, be put into the straitjacket of much current theory? Wilson believes that one of the most profound human instincts is love and respect for the natural world, and that this natural biophilia has been demonstrated in countless psychological studies. There is of course biophobia too. We are more worried by snakes and spiders than we are by something far more dangerous: the ubiquitous motor car. But the basic case for changing our minds and embracing conservation and all that goes with it is not economic. It is moral and ethical, and Wilson spells out in detail what should now be done in a spirit of hope and some confidence. He has a nice final word of encouragement to those who protest, sometimes in colourful fashion, against the ruling paradigms of greed and short term advantage.

In short this is a revolutionary book of a special kind. Even if some of it is familiar, it breathes good sense as well as passion, and its prescriptions are practical. As Wilson recently remarked, "scientists should think like poets but work like bookkeepers".

Peter Ward, a professor of geological science at the University of Washington at Seattle, also takes a long view. He too begins with the current wave of extinctions and the impoverishment of the biosphere. Already, as after previous extinctions, some species are beginning to fill old niches and find new ones. Some are domestic animals and plants chosen by humans, others are what he calls weedy species capable of living amid dense human populations. With new ease of communication between seas and continents, the conditions for diversity of species are diminishing, and we are approaching a return to 250 million years ago when the world's continents were united in Gondwanaland. In a more homogenous world, humans are also creating new species through genetic modification with little idea of the consequences.

What of humans themselves? It is possible to imagine a world from which humans had been eliminated, or had eliminated themselves, as in Dougal Dixon's fantasy After Man . But short of some cataclysm, Ward firmly believes otherwise. Humans are infinitely versatile. They might by genetic manipulation or linkage with such machines as memory storage devices change themselves. This would create the intimidating prospect of a genetic elite distinct from the rest of humanity like the Eloi and Morlocks in H G Wells's classic work of science fiction The Time Machine.

This book is appropriately dedicated to H G Wells and his descendants. His influence is clear throughout, even to conclusions about a poor parched world far in the future, many of whose creatures would be surviving underground as the growing sun, now a red giant, scorched the surface. There are some good flights of fancy on the way: for example the Zeppelinoides or vast toads, which through electrolysis of hydrogen from water, develop ever bigger gas bags until they float like enormous balloons with trailing tentacles derived from legs above the surface of the Earth. Their main hazard would be lightning strikes rather than predators who would be intimidated by their sheer size.

Ward tends to jump around from personal anecdote to scientific exposition, and his choice of scenarios is inevitably arbitrary. But if his book is good clean fun, it is also a well written attempt to lay out arguments for possible evolutionary futures which current human actions are forcing on the biosphere. It is startlingly illustrated by Alexis Rockman in brightly coloured paintings, some of which were created from pigments derived from the medium in which fossils were found. This little touch neatly brings past and future together.

Both books tell an alarming story for our times. Readers should look around, see for themselves what is happening to the Earth, and draw their own conclusions about what should be done.

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