Book Review

Whole Earth: Edward O. Wilson’s Proposal to Save the Biosphere

The great and essential biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson has published his latest warning about life on earth. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life[1] completes a trilogy that includes The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Of this trilogy Wilson writes, “[it] describes how our species became the architects and rulers of the Anthropocene epoch, bringing consequences that will affect all of life, both ours and that of the natural world, far into the geological future.” It may be hard to conceive of the “geological future,” when the geological past itself stretches back four billion years, but the new term Anthropocene identifies our current age as one in which humanity has affected not only global biology but geology as well. Half-Earth recounts what we ourselves, i.e., humanity, are doing to our very realm of living. It unfolds precisely and specifically with detailed examples of just how human activity has interrupted the course of evolution on the planet. Human enterprise, as Wilson describes it, looks like a deliberate, ongoing, and increasingly rapid Extinction Level Event. He has a proposal to avert catastrophe by setting aside half the planet as wild land for non-human nature. It is a pretty gloomy prospect to imagine the global cooperation needed for this proposal, but Wilson himself seems optimistic. After all, he believes, to do otherwise will inevitably result in our own annihilation, along with the flora and fauna we are leading and have led to extinction. And when he reminds us that what is wild and non-human includes the human body itself, a symbiotic zoo of microorganisms, most of them bacteria, one can understand the premise of his argument. What he calls the biosphere—everything on the planet that is living and makes life possible—cannot exist without the existence of wild nature, and humanity, vitally connected to that sphere, cannot exist, at least not as we now conceive ourselves to be. Travel to another planet is not the answer. Technological innovation is not the answer. The answer is simple, elegant, proactive and hopeful, and, Wilson reveals, already underway in many parts of the globe.

The book is divided into three sections: The Problem, The Real Living World, and The Solution. The second part, “The Real Living World,” includes the book’s most moving and encouraging chapter, “The Best Places in the Biosphere.” Wilson asked scientists he knew around the world to name and describe those places where the wild remains more or less intact. We hear about the redwood forests of California, the Amazon River Basin, Russia’s Lake Baikal, Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, the Western Ghats of India, the scrubland of Southwestern Australia, the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, and the Hawaiian archipelago. Some of these places are known to us (Who has not been encouraged to worry about the loss of the Amazon rain forests?), but each remains an example of a place that human beings themselves have agreed not to affect further or at least have found a way to co-exist with. Coexistence, that ambivalent term from the Cold War, may be an idea worth reviving. One of the most moving paragraphs in this moving chapter comes at the end:

Our fragmented circle of life ends in the eastern slopes and foothills of the Andes, where we find both the final continental region to be reached by human beings and largest number of wild species of plants and animals that grace a single place.

Who knew? But this is the kind of thing we all need to know.

Wilson has written elsewhere about growing up in Alabama, influenced by the fundamentalist Christianity of the Bible Belt. As do most scientists, he sees religious belief as an impediment to knowledge and in particular to preservation of the earth as it is. And though he argues reasonably from a premise of empirical facts, he can quote Biblical chapter and verse when he chooses. Early in Half-Earth he recalls God’s admonishment to Job: “Has thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.” The answer, he admits, is that we have, “more or less,” while remaining as “vulnerable as when we evolved millions of years ago.” God may have given us dominion over the earth and all the living creatures thereon, but Wilson reminds us we are still “organisms absolutely dependent on other organisms.” Wilson argues for humanity as a steward of the natural world. He can sound like Jeremiah, but he can also sound like St. Paul, and like them both he has an urgent and prophetic message: “The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. The ongoing mass extinction of species, and with it the extinction of genes and ecosystems, ranks with pandemics, world war, and climate change as among the deadliest threats that humanity has imposed on itself.” And when Wilson speaks of climate change, he strikes a Miltonic note: “Having risen above all the biosphere, set to alter everything everywhere, the wrathful demon of climate change is our child that we left unrestrained for too long.”

One of the direst warnings, related to Wilson’s warnings about climate change, is the effect of invasive species. Since there are numerous ways for species to move from continent to continent or region to region, for example, via bird migration and air and ocean currents, it may be hard to see just how human activity abets the problem. But of course, human beings, once they left Africa, became an invasive species everywhere. It is human activity that allows for the global warming that makes it possible for the bark beetle currently devastating the coniferous forests of North America to migrate farther northward because the weather no longer grows cold enough to kill it. As for the extinction of species and their replacement by others, Wilson can point to “the damming of rivers and streams, the draining of ponds and lakes, the filling in of springheads, and pollution.” These acts of human ingenuity, control, and collateral damage, he points out, are responsible for the extinction of nearly 60 kinds of freshwater fish in North America alone. About this, too, Wilson is ready to quote the appropriate scripture, Genesis 1:20: “Let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven.”

Though Wilson must appreciate having Biblical scripture at his command, as a scientist making an argument for the preservation of all of earth’s life, he believes that “traditional religions are pivoted on the salvation of human beings, here and in the afterlife, above all other purposes that can be conceived.” One might be inclined to split hairs here about what denotes a traditional religion, but Wilson makes an exhortation that is as spiritual as it is ethical: “Only a major shift in moral reasoning, with greater commitment given to the rest of life, can meet this greatest challenge.” He concludes, “History without the wildlands is no history at all.”

So, we are asked, “Are we as Gods?” It may be simplistic to contrast, as Wilson does, “the bloodthirsty warrior god” that Joshua worshipped, with the merciful god revealed to St. Paul. But he quotes 1 Corinthians 2:9 in which St. Paul suggests that things beyond our knowledge and power have been “prepared by God for those who love him.” Seeking those things through introspection, Wilson reasons, will better answer to those who believe in God, than those who demand that God serve them as gods themselves. It is notable how often Wilson appeals to the spiritual or metaphysical dimension of humanity, recognizing at the very least the necessity of acknowledging it as part of human psychology.

Wilson’s writing is in itself an effective argument for the human species and its capacity for empathy. In one chapter dedicated to the preservation of the rhinoceros, “An Elegy for the Rhinos,” he describes the ironic climb of the value of rhino horn in those parts of the world that prize it, particularly in Asia, for medical purposes. “The price per gram has soared to that of gold. The result is a bitter irony: rhinos are being driven to extinction even though their horn has no more medicinal value than a human fingernail.” One reads that and, as a Westerner, can see the absurdity. But Wilson also acknowledges that those who illegally hunt and kill the rhinos of Southeast Asia do so at the risk of their own lives, since the penalties have climbed along with the price. Despite the penalties and the enforced protection and conservation of the paltry number of rhinos still alive in the wild, he writes, “There are always the sleepless poachers, each willing to put his life on the line for one horn and the lifetime income it will bring.” As we think of those poachers and consider our moral superiority to them, he also reminds us that, for example, “Sumatran rhinos have been exposed to both primitive and modern hunters in Asia for more than sixty thousand years.” That length of time, the tens of thousands of years of human predatory activity, brings a chill. By describing the aspiration to a better life among those rhino-horn poachers, Wilson draws a direct line to the entire human web of desire. We are all implicated. The problem has our attention now, but there is no way to make up for the time already past, nor will there be when there is no time left for the Sumatran rhino or the other animals cornered in their conservancies and dying out.

There is an ongoing quarrel in the book with some scientists of the environmental movement, whom Wilson calls the new conservationists. They believe that if the ecology of the wild has been more or less compromised and ceased to exist, then human ingenuity must be employed, for example, to adapt to climate change and incorporate what remains of the natural world into human society. To draw a contrast with the new conservationists, Wilson calls himself an existential conservative, willing to reduce the activities that are undermining life on earth, rather than employing technology only on behalf of our species while “letting the rest of life slip away.”

Finally, Wilson’s argument is with those, either of a religious or scientific bent or both, who are unable to see or refuse to see our real place in the creation. It is as if Wilson were urging us all to take the first step in a twelve-step program. Admit we have a problem. What should follow from this first step, Wilson describes complexly and movingly. In the future, he imagines, “The collective human mind, hyperconnected and digitized, will flow through the entirety of the life we have inherited far more quickly than was possible before. We will then understand the full meaning of extinction, and we will come to regret deeply every species humanity will have carelessly thrown away.”

One day we will understand what we have done. In the meantime the problem must be dealt with, and that means, in this country at least, finding the political will to do so. Though we are living currently in a period of unreason, Wilson always appeals to reason: “To those who feel content to let the Anthropocene evolve toward whatever destiny it mindlessly drifts, I say please take time to reconsider. To those who are steering the growth of reserves world wide, let me make an earnest request: don’t stop, just aim a lot higher.” Here the operative words for America’s politics are “mindlessly drifts.” There is a sizable segment of American society with sizable political power that would claim that there is a mind behind this apparent drifting, and it can be considered either God or Market Forces or both. The more enlightened members of this group do think that human ingenuity will rescue us. Wilson seems attuned in particular to the American psyche when he offers a messianic and utopian vision of the world once this danger is successfully averted: “People will have closer access to a world that is complex and beautiful beyond our present imagining. We will have more time to put our own house in order for future generations. Living Earth, all of it, can continue to breathe.”

The wilderness, which in the Bible is a place of rootlessness and renewal, a place for wandering and coming home from, must be restored. Wilson, echoing both Descartes and the Book of Common Prayer, declares, “Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world.” In this Cartesian catechism, however, it is we and not God who are the mind. And it is up to us, given this mind, to “adopt a transcendent moral precept concerning the rest of life.” That precept, Wilson tells us is: “Do no further harm to the biosphere.” For a writer who has a gift for the evocative phrase (those “sleepless poachers” and the admonishment “to see Earth as it is and not as we wish it to be”), to choose the term “biosphere” for what might have simply been “the living world” or “the wild” or just “the earth,” sounds off to my ear. I have no doubt that for Wilson it is the most accurate term. But simply put, “biosphere” doesn’t resonate, not as much even as the term “wild lands” does. And yet the biosphere, as Wilson uses the term, includes all that is living and makes life possible, all that was formerly called the creation, of which humanity is very much a part. It just seems to me that the word puts the concept further out of reach, making it exotic in a science fiction sort of way, like the old Buckminster Fuller metaphor, “Spaceship Earth.” This is a semantic quibble, I know, but even the book’s subtitle, “Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” conveys more and does so more urgently than “Do no further harm to the biosphere.”

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t need to be told that the planet is in trouble. It may sound encouraging to learn that the wildernesses still existing on earth “simply need to be left alone.” It is extremely discouraging to hear of “landscapes so degraded that their original life must be restored from the ground up, by inserting soil, microorganisms, and eukaryotic species (algae, fungi, plants, animals) in certain combinations and in particular sequences.” This is a task for scientists equipped with the practical means to restore life itself, much less wildlife, to the wasteland and the dead zone. Wilson is reasoning with us at a time when we have deliberately limited our comprehension. God help us, then, if reason will not.

[1] HALF-EARTH: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson. Liveright Publishing Corporation. $29.95.