eo wilson the future of life

sunday telegraph, 21 april 2002

In his introduction to the Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey suggests that the twenty-first century might be defined by a conflict between two types of utopian visions: space-invaders and greens. Space-invaders have faith in human beings, and in science, to solve our problems, and to conquer all frontiers, including space. Greens imagine humanity dying out, and the world returning to a beautiful wilderness. 'At its sharpest', Carey writes, 'the division is between those who assume man's God-given superiority and those who see him as a blemish on the face of the earth.'

It is tempting to see EO Wilson as a man wrestling with these two conflicting visions. On the one hand, Wilson possesses a supreme confidence in the ability of science to lay bare nature's - and humanity's - innermost secrets, and thereby to solve all our problems, a confidence revealed in such bestselling but controversial books as Sociobiology and Consilience. On the other hand, despite his belief in 'the potential of indefinite human progress', he is troubled by the dangerous consequences of such progress, particularly upon the environment.

In fact, Wilson's faith in science and his fears for the environment both derive from a common source: a reverential, almost religious, view of nature. To know nature, Wilson suggests in The Future of Life, is 'to love and take responsibility for it'. Every species 'is a masterpiece', offering 'an endless bounty of knowledge and aesthetic pleasure'.

Such reverence leads Wilson to view the study of nature - natural science - as the most fundamental of all knowledge. It also leads him to despair about the impact of human activity upon nature. The Future of Life is a lament for the destructive power of Man, the 'serial killer of the biosphere' who has brought the world to the edge of catastrophe.

Wilson's list of symptoms is familiar - overpopulation, habitat destruction, species depletion. But, as with many recent apocalyptic visions, his scientific case for catastrophe is far from convincing. Take, for instance, his claim that between 27000 and 100000 species go extinct every year. This is a truly alarming figure, suggesting that up to a third of all species could disappear in the next fifty years. Observations in the field, however, tell a different story. For example, studies conducted by the World Conservation Union, which maintains the 'Red List' of endangered animals and plants, suggest an annual extinction rate of around 2300 - in other words, that less than one per cent of species will be lost in the next half century.

Wilson suggests that the 'ecological footprint' - the average amount of land required by each individual for food, water, housing, and so on - is about 2.1 hectares per person for the whole world. US citizens, however, apparently hog about 9.6 hectares each. 'For every person in the world to reach the present US level of consumption with existing technology would', Wilson warns, 'require four more planet earths.'

In fact, the total amount of world land surface is only about 2.1 hectares per person, and barely half of this is currently used to supply all of human needs. Wilson's figures are inflated by calculating the theoretical amount of forested land that would have to be added to the earth's surface to soak up all the CO2 emissions caused by the current burning of fossil fuels - a move one critic describes as an 'Enron-esque' piece of accounting.

In the end, though, such debate about evidence is largely irrelevant. What drives Wilson's argument is not so much the facts and figures as his ethical, even mystical, view of Man's relationship with nature. According to Wilson 'The biosphere as a whole began to think when humanity was born. If the rest of life is the body we are the mind. Thus our place in nature, viewed from an ethical perspective, is to think about the creation and to protect the planet.'

This is religion disguised as ecology. The Future of Life is a beautifully written, deeply spiritual ode to the magnificence of nature. But, as with all faiths, there is no arguing with it - you are either a believer or you are not. And I'm not. I love wilderness. But I prefer scientific data to alarmist speculation, and a morality that emerges out of human needs to one rooted in a mythical view of nature. I'd rather be a space invader than a green.