25 October 2005

21. The Future of Life

The Future of Life
Edward O. Wilson
ISBN: 0679450785 (palm version)
My rating:

A Clear and Urgent Message

I am grateful to Edward Wilson for having written "The Future of Life". This book has given me new insights into the current situation of our ecology, scenarios for future developments and solutions for problems we are facing.

Wilson clearly describes the urgency we are in. On the one hand the human population keeps growing. If all people have to be fed and at least many of them want to have a high standard of living, this requires more and more from our natural environment. On the other hand, at the same time humanity is destroying that environment very rapidly. Wilson makes a point that during the coming decades we will have to go through a "bottleneck". We either find solutions in which humanity can live in harmony with its natural environment, or...

Whereas I used to be just "concerned" about the environment, because of Wilson's clear descriptions and detailed examples I now understand much better the processes behind deforestation and the extinction of species. Although it is clear on which side Wilson is (he was a member of the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund from 1984 to 1994), he is very convincing and remains objective.

At a certain point, Wilson compares preventing the extinction of species with that of conserving art. Both nature and culture are a piece of our history and we are responsible to save them. I found it an original argument, but not very convincing and perhaps a bit too anthropocentric. Although nobody knows what the eventual effect will be on the total ecology when a specific species becomes extinct, I think we should not take the risk of letting this happen, especially in cases we can do something. One thing is sure: an extinct species will never return, and the pace of extinction is currently many times faster than that of the evolutionary rise of new species.

I was amazed by the fact that tropical rainforests are so cheap: in the order of $1 per acre. Combined with the fact that the profits made by cutting the trees are relatively low, Wilson shows that it should be relatively easy to buy pieces of land to protect them. NGOs are actually doing so already. Based on some figures Wilson uses, I estimated that it will cost approximately $110 billion to buy the most important pieces of land worldwide to conserve biodiversity on earth forever. Alright, let's be pessimistic and make it $300 billion. And alright, not all plants and animals will be saved. But still, it will help a lot. Then look at the subsidies governments are paying annually: $390 to $520 billion on agriculture alone, and a total of $2 trillion. Couldn't we simply use a very small part of those subsidies and conserve our nature?

I highly recommend reading this book. (Maybe I should be proud for having read the electronic version of it on my PDA, saving another tree somewhere...)

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