Book: The Future of Life / Edward O. Wilson


Edward O. Wilson, an eminent biologist and conservationist, presents a projection based on current data of what may be in store for humans and all life on the planet in the next century. Thankfully Wilson doesn’t use dire predictions of planetary doom to further his agenda, which opens the book to critical as well as educational reading. The subject is well worth learning about, as many of us living now will have some part in this future.

The most interesting observation for me is that human beings have evolved beyond a turning point where we can now adapt to different environments thousands of times faster than the evolutionary adaptations of other species. As a result, we continually win the competition for natural resources and our competitors, along with many other species that rely on them, face extinction. A growing percentage of the species on the planet disappear in this manner each year. As the process continues, we’ll notice that some of the species that are lost are those that we rely on, they are our natural resources, and we’ll have to adapt to life without them. How much of this we can get away with is, to me, an open question.

Add to this the growth of our own population that will intensify the competition as time goes on. Wilson projects that if we are successful in curbing population growth in the next 50 years, we’ll level off at 8 to 9 billion people on the planet. Current food production methods can’t feed this many people, but Wilson thinks it’s possible to do sustainably with geneticly engineered crops and a much less meat-centric worldwide diet.

The point of argument is how much of other species’ habitat we will (or must) destroy to support ourselves, and if we manage it, how much diversity of life will remain? Wilson portrays the current trend leading towards a small number of other species that serve humanity directly or indirectly, plus those we engineer ourselves (perhaps to replace extinct species we didn’t know we needed). To him this is a wretched vision of the future, a paradise of wonders reduced to uniform fields of engineered crops, and he argues that we should preserve as much of the biodiversity that exists now as we can.

I don’t disagree, but I’m left with too many questions to make me a rabid conservationist. I love the beauty and diversity I find in nature, and I’m happy to act in my own interest to protect that. I stop short, however, of asking anyone to sacrifice their livelihood or values for mine, especially people in countries far poorer than mine. The key to future will be in making conservation profitable and competitive with unsustainable exploitation. Wilson suggests some ways to do this, such as bio-prospecting, and I’m excited about them. But I think the battles will be ugly, many will continue to choose short-term profits over sustainable ones, and much will be lost. These are things that will be on my mind as the future of life approaches.

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