How to save the world

Edward Wilson probably knows more about ants than any single person ever has—and perhaps ever will. But the study of ants, which he has been pursuing since he was a child in Alabama during the Great Depression, is only the beginning of this polymath’s prodigious appetite for understanding how our natural world works and what our place in that world is and should be.

Our Planet’s Fight for Life
By Edward O. Wilson
Liveright Publishing, 2016
Hardcover, 272 pages, $25.95

As his command of myrmecology (ant science) grew increasingly encyclopedic, his wonder at the complexities of ant society led him to breakthrough insights about broader ecological themes, especially concerning the importance of biodiversity. (It also led him into some controversial publications on sociobiology, a field he pioneered. In particular, many philosophers found Wilson’s work to be deterministic, offering a coldly mechanical view of such matters as free will and moral choice.)

Now professor emeritus of entomology at Harvard and the author or co-author of dozens of books and countless articles, Wilson finds himself increasingly horrified by the relentless attack on biodiversity perpetrated by modern, industrial civilization. His latest book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, is a passionate, eloquent call for us to change our ways, and fast, if what makes life on our only home truly wondrous and even possible is to continue. “Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on earth.”

The premise of this book is simple: if we want to save “the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival,” we must set aside one half of the planet in protected reserves. That is the only way to sustain our current ecosystems and all the myriad species they support. Anything less will mean we continue our slide into biological impoverishment and inevitable mass extinction. Only if we aim for serious protection of half the earth’s surface can we end up with representatives of the various ecosystems we have now. “At one-half and above, life on Earth enters the safe zone.”

Wilson lays out his brief in three steps. First, he outlines “The Problem,” in all its depressing detail, with just the horrifying facts and figures you might expect. Next, in “The Real Living World,” he discusses what we really know about our planet and how it supports us and all the rest of the life forms with which we share it. Finally, in “The Solution,” he makes the case for what we need to do, how we go about it, and how his solution is in fact a realistic and achievable response to a looming disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

As Elizabeth Kolbert has written in a recent and equally disturbing book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015), life on earth has endured and suffered greatly from massive collapse of ecosystems before. There have been five up until now, and they have not been anthropogenic. They couldn’t have been: they occurred many millions of years before Homo sapiens was on the scene. The last of the great extinctions occurred about sixty-five million years ago when an asteroid crashed into the sea off the coast of what we now know as the Yucatán. This ended the age of the dinosaurs and prepared the stage for our era, the Cenozoic, largely characterized—from the human perspective, anyway—by the rise of mammals, of which we appear to be the cleverest, though putatively not the wisest.

Paleontologists have divided the Cenozoic into a series of epochs. Ours is called the Holocene. It began about twelve millennia ago, when the last of the great ice sheets receded, and is notable for the rise of human civilization and more recently by the emergence of fossil-fuel-based industrialization. For the last several decades, an ever-growing chorus of scientists has insistently called our attention to the dramatic environmental havoc wreaked by industrialization and argued that our planet has in fact entered a new epoch. The name for this new era, as suggested by a Dutch atmospheric chemist named Paul Crutzen, is “the Anthropocene, the Epoch of Man.” The Anthropocene Epoch is characterized by polluted soil, water, and air; rapid climate change; and the wholesale disappearance of thousands of species, replaced by a relatively small number of species favored, intentionally or not, by humans.

Coming up with a new name for the human-dominated epoch is more than an exercise for professional scientists. It acknowledges that our fundamental life-support system is changing in ways we cannot predict, that the millions of elements of the environment in which we evolved—the biosphere—are disappearing or heading off in new directions. Whether we will be able to survive in this emerging and radically different biosphere is uncertain. When the delicate relationships among species in any ecosystem is altered, unexpected and dangerous things happen. For example, when wolves limit the elk populations in Yellowstone, aspen groves thrive. When the wolves aren’t there, the elk population increases quickly and feeds on the aspens to the point of eradication. Who knew? To flourish, the aspens need wolves.

Around the world, species are disappearing. Big ones, like the western black Rhino; smaller ones, like species of frogs you never heard of; birds, like the eagles and ibises once found in Hawaii. Bacteria that never even had Latin genus and species names. The pace of extinction is accelerating every year.

Painting of biologist E.O. Wilson by Nelson Shanks.

What Wilson wants us to do is stop thinking of our species as essentially detached from the rest of life, to resist the temptation to see ourselves as “godlike” and all other life forms as inferior. We’re all in this together. We all depend on each other. It’s the way life has evolved on this planet. Losing species at the rate we’re going now is not just a spiritual or aesthetic loss, though those are certainly important. The collapse of biodiversity could mean, and soon, that our species, the one we think is the top critter, can no longer survive.

Wilson devotes special attention to the staggering contribution of climate change to loss of biodiversity, especially, at first, in our oceans. If you’ve been paying attention for the last several decades, what he says is familiar, but nonetheless frightening. Acidification, rising sea levels, collapse of food species like cod and tuna, disappearance of coral reefs—all this is happening at this very moment. The trend is clear, and the implications cataclysmic.

What Wilson finds missing in so much of the current discussion of all our environmental woes is an understanding of how complex the world ecosystem really is. The more ecologists learn, the more they realize what they don’t know. Our failure to acknowledge our poverty of understanding about how nature works is kin to the hubris that assumes our species will always be here and that we are at the top of creation. This arrogance, with its facile assumption that we have figured out the basic mechanics of life, blinds us to the precariousness of our survival into the future.

What to do? “The only solution to the ‘Sixth Extinction’ is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater.” As of 2016, the nations of the world have dedicated about fifteen percent of the land and less than three percent of the oceans to protected reserves. We obviously have a long way to go, but these figures inch up, slowly, every year. But as Wilson forcefully points out, if we have any chance of warding off impending disaster, we have to move a lot faster. Wilson thinks that this is possible.

It might seem unlikely, but he makes a case for radical change in human behavior, “a major shift in moral reasoning.” Given our history, this might seem unlikely, but Wilson believes that in addition to our propensity for tribalism and selfishness, our species also has historically displayed “biophilia, the innate love of the living process.” More important, he says, we are capable of moral choice, and, echoing Aldo Leopold, he insists that the evolutionary underpinnings of human morality can inspire us to adopt the only future that is both sane and ethical: “Do no further harm to the biosphere.”

What does all this have to do with the Adirondacks? In fact, it speaks compellingly to our history and our future. Adirondack observers in recent years have often advanced the argument, sometimes rather unreflectively, that the Adirondacks, with its odd and complex mix of protected state and developable (under certain minimal restrictions) private land, can be a “model for the world.” I’ve made that case myself and have been just as prone as others to invoking this notion in a vague, unspecific way. In the Adirondacks, we have protected roughly half of the Park. Not everyone likes that; it’s been a messy, contentious road from 1880, when nothing was protected, to today when half is protected by no less a mandate than the New York State Constitution. If in a century or two, our species should still be here and a sufficient remnant of our current biodiversity should have survived, will our descendants be thankfully declaring that it all started in the Adirondacks?