Conservationists are still living down The Population Bomb. Published in 1968, Paul Ehrlich s neo-Malthusian doomsday book famously predicted that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines hundreds of millions of people [including Americans] are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Needless to say, we are still here, England is still here (Ehrlich foresaw that by 2000 it would no longer exist), and thanks to the work of people like Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose discoveries launched the Green Revolution, we are eating better than ever.
Ehrlich was not alone. Gross miscalculation, unrealistic goals, and a penchant for false prophecy have become virtually synonymous with the conservation movement, whose public relations problems are arguably the single greatest barrier to its success. Indeed, the problem of conservation today is to find a way to present its concerns without coming off as impossibly reactionary (as in E. F. Schumacher s Small is Beautiful), as hopelessly naive (as in Charles Reich s Greening of America), or as flat-out crazy (as in the Earth Liberation Front, whose Web page offers tips on committing environmentalist arson).
The task is a tough one, not simply because conservationists have so much alarmist rhetoric to live down (as a movement, conservation is a bit like the boy who cried wolf), but also because, in recent years, the movement s founding premises that humans are rapidly destroying the earth s finite natural resources and that population growth, while slowing, will soon tax the planet beyond endurance–have met with serious challenges by the likes of Julian Simon and, most recently, Bjorn Lomborg.
Appearing hard on the heels of Lomborg s The Skeptical Environmentalist, Edward O. Wilson s The Future of Life has its work cut out for it. After decades in the movement, Wilson has recognized what many still do not, that for ecology to work it has to appeal to a broad sector of the population. In other words, it has to be marketable: People have to want it, and it has to turn a profit. These are tall orders for a movement that is predicated on making people and corporations want less, on convincing them to curb their greed, their creativity, and, finally, their freedom.
It goes without saying that this is not best accomplished by terrorizing people with threats of famine and global apocalypse, or by accusing Westerners of crass unthinking materialism, or by demanding that developing countries give up their legitimate desire to compete, economically and culturally, with the West. What s less obvious is what can compel people to adopt, as Wilson puts it, a “conservation ethic,” a way of thinking about the world that leads people naturally to treat it with constant, vigilant, voluntary care. The Future of Life aims to be the solution to this problem. Indeed, it might be best regarded as a kind of rhetorical experiment, an exercise in finding a better way to make the case for conservation.
To be sure, The Future of Life contains its share of disaster rhetoric and reactionary nostalgia. Not even Wilson can discuss conservation without touching on the familiar themes of global demise and irrecoverable loss. But these are not the framing devices of Wilson s book, which focuses far more intently on developing what we might call an aesthetic economics of conservation, on showing us how beautiful the biosphere is, while at the same time showing us how much money there is to be made, and saved, in the conservation business.
Wilson begins with an open letter to Henry David Thoreau, who he calls “the founding saint of the conservation movement.” Describing the current state of Walden, the Massachusetts woods where Thoreau conducted his famous experiment in stripped-down living, Wilson s letter is at once elegiac and scientific, scrupulously intelligent and rhapsodically reverent. It is a sort of brainy paean to the earth and to the man who embodied, to Wilson s mind, a “conservation ethic,” a way of life that simply and easily accommodates the rhythms of the natural world.
Wilson s prefatory letter sounds the note of the whole work, which owes much of its power to the gorgeously evocative rhythms of its author s precise, poetic prose. There are lush descriptions of “extremophiles,” microorganisms that thrive at extreme temperatures and pressures, that love acid and alkali, that can readily repair their own DNA when exposed to radiation. There are biohistories of Sumatran rhinos, California condors, and Vancouver Island marmots. There are biogeographies of Hawaii, Australia, China, and the Amazon (all, to Wilson s mind, “killing fields of biodiversity”). Together they form a series of touching still lives, wonderful and horrible by turns, and in Wilson s hands, the biosphere becomes art. “Every species is a masterpiece,” he writes. “Every species offers an endless bounty of knowledge and aesthetic pleasure. It is a living library.” Erasing Earth s “living history” is thus analogous to burning our libraries and art galleries, to committing the blasphemy of obliterating human heritage.
Coming from a committed sociobiologist, these are serious comparisons. Signaling both the unyielding moral component and the pragmatic problem-solving aspects of his argument, they are at once a way of practising a sort of reverse evolutionary psychology on the reader of reminding us that art itself is finally one local expression of nature s infinite aesthetic bounty and of ascribing real market value to the natural environment, whose preservation Wilson sees as a multifaceted economic opportunity. (Bioprospecting for natural pharmaceuticals, forgiving debt to developing countries that establish nature preserves, and benefiting from the $33 trillion worth of free “ecosystem services” the Earth provides each year are but a few of these.) In short, in Wilson s logic, conserving the great works of natural history both consecrates us as Earth s self-appointed stewards and offers the security of continually expanding wealth. As Wilson himself compactly expresses it, “To conserve biological diversity is an investment in immortality.”
Such an argument as strange as it may seem at first has the great philosophical advantage of sidestepping the stale and polarized debates between liberals and conservatives that have impeded environmentalism for years. Wilson told Salon.com that “One reason I wrote this book was to suggest ways in which leading conservative thinkers could get back on board.” And indeed he has. The Future of Life reconciles the stasist impulse to preserve the Earth with the simple truth of the future: that capitalism, technology, and development are here to stay. The end result is a refreshingly graceful synthesis of idealist vision and pragmatic solution, a conservation that is somehow wonderfully not conservative, that respects the planet while still honoring humanity s innate need to invent, improve, explore, and expand.