EO Wilson the great scientist and Wilson the environmentalist are speaking the same language. We need technology more than we need spiritual awakeningby Stephen Budiansky / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Edward O Wilson opens his new book with an imaginary letter to Henry David Thoreau-the 19th century American poet and amateur naturalist-whose cabin on Walden Pond once stood “two towns over” from where Wilson now lives in the suburbs of Boston. “The Sage of Concord,” Wilson calls him; but that was actually Thoreau’s townsman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who held mixed feelings about Thoreau. Emerson found Thoreau’s non-conformism and rejection of materialism admirable in theory, but hard to take in practice. “I love Henry but I can never like him,” he quoted a friend saying. “He is a man of incorruptible integrity, and of great ability and industry; and we shall yet hear much more of him,” Emerson observed, “but he affects manners rather brusque, does not think it worth while to use the cheap service of courtesy; is pugnacious about trifles; likes to contradict… and to be on the other side.”
Wilson has mixed feelings, too, but they are neither so conscious nor so boldly stated. He makes the pilgrimage to Walden Pond, as so many others have, to pay homage to the man he rightly calls the “founding saint of the conservation movement.” But he observes that Thoreau was no great naturalist, certainly not in Wilson’s league: “There are two kinds of naturalists, you will agree,” he writes to Thoreau in his book The Future of Life. “The first-your tribe-are intent on finding big organisms… I am a member of the other tribe-a lover of little things.” Thoreau went to the woods seeking “enlightenment and fulfilment” away from the material vanities of society. He sought “big organisms” and big ideas. Wilson admires the big ideas unreservedly: “You searched for essence at Walden and, whether successful in your own mind or not, you hit upon an ethic with a solid feel to it: nature is ours to explore forever; it is our crucible and refuge; it is our natural home; it is all of these things. Save it, you said: in wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Yet Wilson the scientist and lover of little things has a way of catching out Wilson the spiritual disciple of Thoreau and lover of big things, and therein lies a tale about the modern environmental movement. As a scientist, Wilson knows that the search for truth and understanding of the natural world comes from dogged work in difficult places-that if wildness is to be preserved, it will take more than high-sounding words from amateur botanists, but the meticulous piecing together of ecological relationships of the kind that Wilson has devoted his life to. The gulf between the big ideas of the environmental movement and the little hard facts of environmental science is one that Wilson creeps up to but never confronts, much less bridges.
Readers of Wilson’s previous books, notably his autobiography, Naturalist (Island Press, 1994), Diversity of Life (Penguin, 1992) and Journey to the Ants (co-authored with Bert H?obler, Harvard University Press, 1994), know his fascination with the details of how organisms make a living and the wondrously diverse ways they have found to do so. In The Future of Life, he tells of once identifying 43 species of ants in the canopy of a single tree in the Peruvian Amazon. Furthermore, he observes: “You do not have to visit distant places, or even rise from your seat, to experience the luxuriance of biodiversity. . . The vast majority of the cells in your body are not your own; they belong to the bacterial and other micro-organismic species. More than 400 such microbial species make their home in your mouth.”
Wilson makes the case that saving species threatened with extinction requires this same sort of rigorous scrutiny of little things. The population of the Vancouver Island marmot has fallen to 70, making it Canada’s most endangered species; yet its decline seemed inexplicable until careful study by field biologists uncovered an almost bizarre chain reaction. Although the marmot’s prime habitat, high sub-alpine meadows, remained undisturbed by humans, it turned out that timber-cutting at lower elevations was creating clearings that migrating marmots mistook for sub-alpine meadows; they would take up residence there and dig burrows only to be wiped out, either by predators that are more abundant on the lower slopes, or by having their hibernation cycle thrown out by the warmer temperatures.
In the final chapter of The Future of Life, Wilson lists his solutions to such threats. His recommendations are not only straightforward and concrete but feasible and uncontroversial. Twenty-five ecological “hotspots” have been identified, covering only 1.4 per cent of the earth’s total land surface, but these tropical forests and Mediterranean-climate scrublands hold nearly half of the world’s known species of vascular plants and a third of its mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians. Concentrating conservation and protection efforts on these hotspots would yield huge dividends. Zoos and captive breeding programmes should be expanded. Invasive species, such as the wild pigs that have ravaged native species in Hawaii, should be controlled before they do more harm. Lakes and rivers, upon which so many ecosystems depend for their survival, should be protected. Even his proposal to set aside 50 per cent of land for nature-which he offers “at the risk of being called an extremist”-is not that utopian when one considers that in the US, forests and wildlife reserves already occupy 27 per cent of land area and permanent grasslands 38 per cent, versus only 5 per cent for cities, commercial areas, roads, and other constructions. (Cultivated farmland is about 24 per cent of land area in the US; worldwide it is about 10 per cent.) The one truly controversial solution he proposes is only so because most of his fellow environmentalists oppose it: Wilson argues for the introduction of genetically modified crop plants to increase the productivity of agricultural lands and thus ease the pressure on wildlands and the biodiversity they contain.
As Wilson himself points out, public opinion is overwhelmingly behind the sorts of conservation measures he urges. Even developing nations have made dramatic strides: Brazil has launched a ten-year plan to create a 100m acre wilderness reserve, covering 10 per cent of the Amazon region. Drug companies in search of natural products and private conservation groups have leased millions more acres of the world’s biodiversity hotspots to protect them from development. All of these practical solutions are the fruits of the scientific stream of environmentalism and ecology that Wilson, the lover of little things, has done so much to advance. The scientific EO Wilson actually sounds rather optimistic.
But there is another EO Wilson who haunts the pages of The Future of Life and he is a tormented spirit, part Thoreau and part avenging angel. This Wilson sees a sickness in the human soul, a spiritual crisis so vast that it threatens “our own existence” or, at a minimum, threatens to make the Earth “a hellish place to exist.” Our pursuit of material comforts has not just created problems that can be scientifically fixed; it has sent the Earth down a path of disaster that only an ethical awakening can solve. For this Wilson the science of little things is not enough.
Apocalyptic rhetoric is, of course, a fixture of modern environmental writing, from Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature to the fundraising literature from Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund (WWF); it is what Bj?omborg, in his recent book The Skeptical Environmentalist, termed “the litany.” As a result of greed and short-sightedness, the forces of capitalism are plunging the world into a cataclysm of self-destruction. We are witnessing “Nature’s Last Stand”-the title of one of Wilson’s chapters. “An Armageddon is approaching,” he writes, “… it is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” Half of all species might be extinct by the end of the 21st century. Global warming “will be bad news everywhere.” The “earth’s capacity to support our species is approaching the limit.” Arable land is shrinking, wells are drying up; the earth already exceeds its carrying capacity by close to 50 per cent, he states.
Wilson’s invocation of this spiritual crisis is not merely a rhetorical flourish, a perfunctory nod to the muse of Thoreau; he makes it clear that he believes that only a revolution in the human spirit can save the earth. Though not religious himself, Wilson takes “cautious” encouragement in “the growing prominence of the environment in religious thought.” He quotes a passage from a young southern American poet’s memoirs (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray) which “perfectly captures the cadence of an evangelical sermon”: “If you clear a forest, you’d better pray continuously. While you’re pushing a road through and rigging the cables… you’d better be talking to God… God doesn’t like a clearcut. It makes his heart turn cold, makes him wince and wonder what went wrong with his creation, and sets him to thinking about what spoils the child.”
But Wilson’s attempts to establish a connection between the spiritual and the scientific is where things begin to go awry. For neither in his attempt to scientifically establish that there is an apocalyptic crisis, nor in arguing that its solution lies in the human spirit, is the case as solid or scientific as he believes.
Wilson does cite an array of scientific-seeming data to support the image of global catastrophe, but here he is leaving the realm of the little things that he knows first-hand from his own research. The fact is that this data comes almost entirely from environmental organisations out to make a political point. These are not scientific facts of the kind that inform Wilson’s own studies of ants and ecosystems, but rather interpretations of scientific facts. They are the product of analyses whose outcomes are contingent upon policy assumptions which may or may not be reasonable assumptions to make.
For example: one of the most dramatic assertions Wilson makes to substantiate the claim that the world is far down a path of consumptive “folly” comes from the Living Planet Report, issued by the WWF in 2000. Wilson writes: “The ecological footprint-the average amount of productive land and shallow sea appropriated by each person in bits and pieces from around the world for food, water, housing, energy, transportation, commerce, and waste absorption-is about one hectare (2.5 acres) in developing nations but about 9.6 hectares (24 acres) in the US. For every person in the world to reach present US levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet earths.”
In an interview with the Guardian last year, Wilson stated that he has presented this conclusion before countless audiences and “nobody has refuted” him on this point-that it is a physical, indeed a mathematical, impossibility for the Earth’s existing population (let alone the 9 or 10 billion that are expected before world population peaks in half a century) to achieve the “level of profligacy” of the US. “We’re running out of land,” he told the newspaper.
But the accounting behind these numbers is, as the agricultural scientist Paul Waggoner recently told me, “positively Enron-esque.” Well over half of the “footprint” ascribed to Americans by the WWF report is the theoretical amount of forested land that would have to be added to the earth’s existing surface area in order to soak up all of the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the burning of fossil fuels in the US. In fact, the total amount of land surface that actually exists worldwide equals about 2.1 hectares per person, and only about half that amount is currently used to supply all of the human needs that Wilson lists (food, fibre, timber, transportation, buildings, waste disposal). Even if it were universally agreed that global warming posed such a threat to the sustainability of the planet as to require a halt at once to all further carbon dioxide emissions, there are many ways to do that without converting the earth to forest-increased use of nuclear energy being one policy choice that at least deserves to be on the table. It is misleading to use the data generated by the WWF’s accounting scheme to conclude-as if it were scientific fact-that “we’re running out of land.”
Wilson in several places notes with alarm that “per capita arable land” is declining throughout the world, and suggests that such problems as loss of topsoil, desertification and salination are to blame-and thus, even as more and more humans are demanding more and better food, the earth’s finite resources are being permanently degraded. “Shortages of food seem inevitable,” he states.
Yet the data compiled by the UN food and agriculture organisation and the US department of agriculture’s economic research service paint an almost diametrically opposed picture. Since 1945, the land area in use for growing crops in the US has remained virtually unchanged at about 140m hectares (350m acres). Over that same period the US population has doubled, which means that cultivated land per capita dropped from 1.04 hectares per person to the present 0.52 hectares per person. During the same period, too, real personal income of Americans nearly tripled, while the area set aside in the mainland US for parks, forests, and wildlife areas doubled, to 200m hectares (about 500m acres). Today, as in 1945, about 10 per cent of US cropland is idle. The US is also a major net exporter of grain and meat. Thus the per capita land-use figures actually overstate how much land the average American needs to supply him with the average American diet (which includes ten times as much meat as the average diet of sub-Saharan Africa). For the industrialised world as a whole, cropland works out at about 0.4 hectares per capita, which is probably a truer reflection of land required to feed people in affluent nations with current technology.
By comparison, sub-Saharan Africa averages about 0.3 hectares of cropland per person to supply its people with the poorest diet in the world. So what is going on? Simply, as nations become more affluent they do not use much more land per person to feed themselves. In the case of the US, per capita cropland has fallen 50 per cent in the last half century not because it is “losing” land to degradation but because it is growing more food per acre: yields per acre of wheat have more than doubled, maize more than tripled over this period. Even with its vastly greater amount of meat produced and its large exports, the US uses less total agricultural land (arable plus grazing) per person than does sub-Saharan Africa.
Affluent nations achieve these higher efficiencies not by “mining” natural resources unsustainably, as Wilson at places implies, but by making use of existing technologies, such as fertiliser and improved crop varieties. Paul Waggoner has shown that, contrary to what the WWF and Wilson assert, the world’s existing agricultural land is more than adequate to feed 10 billion people a western diet using existing technologies. The main reason for the current low yields in the developing world is that farmers in the poorest nations use a tenth as much fertiliser per acre as American farmers do. Better use of chemical fertiliser (a 100-year-old technology) and hybrid and other high-yielding varieties of grains (40- to 70-year-old technologies) could thus allow developing nations to match western diets with little or no increase in land use.
More significantly, Waggoner has shown that adoption of these agricultural technologies in places like India over the past few decades has spared hundreds of millions of hectares of land for nature. Similarly, UN data show that other environmental impacts, such as water pollution, diminish as nations become wealthier and adopt new technologies. The only measure on which more affluent nations consume significantly more natural resources per person than do poorer countries is in energy use-which is why the WWF had to resort to conjuring up theoretical carbon-dioxide-absorbing forests to generate such a large “ecological footprint” for rich nations.
The revolutionary changes in land-use efficiency that have occurred over the last century have come about not because of government policies to spare land for nature, much less any spiritual awakening; rather, they are the natural outcome of affluence and technological progress themselves. In the larger picture, economic growth in developed nations, and even in many developing nations, has become increasingly decoupled from dependence on natural resources. Farm production constituted 7.2 per cent of US GDP in 1945, but only 1.1 per cent in 1997. It is intellectual capital that is now being mined to enrich the world’s economies, not natural capital.
If wilson really believed that the global picture is as dire as he paints it, it is odd that his proposed solutions are so modest and practical. Because when it comes to suggesting how this spiritual revolution is to occur, he becomes vague, in contrast to the concrete solutions he offers for the specific and tangible scientific problems he discusses (such as endangered-species hotspots). One would think that a threat to “our own existence” would translate into something more dramatic than his exhortation in the final chapter of The Future of Life that we all join the WWF (on whose advisory board he served from 1984 to 1994), or his proposal that the forces of capitalism be somehow “redirected”-although in ways that are not clear-to help avert catastrophe.
Bj?omborg has suggested several reasons why environmentalists have fallen into the trap of habitual alarmism-one of them being the need to generate publicity. But Wilson’s efforts to forge links between the scientific and spiritual realms suggests a deeper yearning than the desire to come up with lobbying tactics. He wants people to feel about nature the way he does. Being a scientist he wants to find a scientific reason why they should feel about nature the way he does. And having gone down the road of believing that (a) there is a global ecological crisis of apocalyptic dimensions and (b) it will take a spiritual revolution for us to avert this apocalypse, he is inevitably led to a search for how this spiritual awakening might occur. He rightly acknowledges that attempts to put a price-tag on nature are a losing game; it might turn out that in economic terms it pays to wipe out an endangered species rather than preserve it.
So what he tries to do instead is to show that a love of nature is both a human instinct and a necessity for psychological and spiritual wellbeing. It is a strange excursion that began in the early 1980s when Wilson organised a conference on what he termed “biophilia.” Wilson devotes a chapter of The Future of Life to an attempt to convince us that humans have a built-in need for wild places, citing such evidence as the fact that people who were shown a distressing videotape followed by pictures of natural settings recovered from the experience quicker than those shown pictures of cityscapes. Wilson does not take this to the fatuous lengths others have-for example Stephen Kellert in The Value of Life (Shearwater Books) solemnly avers that we must preserve biodiversity because the richness of linguistic metaphor will be impoverished if we no longer have imagery from the animal world to draw upon.
But this seems an oddly trivial, not to say self-centred, reason to preserve nature. It also founders on the fact that many people do not feel this way. I live on a farm and love solitude, the company of animals and being in the woods on a fall morning, but among even my limited acquaintances I could probably produce a list of a hundred New Yorkers and other city dwellers who would not be caught dead spending a few minutes of their day as I do. More than one visitor has told me he finds it a bit “terrifying” to be out in the middle of a field. (My father, born in the Bronx, was one of these. He loved cities, and felt they were the best places to live.) Wilson recognises this fact, a bit, but suggests that those who have not had their pre-programmed love of nature awakened suffer an “emotional void” in their lives. Others, such as Kellert, go a step further and darkly suggest that such people need to be re-educated.
This is a circular argument; circular in its logic-we have an instinct to love nature, therefore if we don’t love nature we’re going against our instincts-but circular, too, in that it goes nowhere. Worse, it so smacks of special pleading that it casts a shadow over the scientific process it purports to represent. The “biophilia hypothesis” was not a natural outgrowth of a line of scientific inquiry; it was an effort to apply a scientific gloss to a preconceived political position.
There is a confusion of science and politics that bedevils a lot of environmental activism. Some of it is crass and calculating; some, as is the case with Wilson, is sincere but politically na?. In The Future of Life, Wilson seems genuinely to believe that such efforts as the WWF’s “ecological footprint” calculation or its “Living Planet Index” will be a basis for replacing “extraneous political ideology,” as he puts it, with the wisdom of pure science in economic decision-making. But these exercises are not science, any more than was Thoreau’s spiritual vision of wildness. In the end it will still be humans operating through politics and the marketplace who will have to make decisions; and rightly so, for unless one is willing to contemplate a world governed by a dictatorship of scientists, these are decisions that will always involve costs and trade-offs and the setting of priorities.
The encouraging news, as the EO Wilson who loves and understands the little things of nature occasionally lets himself admit, is that science itself offers a reason to be hopeful. And while Henry David Thoreau and the EO Wilson who is his spiritual disciple are loathe to admit it, even the world of materialism and commerce offers some reason to be optimistic, because with economic prosperity comes the ability to afford the technology that permits people to tread more lightly on the land, and the affluence to see in nature something more than just the brute means of wresting a livelihood. Wilson refers to Thoreau’s “land ethic,” but it was the 20th century conservationist Aldo Leopold who coined the phrase “land ethic” and conceived the idea. Leopold was a conservationist firmly in the scientific tradition, and an intensely practical man who had no illusions about what it would take to preserve the things in nature worth preserving. He did not waste time urging airy, Thoreauvian journeys of spiritual self-discovery upon us as the solution for what ails nature. “Wild things,” he bluntly asserted, had “little human value until mechanisation assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they came from and how they live.”
So I wonder if Wilson, too, might have saved himself the spiritual pilgrimage to Walden Pond. For in simply showing us the drama of where the myriad wild things in nature came from and how they live-not least of all the littlest things in nature-he has done more to save them than all of his far less convincing delving into the spiritual crisis that the world may, or may not, be in.