The Key to Saving the Planet: Profitable Environmentalism


Future of Life , by Edward O. Wilson. Alfred A. Knopf, 229 pages, $22.

Never one to be overawed by a topic-a recent book of his, Consilience , explained the unity of all

knowledge-Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has now taken on The Future of Life . Mr. Wilson is better qualified than most for

the task: Unlike run-of-the-mill scientists who view their little corner of

science-say the feeding behavior of rotifers-as the center of the intellectual universe, Mr. Wilson has parlayed

his specialty, ant biology, into a truly

global perspective. With his most famous book, Sociobiology (1975), he offered an explicitly biological

perspective on human behavior and pretty much

invented the field now known as “evolutionary psychology.” He writes

authoritatively and passionately about Sumatran rhinoceroses, the El Niño

southern oscillation, radioactivity-defying bacteria, the Xiaolangdi Dam

project in China and, of course, ants. Better, he writes about all these things

with the eloquence of a twice-over Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Future of Life is a

short book of breathtaking scope. There are projections of human population

size (large, but with fewer Italians-they are already dying off faster than

they are being born). There is the familiar hand-wringing about the natural

environment (“battalions of loggers armed with bulldozers and chainsaws could

wipe these [key] habitats off the face of Earth in a few months-and with them a

large part of the world’s biodiversity”). There is hand-wringing too about the

physical environment, particularly those aspects, like the sea level, likely to

be affected by global warming (“Real-estate investment in New Orleans and the

Florida Keys, not to mention the Bahamas and New York City, will seem an

increasingly poor long-term risk”). There is Mr. Wilson’s thumbs-up

contribution to the debate on genetically modified food (“Where genetically

engineered crop strains prove nutritionally and environmentally safe upon

careful research and regulation … they should be employed”). And there are a

number of quirky ideas, like the suggestion that the demilitarized zone between

North and South Korea be converted into a wildlife sanctuary once the two

Koreas have resolved their differences.

The most surprising aspect of The

Future of Life is that it’s not full of doom and gloom. As America’s pre-eminent environmentalist,

Mr. Wilson has long publicized the fates of the rain forests and coral reefs,

and championed attempts to rein in our

apparently inexhaustible capacity

for trashing the planet. With the human population continuing to spiral

out of control and what’s left of the natural world duly dwindling, Mr.

Wilson-who is over 70-could be forgiven for writing a told-you-so sign-off book: “Like I said, the future will be

horrible, and it’s being made vastly worse by that S.U.V. of yours. Goodbye.”

Instead, he is surprisingly upbeat: The future may be messy, but The Future of Life is nevertheless


There are two reasons for Mr.

Wilson’s optimism. The first is a cultural shift that has brought

environmentalism into the mainstream. Mr. Wilson recalls the early days of the

conservation movement when he and a handful of similarly concerned scientists

were little more than “evangelists and beggars.” Now, however, conservation is

big business. Non-governmental organizations (N.G.O.’s) like the World Wildlife

Fund today boast enormous memberships and correspondingly impressive budgets.

In 2001, Conservation International received a grant of $52.8 million from the

foundation set up by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. There are more paid-up

memberships of environmental organizations in Denmark than there are Danes

(though only one in 20 Americans is a subscriber). Mr. Wilson concludes that the first part of the environmentalist

program has been successfully accomplished:

People are now convinced that conservation is necessary, that the environment

matters. “Polls show that, in the United States at least, people of all

socioeconomic groups and religious beliefs become conservationists when well

informed.” The P.R. battle has been won, and “the problem is no longer the

reasons for conservation but the best method to achieve it.”

It seems that most people

have been converted to the conservation cause by what Mr. Wilson calls moral or

aesthetic arguments: that we, one species among millions, have no right to

annihilate the planet’s other inhabitants, and, taking a more anthropocentric

perspective, that we should preserve our natural heritage for the sake of

future generations. All those irritating “Extinction Is Forever” and “Save the

Whales” bumper stickers have had an impact. However, “moral” arguments don’t

count for much in the boardrooms of logging multinationals, and if conservation

is to work, it has to make sense in terms of the bottom line. Hence Mr.

Wilson’s second reason for optimism: He is confident that the economic scales

are beginning to tip in favor of conservation. He lists, as he has done

elsewhere, the economic incentives for conservation. “Bioprospecting” assumes

that the natural world harbors

untapped pharmacological reserves-that

a cure for cancer, for AIDS, for the common cold would be found if we just

ground up the right rain-forest plant. Mr.

Wilson tells some of the success stories-like cyclosporin, a powerful immunosuppressant critical in

organ-transplant procedures, which was derived from an obscure fungus growing

in the Norwegian mountains-and points out that the potential is tremendous: One

group of fungi has hitherto yielded 80 percent of the antibiotics in current

use, and yet it is estimated that some 90 percent of species in that group are

still unknown to science.  Eco-tourism

has also been much touted as a means of turning biodiversity into cash.

Apparently tourism has eclipsed the banana as Costa Rica’s number one

foreign-currency earner.

Mr. Wilson’s economic

optimism does not, however, rest solely on the potential return on

conservation. The other side of the economic equation is also shifting gradually

in favor of biodiversity because the costs of exploiting the environment are

rising. As accessible forests are used up, so the costs escalate: “The profit

margin of the logging companies is very thin in most tropical countries,

forcing them to make offers [for logging concessions] of only a few dollars per

acre. They can be outbid by determined conservation N.G.O.s.” In South America,

new feedlots close to regional markets have made cattle ranching in remote

regions unprofitable, and suddenly the relatively modest return per acre of

eco-tourism is looking good.

To me, Mr. Wilson’s half-full glass looks half empty. Yes,

attitudes have changed and are changing, but to what extent can

eco-consciousness in the United States and Europe have an impact on the

developing world, which is home to most conservation priorities? How can we

ever effectively counter the complaint of Cameroonian journalist François

Bikoro: “You destroyed your environment and got developed. Now you want us to

stop doing the same! What do we get out of it? You have your televisions and

your cars but no trees?” And yes, the economic situation may indeed have become

more favorable to conservation, but conservationists still require serious

money if they are going to go head to head, dollar to dollar, with the logging

companies. Mr. Wilson is excited about the newfound effectiveness (and

financial clout) of conservation N.G.O.’s, but even Intel-level philanthropy

pales into insignificance against recent estimates of the price tag for

maintaining a representative sample of all of the planet’s ecosystems: $28

billion. Mr. Wilson admits that “eventually governments in both north and south

will have to take over the heavy lifting” but also concedes that U.S.

governments are likely to balk at using taxpayers’ money to buy up tracts of

wilderness in Vietnam or Bolivia for conservation purposes.

The Future of Life

culminates in Mr. Wilson’s 12-point “solution” to the woes of overpopulation

and environmental degradation. These are non-trivial suggestions: Number three

insists that we “Cease all logging of old-growth forests everywhere,” and

number eight demands that we “Make conservation profitable.” Mr. Wilson brings

genuine authority to these weighty pronouncements-coming from almost anyone

else they would ring hollow-and they should at least be given careful

consideration by the likes of President Bush and the chief executives of

Indonesian timber companies. Then, for the sake of the future of life, let’s

hope that E.O. Wilson’s optimistic outlook is not, as he puts it, just “a

wild-eyed utopian vision.”


Berry, an evolutionary biologist, is a research associate at Harvard

University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology .

The Key to Saving the Planet: Profitable Environmentalism