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- Carter, III, Albert Howard
Summary:This short but complex book assesses the many, current risks to all life on earth and considers some avenues for repair that may provide hope for the future. E. O. Wilson, a distinguished scientist, describes how all life on earth is inter-related. With a long view to the past and a wide view of the present—from microscopic creatures to humans—Wilson praises our planet’s biodiversity and warns of the dangers that may cause it to collapse; these dangers are human-related. Humans are an apex predator, smarter than all other creatures, but we are also too numerous, using too many resources, and causing various pollutions, including global warming. The health of the world and the health of all its creatures—humans included— are, for better or worse, interlinked forever.
A Prologue warns that we are playing an “end-game” with the earth. To avoid a point of no return from mass extinctions, Wilson proposes a bold plan of setting aside one-half of the earth in reserve in order to stabilize the survival of humans.
Part I, “The Problem,” describes the damage to our planet, on a par with the Yucatan asteroid 65 millions years ago, the so-called Fifth Extinction. We live in a narrow biosphere threatened by dying species, invasive species, collapse of interdependency, pollution of air, land, and water, loss of the commons, overhunting, human population growth, and outright habitat destruction (including the many impacts of climate change). He states, “the Sixth Extinction is under way” and “human activity is its driving force” (p. 55).
Average time for recovery from each of the five previous extinctions is 10 million years.
Self-centered humans do not understand the vast complexity of nature, including the many species not yet studied. He imagines far-distant geologists observing, “What a terrible time it was for people, and for the rest of life” (p. 9).
Part II, “The Real Living World,” criticizes some conservationists who see nature in service to humans. Wilson says we are not owners of nature but stewards. He describes the abundant life of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a typical seashore as well as the extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Wilson contacted “eighteen of the world’s senior naturalists,” asking for suggestions for the “best reserves” to shelter “plants, animals, and microorganisms” (p. 135). Fifteen pages lovingly describe their recommendations of 33 places around the world. He concludes that “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can still be saved!” (p. 136).
Part III, “The Solution” states, “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” (p. 167). Wilson reviews crises of water and food, and he warns against “self-inflicted disaster” that could wipe out most species by the end of this century. He provides two examples of restoration projects, the long-leaf pine lands in Florida and Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. He believes the population bulge to ten billion people will be temporary.
Wilson rejects geo-engineering of the oceans or the atmosphere as well as a proposed use of a passing asteroid. He argues that synthetic biology has promise for improving our brains for moral reasoning and ecological understanding. We need altruism (all working for all) and biophilia (deep love of nature).