Review

What is the real value of that weed at your feet?

The Future of Life
By Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf
New York

Although he is known primarily as a biologist, Edward O. Wilson spends a lot of his time in his latest book talking like an economist.

Dr. Wilson, a tenured professor at Harvard specializing in the study of ants and their social systems, has won the Pulitzer Prize twice for previous books. One was about ants and one was about human nature.

In The Future of Life, Dr. Wilson takes up one of the most hotly debated issues of our times: the importance of protecting and preserving the earth's biological diversity.

And, knowing that he faces many who argue that human progress and economic development are more important than going the extra mile to protect a few endangered species, Dr. Wilson spends considerable time calculating just how much monetary value humans derive from healthy ecological systems, which he says are reliant on diversity.

He notes, for example, that economist Colin W. Clark did a study in 1973 that examined the economic value of protecting the blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on land or sea. At the time, only several hundred individual blue whales were left, their population having been decimated by hunters in the 20th century.

"The Japanese were especially eager to hunt even at the risk of total extinction," writes Dr. Wilson. "So Clark asked, What practice would yield the whalers and humanity the most money: cease hunting and let the blue whales recover in numbers and then harvest them sustainably forever, or kill the rest off as quickly as possible and invest the profits in growth stocks? The disconcerting answer for annual discount rates over 21 percent: kill them all and invest the money."

And in that example one finds the essence the conundrum currently facing humanity with respect to protecting and preserving our natural environment - and a crucial question facing the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development: Do we put the fight against human poverty first? Or must we also spend time, money and other resources to protect the natural world, even if the payoff is not so immediate?

The answer, as fleshed out by Dr. Wilson, is that Colin Clark's calculations about blue whales - and every similar calculation that trades a loss in biodiversity against short-term economic gain - are fundamentally flawed. They are flawed, writes Dr. Wilson, because they do not take into account the real and quite tangible value provided by the ecological systems of our planet - or the fact that biological diversity is a key factor in the health and stability of such ecosystems.

Dr. Wilson notes, to cite but one of many examples salted throughout the book, that forested watersheds do a superb job of capturing and purifying rainwater - all for free. He writes that New York City officials once considered spending $6 to $8 billion to build a filtration plant to replace the water purification capacity lost by an environmentally degraded Catskills Watershed. Or they could spend about $1 billion to restore the Watershed and protect it.

"The decision was easy, even for those born and bred in an urban environment," writes Dr. Wilson. "In 1997 the city raised an environmental bond issue and set out to purchase forested land and to subsidize the upgrading of septic tanks in the Catskills."

But Dr. Wilson acknowledges that other environmental choices are not so clearly defined. Which is obviously why Dr. Wilson spends so much time making economic arguments for preserving biological diversity - a diversity that is being catastrophically lost day by day with the relentless destruction of tropical rainforests and coral reefs and the shortsighted overfishing of the oceans.

"Is there any way now to measure even approximately what is being lost?" he writes. "Any attempt is almost certain to produce an underestimate, but let me start anyway with macroeconomics. In 1997 an international team of economists and environmental scientists put a dollar amount on all the ecosystems services provided humanity free of charge by the living environment. Drawing from multiple databases, they estimated the contribution to be $33 trillion or more each year. That amount is nearly twice the 1997 combined gross national product (GNP) of all countries in the world, or gross world product, of $18 trillion."

Dr. Wilson also spends considerable time indicating the vast future economic potential that might be drawn from the medicines, biochemical processes and foodstuffs that remain undiscovered in rainforests and other wilderness areas. He also argues that we ought to work harder to protect biological diversity out of a concept he calls "biophilia" - or love of life. "The creature at your feet dismissed as a bug or a weed is a creation in and of itself," writes Dr. Wilson. "It has a name, a million-year history, and a place in the world."

In his last chapter, Dr. Wilson offers what he calls "the solution" to the erosion of biodiversity. Roughly put, he believes that current trend towards democracy, the increasing participation of civil society, international law and, especially, the growth of conservation-oriented non-governmental organizations, offer an opportunity for the creation of powerful partnerships that can buy up, set aside, swap for debt or otherwise protect the wilderness lands, shores and ocean beds that must be preserved if humanity is to reverse the increasing extinction of species.

He is also optimistic about the "growing prominence of the environment in religious thought." "The trend is important not only for its moral content, but for the conservatism and authenticity of its nature," he writes, noting that virtually every major world religion has in recent years come out with major new statements on nature and the environment.

Certainly, from a Bahá'í point of view, the key to making the kinds of transformations in the way humanity does its business that will be necessary both to protect the environment and ensure global prosperity for all, lies in just the kind of change in moral consciousness that has traditionally been associated with the emergence of a new religious movement.

The Future of Life is an important and timely book, offering a practical and hardheaded road map away from the kind of "species death" that threatens if humanity continues its largely unsustainable patterns of development, production and consumption. It offers compelling arguments on the need to protect biodiversity - arguments that are cast in rational terms that can be easily understood by even the most ardent proponent of rapid development.

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