Oracle for Our Times

Pardon me for taking the part of a latter-day Thomas Malthus, a party pooper if there ever was one. Let’s play one more time the “most urgent book to read” game. Construct your most devastating characterization of the perils of our times, then ask: what one book should you take with you to the proverbial isolated island for insight, consolation, and consultation? I like my friend Jim Tierney’s recommendation. Take The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006) by E. O. Wilson, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Tierney bought himself a bunch of copies of The Creation and gave one to me; it’s been his habit to gift the book to family members, friends, and acquaintances alike. So yes, let E. O. Wilson be our spiritual guide and mentor to the natural world at a time when our politicians—run amok in fantasyland—have withdrawn the topic of climate change from public attention, and sent scientists packing.

Edward Osborne Wilson, now eighty-nine, is Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard University. He is one of the world’s most famous biologists and entomologists. His speciality is the study of ants. A much celebrated scientist, Wilson has made contributions to many subjects, including evolution, bio-diversity, sociobiology, and the concept of consilience, a vision of the unity of knowledge.

What strikes the reader of The Creation is the author’s presumption that life on earth, “The Creation,” is deeply threatened—that the assault on nature is the dominant fact of our age. He let’s us in on an open secret much discussed by scientists strolling the corridors of natural history: that our age is considered by them the age of the “sixth extinction.”

Really? What on earth is an “extinction?” Let’s take the last one, the “fifth extinction,” as example and reference. It refers to the extinction of the dinosaurs and half the species on earth around 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period and Metazoic Era. The probable cause was the impact of a massive ten kilometer in diameter asteroid on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, setting off volcanos all around the globe, and an interminable, unimaginably cold, long, and deadly winter.

If a comparable extinction of species is going on today, is the arrival of an asteroid the expected cause? Nope, no asteroid threat is imminent. What then could account for a mass extinction of species today? Earthquakes? Volcanoes? Hurricanes? Solar flares? Sand storms? Supernova explosions? Cataclysm in the galaxy? Nope, none of the above. The answer is us, we humans, Homo Sapiens. Wilson, like Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo, has seen the enemy, and discovered the culprit: “it’s us!”

Wilson explains:

“Now a sixth spasm has begun, this one the result of human activity. Although not ushered in by cosmic violence, it is potentially as hellish as the earlier cataclysms. According to estimates by a team of experts in 2004, climate change alone, if left unabated, could be the primary cause of extinction of a quarter of the species of plants and animals on the land by midcentury.” (p. 74)

For ease in comprehending the major contributors to this probable result Wilson offers the shorthand cipher key HIPPO, standing for H, habitat loss; I, invasive species; P, pollution; P, population explosion; and O, over- harvesting the earth.

The problem is fundamental and profound, the willingness of our species to believe it can subordinate, tame, and manage nature. Instead of embracing nature as our one and only home, we have acted as if nature is an enemy to fight, defeat, and survive. To quote Wilson:

“. . . we strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization roughly ten thousand years ago. That quantum leap beguiled us with an illusion of freedom from the world that had given us birth. It nourished the belief that the human spirit can be molded into something new to fit changes in the environment and culture, and as a result the time tables of history destabilized. A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point: here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival.” (p. 10)

“Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of nature.” (p. 11)

So that’s the basic situation as Wilson sees it, and enough of a reason to ask the library to get the book. That’s just the beginning. The Creation offers so much more than that. As hard as it may be to believe, the book is actually sweet and charming, even optimistic! Wilson is an activist and doer, as well as a scientist, not a naysayer pessimist. He wants our help.

To provide a sense of the charm of the book, consider its format. Chapters are in the form of a series of letters to a representative pastor of the Southern Baptist denomination, the church Wilson was brought up in as a child in Alabama. The former Baptist, now scientist, proposes to work together with the pastor and other religious leaders to save the earth. We both love and celebrate “The Creation,” Wilson explains. Let us treasure and preserve it. Wilson appears to understand that a religion that believes in a second life and a doomsday accounting scheme could be dangerous. Earth might come to seem disposable to them.

E. O. Wilson, to my great surprise, has actually published a trilogy of books after The Creation! These are: The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), and Half-Earth (2016). All are acclaimed best sellers, and they bring his thinking on extinction up to date. We would do well to take all four books with us to that proverbial island, and then join him in becoming citizen naturalists.

In the Prologue to Half-Earth, Wilson asks the question “What is Man?,” and answers:

Storyteller, mythmaker, and destroyer of the living world. Thinking with a gabble of reason, emotion, and religion. Lucky accident of primate evolution during the last Pleistocene. Mind of the biosphere. Magnificent in imaginative power and exploratory drive, yet yearning to be more master than steward toward a declining planet. Born with the capacity to survive and evolve forever, able to render the biosphere eternal also. Yet arrogant, reckless, lethally predisposed to favor self, tribe, and short term futures. Obsequious to imagined higher beings, contemptuous toward lower forms of life.

Wilson shows that our problems are much greater than the much studied and debated “climate change.” The bigger problem is loss of wilderness. Wilderness sustains the received creation—our life trove of species—most of which haven’t even been identified yet. Half-Earth makes the case that half the earth must be reserved for wilderness in order to preserve existing species. The loss of wilderness to economic development, even well-designed, quality development, extinguishes species in chunks.

Wilson let’s us in on another professional secret. There are contending labels for the epoch we live in. The Sixth Extinction is one, the one Wilson prefers. The Anthropocene is the other. Both labels mark the emergence of our species as the dominant force in nature, from several millennia ago, at present, and from now on. Both are meant to convey a sense of how destructive we’ve been and the threat we pose to life and the planet. However, those who favor The Anthropocene appellation—some scientists, most technologists and engineers—are confident about the future. They think the problems created by man can be solved by man. If knowledge and technology created the problem, they argue, more science and technology can and will solve it. Wilson and the naturalist community aren’t so sure. They’re pessimistic because extinct species aren’t coming back and political leadership is tepid and arrogant. To naturalists, wilderness restoration is the key. Life abounds only in wilderness.

Think about it a moment, Polar Bears are in danger of extinction. Did they show up on earth on our watch? Answer: No. They evolved into existence from earlier bears around 300,000 years ago! Dragon flies are threatened by loss of wetlands, although not in immediate danger. When did they show up on earth? Answer: a fossil of an ancestor, Meganeura monyi, has been found from 680 million years ago! While it is true that species are not static, and come and go in adaptive cycles, wisdom advises us to protect what we have. We didn’t create any of the species, we’re only one ourselves, and we can’t bring the extinct ones back.

Wilson presents in Half-Earth a survey of the planet. It shows how half the earth could be restored to wilderness by connecting and building upon the various parks, preserves, and regions that nations have set aside from development. While life on earth is more threatened than we know, and we’re more destructive and dumber than we think, it’s not too late. It’s never to late to get serious. Wilson insists we can save creation if we take the necessary steps; there’s an interconnected lattice of wilderness upon which to build.

As we sit in our retreats waiting out ever more frequent waves of storm—of water, snow, ice, wind, earth, and fire—trusting all is well with the world, God superintending, and that well meaning people are in charge, we might be smart to read Wilson’s excellent books. They can’t hurt. Ignorance is truly dangerous. His books can orient, educate, and inspire.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

September 3, 2018

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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