June 6, 2006

E.O. Wilson's "The Bottleneck"; Erudition #5

I just finished reading Wilson's The Future of Life this week, a wonderful, rational look at the environmental crisis before us. Chapter two of the book was originally printed in Scientific American, and though I could not link the full article sourced from there, I found another link to it elsewhere.

Wilson mainly deals with China in this chapter, and the future ecology/economy of the rising superpower. The forecast is bleak, to say the least.

If you have any interest in world economics or the environment, take a few minutes and read "The Bottleneck":

China deserves close attention, not just as the unsteadygiant whose missteps can rock the world, but also because it is so far advanced along the path to which the rest of humanity seems inexorably headed. If China solves its problems, the lessons learned can be applied elsewhere. That includes the U.S., whose citizens are working at a furious pace to overpopulate and exhaust their own land and water from sea to shining sea.

Environmentalism is still widely viewed, especially in the U.S., as a special-interest lobby. Its proponents, in this blinkered view, flutter their hands over pollution and threatened species, exaggerate their case, and press for industrial restraint and the protection of wild places, even at the cost of economic development and jobs.

Environmentalism is something more central and vastly more important. Its essence has been defined by science in the following way. Earth, unlike the other solar planets, is not in physical equilibrium. It depends on its living shell to create the special conditions on which life is sustainable. The soil, water, and atmosphere of its surface have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to their present condition by the activity of the biosphere, a stupendously complex layer of living creatures whose activities are locked together in precise but tenuous global cycles of energy and transformed organic matter. The biosphere creates our special world anew every day, every minute, and holds it in a unique, shimmering physical disequilibrium. On that disequilibrium the human species is in total thrall. When we alter the biosphere in any direction, we move the environment away from the delicate
dance of biology. When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we degrade the greatest heritage this planet has to offer and thereby threaten our own existence.

Humanity did not descend as angelic beings into this world. Nor are we aliens who colonized Earth. We evolved here, one among many species, across millions of years, and exist as one organic miracle linked to others. The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness was our cradle and nursery, our school, and remains our one and only home. To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life.

That is the essence of environmentalism. It is the guiding principle of those devoted to the health of the planet. But it is not yet a general worldview, evidently not yet compelling enough to distract many people away from the primal diversions of sport, politics, religion, and private wealth.

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