Eating people is wrong. "I was left moaning on the floor in a foetal position." Will Self reads E O Wilson's new book on the coming environmental catastrophe and despairs
The Future of Life
Edward O Wilson Little, Brown, 229pp, £18.99
Things look pretty parlous at the moment. Species are being extinguished like the candles in some last-chance bestial bistro. The world's lungs (the equatorial rainforests) are being systematically choked by the tar of loggers' roads. As for the 25 environmental "hot spots" - the areas that are most at risk of destruction and shelter the greatest biodiversity - these have been reduced by a factor of 88 per cent, and could be wiped out within decades by further intrusion. But E O Wilson, the founding father of sociobiology, doesn't think that any of this is ineluctable, or even irreversible. With bottomless naivety and a kind of hokey, can-do Americanism that one rather suspected had collapsed with the twin towers, he sets out his "solution" to the problem and concludes: "A civilisation able to envision God and to embark on the colonisation of space will surely find the way to save the integrity of this planet and the magnificent life it harbours."
Excuse me? On what evidence does he conclude this? Sadly, it's so tendentious, sketchy and anecdotal that one is left marvelling at his ingenuousness. Not only that but, between the covers of The Future of Life, Wilson sets out the gravity of the situation with such elegant clarity that I was left moaning on the floor in a foetal position, as I found myself unable to picture anything save for the blasted heath that is all my grandchildren will be able to survey, should they actually survive the fast-approaching global environmental crisis.
I think Wilson suffers from the view that a species as collectively "successful" as humanity cannot fail to continue capitalising on its most successful adaptations. No technology naysayer is Edward. On the contrary, he says "Switch it on!", and believes that it is precisely our ability to splice genes and embark on the exploration of space that will ensure our survival. What I detect here is a not very deeply buried teleology in the sociobiologist's garden of contemplation. It is no coincidence that Wilson's area of specialist study as a biologist is arthropods, because his view of humanity is that we are merely a larger version of those tenacious colony-builders. True, he does advocate setting aside 50 per cent of the earth's surface for non-exploitation; and he does anticipate a peaking in the human population, followed by a decline to more sustainable levels. But nothing he says about the future of life discounts from the underlying Promethean assumption ad astra per aspera. For Wilson, a belief in God, a belief in the global market place, a belief in liberal democracy and a belief in environmentalism are all the fittest adaptations for human survival.
I dissent from this meliorism. I offer - on the basis of Wilson's own synopsis of the current situation - a far more satisfying and intellectually defensible pessimism. First, the facts, as defined in this book: the ecological footprint - the amount of productive land and sea required to sustain an individual human being - is currently 5.2 acres. This is an average. In the United States, the hoggish human uses 24 acres; in the developing world (crazy euphemism, crazy predicament), he or she gets by with an anorectic tenth of this. As Wilson points out, should the earth's current population of five billion people desire to achieve American levels of consumption with existing levels of technology, the resources of four more planet earths would be required. And this says nothing about the resources needed to sustain a global population of eight billion, which is the most favourable estimate for the middle of this century.
However, the eight billion figure is predicated on a reproductive decline that is, in turn, dependent on increasing affluence. Wilson does not say what he thinks lies behind the decision among more affluent women to have - counter-intuitively, some might say - fewer children, but I think, given his pedigree, he must believe that it's a species-level retreat from disastrous overpopulation (a kind of morphic meliorism, if you will). But this is the new Malthusianism; the gap between the rich and poor worlds is (as Wilson admits) ever widening. So on current trends, not enough women are going to become sufficiently affluent to make this wise reproductive decision.
How does Wilson imagine that wealth is going to be redistributed with sufficient alacrity to encourage the required slowdown? He doesn't say. Instead, he offers a sticking plaster for a gaping wound: the observation that there are ways of exploiting the biota that are sustainable and potentially far more productive than clear-cutting rainforest. He talks up eco-prospecting (the search for new medicaments and chemical compounds with other uses) and eco-tourism. He wants to appeal to both the shrewd venture capitalist and the touchy-feely tree-hugger.
Wilson wants to be all things to all the billions of men and women out there. Having stared for so long into the micro-societies of arthropods, I suspect he can't quite bear to acknowledge the savage and unremittingly macro quality of the human antheap. According to Wilson, there is great comfort and succour to be gained from realising that the less than 1 per cent of the population who own more than 40 per cent of the land area of the US have acted so as to set aside territory. He points to the success story of Suriname, where Conservation International - a kind of rich people's environmental club - has put forward a plan to retain 1.6 million hectares of rainforest intact. He speaks blithely of the ease with which deals for nature reserves can be negotiated, precisely because the fate of the earth lies in the hands of so few people.
Hmm. It seems to me more that there's a bizarre form of idolatry in play here. The rich spend their lives building up a great storehouse of wealth, much of which is ruthlessly extracted from the natural world, using up resources that can never ever be renewed, and then they seek to enter eco-heaven and sit by the green fingers of Gaia simply by buying up land (which doubtless comes with a hefty tax break). It just doesn't compute as anything but the most magical of thinking, and I'm surprised that someone as sagacious as Wilson should fall for it.
The best light I can place on Wilson's meliorism is that it's a rallying cry to just those members of the World Economic Forum he hopes are going to yank back the joystick of unfettered consumption and save us from nosediving into our own extinction. Best not alienate them, I can almost hear him thinking as he writes, there's no virtue in that. So he glosses over the fraught issue of GM foods (after all, by his own analysis that may be all there is to eat). Nor does he do anything as egregious as criticise the Great Bushy Helmsman over his failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
But let none of this stand as a criticism of much of The Future of Life. Wilson writes charmingly as a naturalist, and as perceptively as you would expect from a scientific polymath who has spent so much of his working life seated at the interdisciplinary high table. It isn't really his fault if he dare not acknowledge that he's attending - along with the rest of us - a very naked lunch indeed. It takes a very strong - and gloomy - stomach to look at the end of your fork and see some soylent green there.