Edward O. Wilson

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 229 pp.



Wilson, a conservationist and research professor at Harvard, is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990).  The fragility of life on the planet provides the backdrop for a plea and blueprint for global conservation.  Well reasoned: not a diatribe.


“The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes—cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.”  “Half of the great tropical forests have been cleared.  The last frontiers of the world are effectively gone.  Species of plants and animals are disappearing a hundred or more times faster than before the coming of humanity, and as many as half may be gone by the end of this century.”  “We are inside a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption.”  “In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is urgently needed.”  (Prologue)


Ch. 1. To The Ends of the Earth

“The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organism wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.  The membrane is seamless.”  (3)


“Biodiversity is everywhere organized into three levels.  At the top are the ecosystems, such as rainforests, coral reefs, and lakes.  Next are the species, composed of the organisms in the ecosystems, from algae and swallowtail butterflies to moray eels and people.  At the bottom are the variety of genes making up the heredity of individuals that compose each of the species.”  (11)


“Alone among the solar planets, Earth’s physical environment is held by its organisms in a delicate equilibrium utterly different from what would be the case in their absence.”  (11)


1.5 to 1.8 million species have been discovered.  The total number may be 3.6 to 100 million.  We have only begun to explore life on earth! (14)  Scientists expert in classification of groups from bacteria to fungi and insects are inundated with new species.  (16)  “More than half the plant and animal species of the world are believed to occur in the tropical rainforests.”  (19)


“The vast majority of the cells in your body are not your own; they belong to bacterial and other microorganismic species.  More than 400 such microbial species make their home in your mouth.”  (20)


Ch. 2.  The Bottleneck

“Per-capita fresh water and arable land are descending to levels resource experts agree are risky.”  (23)


“For every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet Earths.”  (23)


“The economist is focused on production and consumption.  The ecologist…is focused on unsustainable crop yields, overdrawn aquifers, and threatened ecosystems.”  (24)


“The appropriation of productive land—the ecological footprint—is already too large for the planet to sustain, and it’s growing larger.  A recent study building on this concept estimated that the human population exceeded Earth’s sustainable capacity around the year 1978.  By 2000 it had overshot by 1.4 times that capacity.”  “In short, Earth has lost its ability to regenerate—unless global consumption is reduced, or global production is increased, or both.”  (27)


“People born in 1950 were the first to see the human population double in their lifetime, from 2.5 billion to over 6 billion now.  During the 20th century more people were added to the world than in all of previous human history.”  (28)


“The worldwide average number of children per woman fell from 4.3 in 1960 to 2.6 in 2000.  The number required to attain zero population growth—that is, the number that balances the birth and death rates and holds the standing population size constant—is 2.1).  When the number of children per woman stays above 2.1 even slightly, the population still expands exponentially.”  (29)


The developing countries now account for virtually all global population growth.  And their drive toward higher per-capita consumption will be relentless.  (32)


China’s population is on the verge of consuming more food than it can produce. They are industrious and fiercely upwardly mobile.  Their water requirements are rising steeply.  China seems destined to drive up the price of grain and make it harder for poorer countries to meet their own needs.  Of their 50,000 kilometers of major rivers, 80% no longer support fish.  (35-38)


“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.”  “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.”  (39)


Ch. 3.  Nature’s Last Stand

“Humanity is in a final struggle with the rest of life.”  (43)


The decline of species is caused by five factors, HIPPO (50)

·                                                                                                Habitat destruction

·                                                                                                Invasive species

·                                                                                                Pollution

·                                                                                                Population (This is the biggest)

·                                                                                                Overharvesting


“Of all forms of ongoing habitat destruction, the most consequential is the clearing of forests.”  “Over 60% of temperate hardwood and mixed forests has been lost, as well as 30% of confer forest, 45% of tropical rainforest, and 70% of tropical dry forest.”  “The loss of forest during the past half-century is one of the most profound and rapid environmental changes in the history of the planet.”  (58)


The worldwide rate of clearcutting (reducing local forests to 10% of original cover or less) has been close to 1% per year.”  (59)


Earth’s greatest single rainforest reserve is the Amazonian forest, larger than the Congo and New Guinea forests combined.  (61)


“There can no longer be any reasonable doubt of global warming itself and its generally malign consequences for the environment and human economy.”  (67)


Ch. 4. The Planetary Killer

“An endangered species is not like a dying patient whose care is too expensive and futile to prolong.  The opposite is true.  The great majority of rare and declining species are composed of young, healthy individuals.  They just need the room and time to grow and reproduce that human activity has denied them.”  (83)


“Abnormal levels of poaching for Chinese medicine and jambiya (ceremonial dagger to celebrate the Yemeni rite of passage) handles combined have devastated rhino populations everywhere as never before dreamed possible.”  (85)


In 1970 – 65,000 black rhinos.  In 2000 – 2,400  (86)


“Humanity, when wiping out biodiversity, eats its way down the food chain.  First to go among animal species are the big, the slow, and the tasty.”  (92)


Rates of species extinction are the highest ever and still rising.  (100)


“The somber archaeology of vanished species has taught us the following lessons:

·             The noble savage never exited.

·             Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse.

·             Paradise found is paradise lost.”  (102)


Ch. 5.  How Much is the Biosphere Worth?

“There is no way to make a full and final valuation of the ivorybill or any other species in the natural world.”  (105)


“We, Homo sapiens, have arrived and marked our territory well.  Winners of the Darwinian lottery, bulge-headed paragons of organic evolution, industrious bipedal apes with opposable thumbs, we are chipping away the ivorybills and other miracles around us.” (105)  [I find this statement absolutely fascinating.  How can the accidental result of chance and time (us) “marvel” at the accidental result of chance and time (the ivorybill), i.e. call it a “miracle.”  What’s wrong with this picture? dlm]


“The oceanic fish catch now yields $2.5 billion to the U.S. economy and $82 billion worldwide.  But it will not grow further, simply because the amount of ocean is fixed and the organisms it can generate is static.”  “Pressed by ever-growing global demand, it can be expected eventually to drop.  Already fisheries of the western North Atlantic, the Black Sea, and portions of the Caribbean have collapsed.”  (107)


“The more species that inhabit an ecosystem, such as a forest or lake, the more productive and stable is the ecosystem.”  (108)


“From 1996 to 1999 the amount of U.S. farmland devoted to genetically modified crops had rocketed from 3.8 million to 70.9 million acres.  As the century ended, more than half of soybean and cotton grown was engineered, as well as nearly a third (28 percent) of corn.”  (116)


“The problem before us is how to feed billions of new mouths over the next several decades and save the rest of life at the same time….”  (118)


“It is no exaggeration to say that the search for natural medicinals is a race between science and extinction….”  (123)  “The exploration of wild biodiversity in search of useful resources is called bioprospecting.  Propelled by venture capital, it has in the past ten years grown into a respectable industry….”  It is also a mans for discovering new food sources, fibers, petroleum substitutes, and other products.”  (124)


Ch. 6.  For the Love of Life

“A conservation ethic is that which aims to pass on to future generations the best part of the nonhuman world.” (131)


“Each species …is a masterpiece.  The craftsman who assembled them was natural selection, acting upon mutations and recombinations of genes, through vast numbers of steps over long periods of time.  Each species, when examined closely, offers an endless bounty of knowledge and aesthetic pleasure.” “Measured in bitgs of pure information, the genome of a cell is comparable to all editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica published since its inception in 1768.” (131)  [Quite the creative genius, this Mr. Natural Selection!]


Do other species have inalienable rights?  Three positions: 

·                                                                                                   anthropocentrism: nothing matters except that which affects humanity.

·                                                                                                   pathocentirsm: intrinsic rights should be extended to …other intelligent animals…

·                                                                                                   biocentrism: all kinds of organisms have an intrinsic right as least to exist.

The three levels are not as exclusive as they first seem. (133)


Ch. 7.  The Solution

“With population and consumption continuing to grow, the per-capita resources left to be harvested are shrinking.  The long-term prospects are not promising.  Awakened at last to this approaching difficulty, we have begun a frantic search for substitutes.”  (150)


“According to the U.N. Human Development Report 1999, the income differential between the fifth of the world’s population in the wealthiest countries and the firth in the poorest was 30 to 1 in 1960, 60 to 1 in 1990, and 74 to 1 in 1995.  Wealthy people are also by and large profligate consumers….”  (150)


“The principal concern of the present work, is the accelerating extinction of natural ecosystems and species.  The damage already done cannot be repaired within any period of time that has meaning for the human mind.”  “Why, our descendants will ask, by needlessly extinguishing the lives of other species, did we permanently impoverish our own?”  (150)


“The people-first thinker says we need to take a little cut here and there; the environmentalists says nature is dying the death of a thousand cuts.”  (152)


“Emerging swiftly is a sophisticated picture of changes in global environment and available resources.  Concrete measures such as the ecological footprint and the Living Planet Index form the groundwork for wiser economic planning.”  (156)


“The planet, as the astronauts see it, [is] a little sphere with a razor-thin coat of life too fragile to bear careless tampering.”  “To lift a stabilized world population to a decent quality of life while salvaging and restoring the natural environment is a noble and attainable goal.”  (157)


One encouraging factor is the growing prominence of the environment in religious thought.  (157)


There are now more than 20,000 non-government Organizations devoted to humanitarian or environmental causes.    (166)


“The struggle to save biological diversity will be won or lost in the forests.”  (171)


“Suriname has the highest percent rainforest cover of any country on Earth.” (175)


“One of the most effective means of acquisition of natural land is by purchase or gift from owners who wish to see their property kept as an inviolate reserve.”  “Of the 34 million Americans who owned any part of the one billion acres of private land in 1978, the top 5% or less than 1% of the U.S. population as a whole, owned three-fourths.”  (179)


About $28 billion is need to maintain at least a representative sample of Earth’s ecosystems, land and sea, pole to pole.  (182)  About $6 billion is being allotted annually from combined sources to sustain all of Earth’s natural ecosystems. (183)


“The protest groups are the early warning system for the natural economy.”  (188)


“The central problem of the new century…is how to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.”    “The poor, some 800 million of whom live without sanitation, clean water, and adequate food, have little chance to advance in a devastated environment.  Conversely, the natural environments where most biodiversity hangs on cannot survive the press of land-hungry people with nowhere else to go.”  “The problem can be solved.  Adequate resources exist.”   “In the end, however, success or failure will come down to an ethical decision, one on which those now living will be defined and judged for all generations to come.”  (189)


ISBN 0-679-45078-5