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J R Soc Med. 2002 October; 95(10): 520–521.
PMCID: PMC1279187

The Future of Life

In ecology, as in medicine, a wrong diagnosis can cause far more harm if it is negative than if it is positive—E O Wilson1.

In 1987, a UN-appointed commission chaired by former general practitioner Gro Harlem Brundtland (at the time Prime Minister of Norway and now Director General of the World Health Organization) published its report, Our Common Future2. It introduced into common parlance and political consciousness the notion of ‘sustainable development’, defined as ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It was not a new concept; its modern root is probably a World Council of Churches' recognition that the longstanding aim of ‘peace with justice’ could not be achieved without caring for the environment (or ‘Creation’ in religious language). The UK submission to the Earth Summit in Rio3 in 1992 took this up and emphasized the ethical nature of sustainable development: ‘We have a moral duty to look after our planet and to hand it on in good order to future generations. That is what the experts mean when they talk of “sustainable development”: not sacrificing tomorrow's prospects for a largely illusory gain today. We must put a proper value on the natural world: it would be odd to cherish a Constable but not the landscape he depicted’. Crispin Tickell has described sustainable development as ‘treating the Earth as if we mean to stay’, John Selwyn Gummer defines it as ‘not cheating on our children’.

Sustainable development is not uncontentious. Conventional economists tend to dismiss it, usually on the grounds that they want ‘sustainable growth’, which is an oxymoron since growth requires the input of new resources. However, it has been increasingly embraced ever since we began to get pictures of our finite globe from space (‘Spaceship Earth’), with implicit limits to its resources. It has also become increasingly necessary. As Pimm comments4, ‘Human beings use 40 percent of annual terrestrial planet growth, 60 percent of accessible freshwater runoff, and 35 percent of the oceans' continental shelf productivity. These are large figures, especially since our population will likely double by midcentury’.

Ed Wilson has formed and led thought on sustainable development for the last two decades. A distinguished Harvard biologist (he is the leading international authority on ants), he revolutionized thinking on human behaviour by popularizing in his book Sociobiology (1975) a mechanism, and hence the possibility, of altruistic evolution by kin selection, originally proposed by J B S Haldane in 1932 and refined by Bill Hamilton in 1963. Wilson has developed and challenged traditional ideas on human nature in a series of works (On Human Nature, 1978; Genes, Mind and Culture, 1981; Promethean Fire 1983; and Consilience, 1998). However his work and writings on environmental damage are of greater long-term importance than his contributions to behaviour, enormous though these are. Wilson's attitude to the environment is well summarized in comments he made in the David Attenborough TV series The State of the Planet5:

‘I think it would be a grave injustice to speak of the human species as in some sense evil, even though we are destroying the environment so efficiently at the present time. Basically that was not our intention, and it never was. It was very natural and it was necessary for the ancestral human beings to throw everything they had against the wilderness in an attempt to conquer it and then utilise it. The nature of humankind is to expand its population, to gain security, to control, to alter. For millions of years that paid off without undue damage. But then what happened was, as we developed a modern industrial capacity and then the technoscientific capacity to eliminate entire habitats quickly and efficiently, we succeeded too well and at long last we broke nature. And now, almost too late, we are waking up to the fact that we are destroying the very foundation of the environment on which humanity was built.’

Wilson expands on these concerns in his new book The Future of Life1, updating and focusing the arguments and data he presented in his Diversity of Life (1992). There is little new in The Future of Life (the 1992 UK document already cited declared ‘Increasingly we understand that the ways we multiply, produce energy, use natural resources and produce waste threaten to change fundamentally the balance of our global environment. We may not be seeing the end of Nature. But Nature is certainly under threat’), but the case is presented clearly and rationally.

It is easy to dismiss environmentalism as hysterical greenwash irrelevant to the immediate challenges of poverty, disease and mortality, quite apart from its implied threat to one's quality of life. Wilson makes such an interpretation difficult to defend. Never mind the decline of hedges, larks, thrushes, never mind the cutting-down of tropical forests, we are now seeing cancers from ozone depletion caused by manmade chemicals and ominous signs of climatic change in disrupted patterns of weather. In the UK we may welcome the prospect of higher temperatures from global warming, but we also have to face the non-negligible possibility that the Gulf Stream will reverse, giving us a climate more like Labrador than the Costa del Sol. Wilson is not being unduly alarmist when he faces us with ‘the future of life’.

I met Ed Wilson in the week that The Future of Life was published (the Editor did not know this when he asked me to write this review). Wilson surprised and encouraged me with his optimism about the development of environmental attitudes; he professed to believe that the US public was close to a ‘tipping point’ (an idea expounded in a book of that name6 which argues that there is a magic moment when a trend of social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads rapidly; dispositions may change suddenly and radically from negative antagonism to enthusiastic acceptance). I hope he is right. Environmental damage (or not) is affected by decisions we can make now. Wilson writes ‘The issue is moral. Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do’.

And it is wrong for us to procrastinate. Justice demands otherwise; the consequences of environmental damage are much more serious in low-income countries than in the technologically sophisticated north, because the developing world does not have the financial or technical resources to protect itself in the ways we do—and worse, we have to accept that we are environmental aggressors in terms of greenhouse gas production, chemical pollution and biodiversity greed (often in the hunt for new drugs). Environmental nonchalance may lead to injustice and even loss of survival ability. A sustainable world is technically possible: we know how to manufacture low emitting cars, to generate electricity without using fossil fuel, to increase agricultural productivity without massive pesticide applications. But the issue goes beyond the theoretical possibility of choice. There is a conflict between short-term and long-term values. In Wilson's words:

‘To select values for the near future of one's own tribe or country is relatively easy. To select values for the distant future of the whole planet also is relatively easy—in theory at least. To combine the two visions to create a universal environmental ethic is, on the other hand, very difficult. But combine them we must, because a universal environmental ethic is the only guide by which humanity and the rest of life can be safely conducted through the bottleneck into which our species has foolishly blundered.’

Fortunately we are not completely in the dark. Wilson believes that we all share ‘an intensely felt value [of] stewardship’. The UK Government's Rio document agrees. In somewhat surprising language for an official document, it proclaims ‘The starting point is the ethical imperative of stewardship, which must underlie all environmental policies. Mankind has always been capable of great good and great evil. That is certainly true of our role as custodians of the planet’.

Stewardship implies that we have the ability to choose: we can continue with our current unsustainable lifestyle or we can switch to a more sustainable one—importantly without seriously affecting our quality of life. And our choice may have enormous consequences. Costanza et al.7 have estimated that nature's ‘services’ (capturing solar energy by photosynthesis, detoxifying waste, purifying water, nutrient cycling, etc.) are annually worth around double the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world. Damage to these ‘services’ will have horrific consequences. If we cause irreversible harm to our environment, we are truly endangering the future of life.

I do not count myself as a ‘Green’. I suspect that Greens may alienate more people than they convert because of their extremisms and shrillness. But I am convinced that we have to be environmentally responsible, and that the sooner we begin the better—or we will indeed cheat our children. Ed Wilson gives an authoritative account of these issues. I commend his new book.

References

1. Wilson E O. The Future of Life. London: Little, Brown, 2002. [229 pp; ISBN 0-316-64853-1; £18.99]
2. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987
3. This Common Inheritance. Britain's Environmental Strategy. London: HMSO, 1992
4. Pimm S L. The World According to Pimm. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001
5. State of the Planet. BBC television series, first transmitted in November 2000. [Available as video cassette BBCV 7097]
6. Gladwell M. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000
7. Costanza R, et al. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 1997;387: 253-60

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press