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Edward O Wilson

Book Review and updating comments

By Harry Rosenberg

Wilson is not just a scientist updating us on his specialty, he is a rare storyteller who makes his subjects come alive in the reader's mind. Where we have been, where we are and where we can and should go are treated not only with wisdom and grace, but so naturally that one can almost feel like one the animals he focuses on.

He does grind an axe: Save our biosphere and all life residing in it.

His chronology does not stop in our times. He takes us on with a trip into the future with impeccable, easily-understood logic. At best the environmental picture is grim indeed. This little book was published some seven years ago and we are on track fulfilling his predictions, with only one exception. It is happening faster than even he thought. Our children are now threatened with a rise in sea level in their life times.

To aggravate that, population is still growing exponentially and will continue to for four more decades at least.

Wilson's primary focus in on the biosphere, the flora, the fauna, and us. It is high irony that the most intelligent of species has become its own worst enemy. He devotes chapter 4 to this very subject, "The Planetary Killer," although it overhangs his entire book. He concludes this chapter with a most-telling indictment:

  • The noble savage never existed
  • Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse
  • Paradise found is paradise lost

We are now raping our environment deliberately. The savages did so innocently. Unfettered, the market economy demands and accelerates that. Everywhere one looks the effects are to be seen. Wilson illustrates this feature in economic terms. It is profitable to destroy the capital in the biosphere to create what passes for equivalent capital in a market economy. This is not a political issue, right or left, democracies, dictatorship, theocracies and kingdoms all practice this self-defeating conversion of capital. Plutocracies are the worst, as the US has amply demonstrated. Unfortunately, market regulation may be the only effective answer to global warming. Profit may be OK, but not at the expense of one's living space. Wilson handles this issue superbly well.


That things have gotten worse sooner than even Wilson seems to have expected, shows how weak even "scientific projections" can be. This is especially so when current trends are assumed. The known current trends are simply added together with the projected sums used to depict global warming trends. Wilson and most other authors are careful to qualify their assumption: "If current trends continue." What may be missing is too often ignored. The effects are real enough, but there are others not considered. Moreover they now seem not to be linear. This are a flies in the ointment. Wilson dramatically illustrates all this when discussing population trends.

What global warming projections too often miss is an almost simple-minded effect: When ice retreats, areas where sun light was once reflected, become net absorbers of solar energy instead. For sure, this is our first trip through a warming trend, so we cannot fault honest forecasters. Trends can also be natural with subtle origins--only some of which are understood. The solar constant is too constant just now to be a factor in the run up in global temperatures.

In 2008, the global warming trend replaced cold, reflective ice with with heat absorbing melt water over an area the size of Texas in the North Sea. The ice cap on Greenland began melting at unprecedented rates. A large area of Antarctic ice broke up at the same time and drifted toward warmer waters. So the future can only get worse as the heat-absorbing areas expand while the reflecting areas shrink. In this way, the earth's rate of heating has begun a period of exponential growth that will not level off any time soon because it cannot.

These last comments do not detract form this timely and timeless book. The principles Wilson describes so well are all operating.

The Tipping Point

Most humans think linearly, and an amazing amount of nature behaves that way, at least to a first approximation. It is sometimes devilishly hard to detect non-linearity. Global warming is one of those situations. There is enough year-to-year variation to hide second order effects. Humanity has been caught in just that trap. 2050 (linear) is a long way off, 2020 (exponential) is not for the same event.

As for the tipping point, we are already past it. Since 1970, the global warming trend is longer and steeper than at anytime since accurate records were kept. This is according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

It is our tentative conclusion that we are already well beyond the tipping point. And that fact requires drastic action NOW, not in 2020. We simply must lift our blinders and stop being sheep.

For an enlightened read about what one local group in the UK is doing see Sustainable Development.


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