Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: E O Wilson, The Future of Life

Edward O Wilson: The Future of Life (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 2002) 189 pages, chapter notes (extensive), glossary, index

abbreviations used: EROEI - Energy Return on Energy Investment
                                IMF - International Monetary Fund
                                WB - World Bank
             In writing Future, Wilson adopted the mantle of the Old Testament Prophet: redeem your ways or suffer the wages of your sin! His intentions are admiral but his proposals to rectify our ways are too often based on a faulty or over-optimistic reading of the state of the world, above all, of the human capacity for self-deception. 

            In the course of Future's nearly 200 pages,Wilson delivers a truly damning indictment of the destructive impact of human economic activity on earth's vital "bearing capacity", its ability to sustain life as we know it. As a naturalist, he knows that by degrading the natural world with our excessive numbers and badly designed technology, we are sawing off the branch we are sitting on.

             From a philosophical and moral perspective, particularly the latter, it is hard not agree with his analysis. I particularly appreciated his replies to "hard doomers", fueled by fundamentalist fervor that earth (or humanity) is doomed and nothing we can imagine or do will save us. The former doomer assertion is laughable: industrial society will collapse long before it renders the planet unlivable for hardy, archaic microbes: they are found kilometers deep buried in primeval rock and under the sea floor. Even if we somehow succeeded in sterilizing the earth's surface of life, ancient bacteria would eventually recolonize the seas and the land in a few zillion years.. Humanity, of course, is more fragile than the earth itself and so we could, conceivably, cause ourselves to go extinct. I just rather doubt it: protohumans and humans survived terrific hardships and are a resilient lot. More to the point: what the hell kind of world are my kids and grand kids going to live in..

             In all honesty, it must be admitted Prof Wilson has stepped up to bat. He has headed or supported various organisations devoted to international conservation efforts. My difficulties in accepting his proposals lie not in his scientific analysis of climate and ecosystem health but in the implicit "business-as-usual" perspective of human demographics and economic activity his analyses are based on. In short, Wilson is proposing what I would call the "liberal green action plan". This world view holds that, collectively, we are becoming more aware of environmental problems. Growing wealth of the world's population - especially the poorer segments of societies - permits greater positive interventions in the management of natural life support systems. Thus Wilson encourages his readers to become more informed and active in environmental issues: habitat destruction, energy development,.. It is important to work in both their local communities and, through donations, with international nongovernmental organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature, fair trade associations for third world agricultural producers, etc. This view, essentially optimistic, is founded, I believe, on the false logical argument that the future will resemble the past, that our current trajectory can be adjusted to deliver us to a predictable destination using tools and strategies we are familiar with. Since I do not share Wilson's assumptions regarding the sustainability of the current trajectory, I find much to criticize in his proposals (and much less in his overall guiding principles). 

            In discussing declining global birth rates - page 30 - Wilson speaks of these almost as if they reflected declines in absolute population levels. Such reductions in population growth may provide reason for "guarded optimism" perhaps, but not reason to rejoice just yet. Total global population has not leveled off yet, it's just growing more slowly..

             Wilson attributes the observed declines in growth rate to the globalized industrial economy, urbanization and the empowerment of women. Historically, modernization has indeed depressed mortality below traditional birth rates, creating a chronic excess of births over deaths. During modernization, European societies generally doubled their population sizes from the Enlightenment (latter half of 18th century, the early Industrial Era) to today. Thus it is perhaps a bit disingenuous to claim that the major, or immediate, impact of trends like economic globalization and women's liberation is a decrease in population growth! The short and medium term perspective seems rather the converse: a multigenerational pulse of population growth until birth rates once again drop to equilibrium with mortality rates, the condition that existed in "steady state" traditional economies (except that there, high birth rates were in equilibrium with high mortality rates).

             Thus, when modern medicine and hygiene are introduced, the immediate impact will be a sharp reduction in infant mortality creating a "baby boom". Even if these kids have fewer children than their parents (say three rather than five), there will be a glut of young parents producing a huge number of offspring. Moreover, this second generation glut of babies, like their parents, will have a lower mortality rate thereby causing a secondary, or "echo", baby boom in the next generation. Even if birth rates continue to drop in successive generations, it will take several generations for birth and death rates to equilibrate. During this time, if European societies are any guide, population will probably double. To worsen matters, the "baby boom" generation of early modernization will produce a glut of unemployed, often unemployable, young men looking for trouble (it's a hormone thing aggravating lousy future perspectives..) How much of contemporary terrorism is actually due to "socio-demographic factors" is anyone's guess, given the state of evolution of the human and social sciences. But failed development, rampant population growth and poverty, the "boomerization" / juvenilization of the population, the breakdown of traditional social arrangements without adequate replacement - none of this announces a smooth transition into the "Information Century".

             Prof Wilson does make a capital point, though: "the freeing of women socially and economically results in fewer children". This has been established but the question remains: does the liberation of women necessarily result from globalization? Can globalization, as currently practiced, not actually hinder the empowerment / liberation of women? One thinks of the repressive regimes bankrolled by the USA, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Pinochet in Chile, Mubarak in Egypt come immediately to mind!

link: torture-under-pinochet

              Prof Wilson appears to (naively) believe the West will act in the best interests of third world countries. Given the last 500 years of colonization and exploitation by Europe, the track record is not good.. defintely not a good start. I personally believe that, more often than not, the West acts in the (perceived) interest of its own ruling elites and, only secondarily, in the interest of "symbiotic" third world elites who serve their Western masters by keeping the "natives in their place". (It's called neocolonialism.) A rather shocking example: to recuperate bad loads made to thrid world states, IMF and WB forced third world cut backs in social safety nets which actually act as brakes on procreation. In these traditional societies, children are their parents' old age pension plan. Cut back on modern social safety nets and you re-instate the traditional argument for huge families! (Sometimes it's hard to believe that people working for IMF and WB generally have university degrees - makes you wonder what they are teaching these days..) A non-ideological approach to development would instead work to fine tune social programs like old age pension, social medicine, affordable or free schooling, family planning with ready access to contraception, etc in order to speed up the "demographic transition" to a steady state low birth rate / low death rate modern society. Even more damning for the perspective that the West acts as a "moral agent" in the world: the support by the West - particularly the United States - of Islamic "freedom fighters" during Cold War anti-Soviet conflicts. These policies have now come back to bite us in the rear end as former mujahideen "freedom fighters" have morphed into today's "islamofascists", "extremists" and "terrorists".

"The arms race between the Cold War superpower rivals sapped the Soviet Union of its economic lifeblood and presaged the collapse of communism. The decisive battle of the Cold War was fought and won for the West in Afghanistan by Muslims. They were trained, indoctrinated, armed and given financial assistance with the approval and support of the West and the more affluent “moderate” Islamic countries, notably Saudi Arabia. Thousands of volunteers from Muslim countries and particularly the Arab world were flown to training camps in Pakistan and sent into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation forces. They were acclaimed as the “mujahideen” or holy warriors and were lionised as the heroes of the liberation struggle. By one account, mujahideen commanders were paid between US $ 20,000 to $ 50, 000 each per month while those that were more influential received US $ 100,000. Afghan, Arab and Pakistani mujahideen were convinced they were fighting a holy war against the godless communists. This is what they were taught in some, but not all, of the seminaries or madrassas of Pakistan. In 1971 there were approximately nine hundred madrassas in Pakistan by mid-1988 the number soared to eight thousand recognized religious schools and “an estimated twenty-five thousand unregistered ones.”"

                That's right, we have Ronald Reagan and his macho gang to thank for the disastrous political climate we are living in now. (When I discovered these facts, I could hardly believe it: why are our leaders such - apparent - idiots? And what does this say about the institution of democracy - since the people put these joiks in power in the first place..)

              It is also obvious that many westerners do care about what happens elsewhere and about the fate of our earth for future generations. Witness the "ethical investement" and "fair trade" movements, not to mention third world adoptions, emergency relief aid, etc. That is not the point. The west, like everyone else, is a house divided against itself, a house "of many mansions" with divided, often conflictual interests. Wilson, in essence, is providing us with an over idealized vision of the West and a very over optimistic judgement of its future capacity to "carry" third word "development" and emergency relief. In my reading, the capacity of upper middle class westerners, the people Prof Wilson is counting on, will diminish as the impacts of non-renewable resource supply short falls begin to work their way through the system.

             We are beginning to see the early stages of this process in the Peak Oil phenomenon. Oil, a non-renewable resource, exists in great quanity in the ground. When people began to exploit it commercially, at the beginning of the twentieth century, they logically went after the "low hanging fruit", the stuff easy to get at: it actually spurted out of the ground under pressure, no need to pump. For every barrel worth of energy used to extract, ship, process and distribute  the oil, the producer got the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil out of the ground. We say he had an "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" ratio, EROEI, of 100 : 1. Today, the low hanging fruit has all been picked. Today we are forced to go after the hard to get stuff. Despite technological advances, the EROEI for contemporary "new" reserves just going into production is a mere 7 - 8 : 1. An incredible depletion in resource quality in a mere century! 

              Obviously, from a physical perspective, an EROEI of 1 is the break even point for which you are wasting your time: for every barrel of oil worth of energy you get one barrel of energy back. Your net gain is zero. Economics, though, is a harsher mistress than physics: energy market analysts claim that an EROEI of about 3 - 4 is necessary for economic viability. We are not far from that already. In short, I find it unlikely that the Western societies will have the wealth - or the inclination - to support the kind of programs of nature conservation Prof Wilson advocates. Example: paying a third world country money NOT to extract oil but to perserve the land in a pristine forested condition. Or paying "carbon credits" for the maintenance of rain forest on the grounds that the ecosytem services provided (climate regulation) is worth more than the monies payed in perpetuity to maintain the forest as a wildlife refuge. Wilson admits that small amounts of sustainably harvested products may be extracted from the forest to offset its upkeep. In addition, ecotourism can provide some payback. Once again, I think he is being overoptimistic about the perspectives for a continued degree of affluence in an energy starved West. Our wealth and power are historically based on cheap energy. Take that cheap energy away and so goes our wealth and power. I may be wrong here, of course, but I don't see the future as rosy as Wilson does.

              Future, though, provides a wealth of information about human / environment interactions. Natural wealth includes essential "ecosystem services" such as oxygen, clean water, bacterial recycling of waste but also the esthetic and health restoring values of natural surroundings. A strong body of evidence is emerging that optimal human health, both physical and mental, is obtained, maintained, or regained by regular contact with the natural world and / or its domesticated representatives like cats, dogs, horses ("therapeutic animal visits" to pension houses, prisons or disturbed / spinal cord injured children for example). It turns out that when you begin adding up all the free ecosystem services in dollar equivalents you arrive at a sum that is (minimally) double the global Gross Nation Product! (Page 106)

             Fortunately, Wilson demolishes the simplistic dollar equivalence valuation. In reality, natural ecosystem serices are vital: without oxygen we die in a few minutes; without water, within a week or so; without food, maybe about a month. Simply put, life is worth more than money when push comes to shove. In practice, this means that the "marginal value" of natural ecosystem services rises exceedingly sharply with increasing scarcity. If water is rationed in an equitable manner and everybody get enough, we bathe less and bitch. Reduce the ration further and we're willing to go to war, eventually even to kill our neighbors to assure our family has enough. Simple dollar valuation cannot account for this quality of essential serves or goods. In the limit a dollar spent on water or food is not worth a dollar spent on a SUV or the gas to run it.

          Even in purely economic terms, going green sometimes wins hands down. Wilson analyzes the case of New York City and the Catskill Mountain catchment basin. As NYC population grew, forests were cleared, farms spread and water quality declined. A proposed filtration plant would have cost $6 to $8 billion with $300 million annual running costs. The city wisely chose an alternative route: it bought and upgraded forested land and subsidized the upgrading of sceptic tanks in the Catskill catchment. Cost a "mere" $1 billion and lower running costs. Better! In addition, the people of NYC and the catchment basin benefit from the "double gift from nature" in perpetuity of clean water at low cost and a beautiful recreational area at no, or little, additional cost. Seems like a no brainer: why don't our leaders do more "system thinking"? Alas, Future, offers no answer to this question..

              It's a bit hard rating a book a disagree with so much written by an author I generally admire. If I put myself in the place of a potentially targeted reader - a 16 year old asking questions, possibly with some interest in earth or space science - I would probably consider this an informative book on several levels: 1- a good, solid set of humane, life-affirming values and 2- a lot of info on human / natural interaction and its economic values and dis-values. From that perspective, I think Wilson has done a good job: give it 8 points on 10, then.

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