Inquiro Volumne 10 |2016 cover image

Author: Nicholas Bolin

E. O. Wilson is a veritable legend among biologists, gaining international fame for his scientific efforts as a conservationist, researcher, and writer. He has won two Pulitzer prizes for his books On Human Nature and The Ants, though many consider The Future of Life to be his most personal work. This book is characterized by an impassioned plea of an old soul for the life of his planet, while simultaneously maintaining a constant overtone of wizened astuteness and practicality. In this novel, Wilson address some of the most important and belittled questions of our time, such as, “how can mankind mitigate the damage it has caused to the biosphere yet continue to thrive industrially?” and, “how much is the biosphere actually worth?”

As the reader progresses through the book, an underlying structure becomes apparent. Following the prologue (a very personal and lengthy “letter to Thoreau” [Wilson 2002:xi] from the author), the first unit consists of a humbling introduction to the magnificent and truly vast array of organisms and ecosystems that call this planet home. The next part presents the various afflictions of the biosphere, debuting mankind’s harsh treatment of its natural resources over the course of a mere century. Wilson goes on to specify in the third unit exactly how much the biosphere is worth, from both an economical and an ethical standpoint.  The final point establishes that hope for the planet’s biodiversity is far from lost—there are many ways we can mitigate the damage done to the biosphere. For example, the author emphasizes repeatedly that “biodiversity grows more biodiversity” (Wilson 2002:110). What this phrase means is that the effects on the ecosystem by one organism provide benefits for other organisms; in effect, the more species are preserved, the more productive the biosphere will be in terms of natural resources.

Between the polarized views of the financially savvy, if apathetic, economist, and the well-meaning but impractical environmentalist “[fluttering his] hands over pollution and threatened species” (Wilson 2002:39), a reasonable conclusion on the outlook of our planet can be difficult to reach. The author presents these two people as exaggerated versions of real-world views, but notes that the majority of Earth’s inhabitants are of the same culture, taking at least some personal interest in both economic and environmental welfare. Having asserted this commonality, he urges his audience to consider the uncomfortable facts that the environmentalist presents while carrying the mindset of an economist. The problems caused by Homo sapiens to our biosphere are far-reaching and serious, but not irreparable. Before explaining his views on revitalizing the planet, however, the author explains in-depth what exactly has caused—and continues to cause—the bottleneck that began in the twentieth century.

Human population growth is one of the most obvious, yet avoided problems of our time, and the author spends ample time on it. He spends the entirety of Chapter 2, entitled “The Bottleneck,” discussing not how humanity’s increasing population has affected biodiversity, but how it has essentially placed itself in a bind. To illustrate, he presents the most optimistic and pessimistic growth predictions for the next 40 years (7.3 billion and 14.3 billion, respectively), ending in the year 2050. The author then offers his best guess at “somewhere between 9 and 10 billion” people by that time (Wilson 2002:31). At this point he discloses his audience that since the human race already appropriates forty percent of the world’s green plant products, the biosphere could not support even the modest 10 billion people at the current rates of food consumption. This statistic mentions nothing of the fact that biodiversity will be severely impacted by such an increase, which is an important aspect that concerns mankind’s very survival and is something he explains in detail later in the book.

Besides population growth, Wilson blames much of the humanity’s reckless destruction of natural resources on mere short-sightedness. As he puts it, “The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography . . . To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense” (Wilson 2002:40). In essence, he reasons that the conflict between long-term and short-term values is responsible for much of the environmental dilemma. Only by combining such views, he claims, can we achieve a “universal environmental ethic” (Wilson 2002:41).

In Chapter 3, Wilson lists the factors that have actually led to the decline in the number of species on earth, summarized by the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population, over-harvesting. Of all these “incursive forces” (Wilson 2002:50), each of which can be seen around the world, population has the most negative influence on the biosphere. Other than this factor, the letters in the HIPPO acronym decrease in importance from left to right. Habitat destruction, then, is the next most influential, and overharvesting is the least. Combinations of these elements are common and are even more dangerous. For example, overpopulation means more deforestation and general clearing of land, which, if executed in any of the biodiverse “’hotspots’ on the land” (Wilson 2002:60) could cause irreparable harm to a multitude to species. The author speaks of the Amazon rainforest, where the owner countries wish to use it for timber and land for the poor, while as of now only setting aside 3 to 5 percent as protected reserves. Given the topography of the land, the Amazon could be easily demolished in decades.

Despite covering a host of threats to our planet’s health, the overall atmosphere of the book is far from hopeless. Discussion of solutions to the HIPPO problems and the bottleneck are equally as common as discussion of dilemmas. When explaining possible solutions to the biosphere’s afflictions, Wilson emphasizes several main points including the following: grow biodiversity with more biodiversity, fund nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), completely cease the logging of old-growth forests, salvage the world’s hotspots immediately, and finally, make conservation profitable. None of these elements are actions that can be taken by an individual—they require the cooperation of three key branches: government, the private sector, and science and technology. The governments, Wilson explains, devise regulatory practices which, assuming they are ethically viable, “give long-term benefits to the governed” (Wilson 2002:164). Government is the money-maker for the other branches, in addition to serving as party in environmental protection treaties. The private sector, working in the confines of governmental policy, is society’s engine. It allows the general populace to look ahead in all important venues, including environmental. This branch, along with the government, also supports science and technology, which is responsible for improving mankind’s knowledge of the physical world.

Through an unmatched passion for life and this planet, E. O. Wilson has presented the biosphere to his audience in two ways: as it is and how he envisions it can be. Among many other things he is a realist, and he is one of the few individuals that is able to back his dreams for the future with scientific knowledge and real-world solutions in a competent and persuasive manner. On the whole, The Future of Life is a book that provokes thought, and one that widens the reader’s perspective to a world that is not nearly as simple, dull, or as hopeless as he feared it was.


  1. Wilson, E. O. (2002). The Future of Life. New York, New York: Vintage Books.