Friday, October 5, 2012

review: wilson on the mass extinction

Review: Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (Little, Brown, 2002)

‘Although it is possible to predict species extinction for the near future – say, over the next decade or two – such a projection is impossible for the more distant future. The obvious reason is that the trajectory depends on human choice. If the decision were taken today to freeze all conservation efforts at their current level while allowing the same rates of deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction to continue, it is safe to say that at least a fifth of the species of plants and animals would be gone or committed to early extinction by 2030, and half by the end of the century. If, on the other hand, an all-out effort is made to save the biologically richest parts of the natural world, the amount of loss can be cut by at least half.
     – Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (pp. 101-2)

This is, I am obliged to say right away, my first reading of a book by Edward O. Wilson. I can’t say it is my first encounter, for I have met this name many times already. Wilson is one of those prolific scientists whose presence and influence has grown far beyond his area of specialization (myrmecology, the study of ants) and has attained enough aura and eminence, within the mediations of spectacular culture, to enable him to act as that rarity, a public intellectual: someone whose views and assessments are widely disseminated and may actually count for something in the deliberations of policymakers and even, perhaps, in the formation of so-called public opinion.

I read this book to learn more about the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species. In particular, I wanted to know what is behind Wilson’s assertion, often cited in the literature around extinction, that if nothing is done to counteract current trends, we can expect to lose half of all present life-forms by the end of the twenty-first century. This book certainly clarifies his position and provides all the evidence and steps that led him to this shocking prognosis. The gyst is in the citation above, and I discuss Wilson’s prescriptions for the conservation of global biodiversity at the end of this review.

Shasta salamander, threatened
I have also learned that the case of Edward O. Wilson is a complicated one, about which it won’t be possible to reach anything like a just understanding, or even a fair impression, by reading this one book. The Future of Life certainly sets out, in a lively and accessible language, Wilson’s positions regarding biodiversity, extinction and conservation – positions we need to know and wrestle with. His argumentation here also invokes and sometimes actively intersects with his other output and theoretical work, namely his more controversial theses concerning ‘sociobiology’, a new field Wilson is credited with initiating. As a sociobiologist, Wilson insists that human behavior and society are based in biology and heredity, unfolding according to evolutionary laws. Human nature, as he uses the term here, is the long translation of species experience and environmental conditioning into genetic code and memory. For Wilson, sociobiology explains why, for example, studies consistently show that people from across all classes and ethnic backgrounds prefer park-like landscapes that combine groupings of trees with open spaces and vistas. We come from the African savannahs, Wilson informs us, and have evolved as specialists in this kind of environment.

How one handles the balance between nature and nurture, heredity and culture, is obviously of immense ethical and political consequence. I gather, from The Future of Life, that Wilson has highly developed and nuanced positions on this, but there is not enough here for me to understand fully what these positions are or to fathom exactly what Wilson may be packing into this term ‘human nature’. To do that, I would presumably also have to read his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard, 1975), On Human Nature (Harvard, 1979) and Genes, Mind and Culture: the Coevolutionary Process (Harvard, 1981), as well as, perhaps, his most recent The Social Conquest of Earth (Liveright, 2012). And I might as well admit that, given the constraints of my own economy of time and energy, this won’t be likely. So as a non-specialist reader of Wilson, I will have to live with some uncomfortable uncertainty; the many points of contact between his works, which are no doubt intended to cohere in mutually-supporting ways, are not bridges I will be able to cross confidently any time soon.

American burying beetle, endangered
Clearly, these other researches and theses are put to work in the notes and between the lines of The Future of Life. Wilson’s passing reprise here of his Biophilia (Harvard, 1984), another work I should and perhaps will read, suggests that there is substantial sociobiological support for the thesis that we humans love and care for nature, even if we collectively are doing atrocious things to it: ‘It is not so difficult to love nonhuman life, if gifted with knowledge about it. The capacity, even the proneness to do so, may well be one of the human instincts. The phenomenon has been called biophilia, defined as the innate tendency to focus upon life and lifelike forms, and in some instances to affiliate with them emotionally’.(134)

We saw, in my review posted earlier, that Shierry Weber Nicholson offers a psychoanalytic case for the same conclusion. For Nicholsen, as a psychotherapist and critical theorist, the balance comes down decisively on the side of nurture, culture and social process. ‘Human nature’, if we have to use that term, may be constrained by biology in certain ways, but social relations and behavior are mainly historically constructed cultural sediments that remain open and changeable.

Wilson, as far as I can read here, agrees that human nature is a dialectical process rather than simply determined genetic code. But he clearly gives more weight to the continuous effects of genetic programming by evolutionary processes. In view of the biospheric meltdown and our urgent hopes to address it, the existence of a shared, if blocked or repressed, proneness or tendency to bond with non-human life forms may be a saving grace. Happily, it is less important how such a ‘love’ comes to be found in us than the fact that it exists as an embodied capacity at all. The problem is largely the same, however it is formulated: how do we unlock this love and let it operate freely? How do we help it fully to become guiding ethos and actualized social practice? Even if Wilson’s explanation proves more correct, such a biophilia is in itself clearly insufficient in preventing a disastrous extinction event. Even if it is an instinct, such a love needs social support. How to provide this support and open the needed pathways for its mobilizing expression and performance?

Golden toad, extinct since 1989
The following passages convey a sense of how Wilson handles this dialectic of ‘human nature’ (or as Adorno would say, ‘natural history’.) Noting that environmentalism is still widely viewed as a ‘special-interest lobby’ rather than an appropriate response to a survival threat, Wilson offers some thoughts about why our innate biophilia may be inadequate:

‘The relative indifference to the environment springs, I believe, from deep within human nature. The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense.... The reason is simple: it is a hard-wired part of our Paleolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring – even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them. The long view that might have saved their distant descendants required a vision and extended altruism instinctively difficult to marshal.’(40)

At the same time, Wilson insists that the bisopheric crisis is an ethical test we are capable of rising up to: ‘The great dilemma of environmental reasoning stems from this conflict between short-term and long-term values. 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 is also 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.’(40-1)

Coral reef bleaching, Australia
Biophilia in any case is not simply deterministic. If it highlights a certain tendency in the dialectic of nature and nurture, there are antagonistic tendencies, such as biophobia, as well. But some slippages also find their way into Wilson’s usually careful argumentation: ‘To say that there is an instinct, or more accurately an array of instincts, that can be labeled biophilia is not to imply that the brain is hardwired. We do not ambulate like robots to the nearest lakeshore meadow. Instead, the brain is predisposed to acquire certain preferences as opposed to others. Psychologists who study mental development say that we are hereditarily prepared to learn certain behaviors and counterprepared to learn others.’(137) Do psychologists really claim this predisposition is hereditary – that is, genetic? Are they even trained and competent to do so? Is their position not rather that it is social? Moreover, Wilson’s rejection of hardwiring here flies in the face of his invocation of it earlier, in the passage cited above. I guess these and other nitpicking questions would be resolved by reading the fuller treatments Wilson gives elsewhere.

Still, such questions beg others more general but no less crucial, which I can only hope to register here. These point to the difficulties and challenges of translation among the different discourses compelled to intersect on the field of ecocide. In short, how do we talk to each other about this urgent threat from our multitudinously divergent subject positions, disciplines and languages? How do we share our experiences, researches, knowledge, and proposals, as well as our feelings, fears and hopes? We will need to hear and listen to each other carefully, if only to understand views and programs we won’t, in the end, be able to accept. It will be crucial for scientists to share their findings and predictions with us, in ways that convey their conclusions and at least a basic sense of the process by which they were reached, without compromising complexities and qualifications. ‘Popular science’, basically a genre of translation, will of necessity be a rapidly expanding field. We will need to be fast learners in this, for we cannot take it on trust that policymakers and politicians are making honest and careful use of science, rather than instrumentalizing it in opportunistic and cynical ways. Nor can we take it for granted that the scientists will always have the forums to speak for themselves and expose such manipulations, or that such exposures will suffice to arrest powerful social tendencies. (Remember the experience of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.) Moreover, we cannot forget that the autonomy of modernist science is an ideal seldom matched by social fact. Its tendency to merge with business, state and war machine has deeply corrupted whole fields of research and development.

Dying coral
Reading Edward O. Wilson, I readily admit I have come to like him. His intelligence is warm and expansive, and his quirks are by and large charming. He begins the book rather daringly, with a prologue to Thoreau, and the opening sentence is a single word of emphatic address: ‘Henry!’ But despite the rhetorical seduction and my growing readerly trust in Wilson’s own biolphilia, there are moments when the sheer difference of some his assumptions suddenly rears up like a concrete wall. Wilson may study ants, but he also thinks big, on a large and technocratic scale, glibly juggling very large numbers in discussions of, for example, the ‘bottleneck’ of population growth and planetary carrying capacity:

‘The bottom line is different from that generally assumed by our leading economists and public philosophers. They have ignored the numbers that count. Consider that with the global population past six billion and on its way to eight billion or more by mid-century, per-capita fresh water and arable land are descending to levels resource experts agree are risky. The ecological footprint – the average amount of productive land and shallow sea appropriated by each person in bits and pieces from around the world for food, water, housing, energy, transportation, commerce and waste absorption – is about one hectare (2.5 acres) in developing nations but about 9.6 hectares (24 acres) in the United States. The footprint for the total human population is 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres). For every person in the world to reach present US levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet Earths. The five billion people of the developing countries may never wish to attain this level of profligacy. But in trying to achieve at least a decent standard of living, they have joined the industrial world in erasing the last of the natural environments.’(23)

Unquestionably, the scale of our problems is this large, and acknowledging so does not necessarily entail Malthusian conclusions. But where a critical theorist understands these ‘social facts’ as the postcolonial fruits of a dominant logic that has thoroughly shaped the forms and uses of technology, Wilson sees rather the opportunity for grand techno-fixes: ‘Science and technology, combined with a lack of self-understanding and a Paleolithic obstinacy, brought us to where we are today. Now science and technology, combined with foresight and moral courage, must see us through the bottleneck and out.’(Ibid.)

In the concluding chapter, under the openly immodest title ‘The Solution’, Wilson offers some clear-sighted proposals for the global conservation of biodiversity. But his indications about how such proposals would be realized, against the pressures that are driving deforestation, extraction, over-harvesting and so on, reveal a very naïve and inadequate conception of the social process. It becomes clear by the end of the book that Wilson’s outlook is basically technocratic and melioristically progressive. He concludes that science and technology can save us, but only if wielded expertly and powerfully from above, in an alliance of ‘the three secular stanchions of civilized existence: government, the private sector and science and technology’.(164) Wilson is cautiously optimistic, because, after all: ‘Science and technology are themselves reason for optimism.’(156) Moreover: ‘A growing cadre of leaders in business, government, and religion now think in this foresighted manner. They understand that humanity is in a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption. They agree, at least in principle, that we will have to maneuver carefully in order to pass through the bottleneck safely.’(157) Above all, it is the NGOs who will mediate the conflicts and step in decisively where politicians fear to tread.

Wilson’s new Platonic philosopher-kings will apparently form a global vanguard of biophilic technocrats capable of bestriding a public sphere of governments, responsible corporations and NGOs. The decisions of this elite are apparently expected, moreover, to be endorsed by the masses through the mediations of democracies that function unproblematically and the brave new virtualities of Web 2.0. The more ominous social trends of the last sixty years are evidently lost on Wilson. He seems unaware that the knottings of capital, science and technocracy are deeply implicated in a general corruption of democratic processes and the rise, since 1945, of the secretive national security-surveillance state. Is it really possible to imagine that all is well with the forms of contemporary governance?

The possibility of or need for a self-rescuing change from below seems not to register – or if it does, is treated in troublingly condescending manner: ‘At the risk of seeming politically correct, I will now close with a tribute to protest groups. [He chuckles:] They gather like angry bees at meetings of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum.’(188) Hmmm. Aren’t these institutions the very places where the enlightened biophilic elites are presumably meeting to save us? Seriously now: ‘The protest groups are the early warning system for the natural economy. They are the living world’s immunological response.’(Ibid.) But of course, these antibodies should behave themselves. If a few of them destroy property, clash with the police or otherwise get out of hand, then ‘they deserve fines and jail terms.’(189) Do they deserve pepper spray, tear gas, tasers, beatings and rubber bullets, too? Again, this is a shockingly clichéd view of politics and the social process. As brilliant as he is in many areas, he has not grasped the basics of the social force-field. His call for an eco-ethics seems to be grounded in the benign assumption that changes in behavior must surely follow knowledge and understanding, so long as the called-for behavior is not in conflict with instinct. But what if they are in conflict with the dominant and enforced social logic, as is here the case?

If Wilson is sanguine about the gap between science and policymakers, this is because, for him, both belong to the guild of enlightened technocracy. The main problem ‘is how to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible’.(189) Once our ethical, biophilic technocrats understand the problem, they can be trusted to engineer and carry out the solutions, tout va bien. From the perspectives of critical theory, such a daydream is more than naïve; it betrays some dangerous misrecognitions. For me, Wilson’s handling of the social process and the relation between capitalist accumulation and biospheric meltdown seems as amateurish as my handling of the science would, I’m sure, seem to him. My own responses and discomforts here remind me that the gap between science and politics is not the only one we have to worry about. The gap between science and critical theory opens so wide in places that the old specter of incommensurability returns to haunt the encounter.

As we have seen, Wilson is only very weakly self-reflective about the historic role and social position of science, and he never inquires about the social logic that captures and shapes technology qua forces of production. He evidently hasn’t heard of critical theory, or perhaps has decided not to dignify it with attempts at refutation. With astonishing ease, he simply disavows the critique of automatic progress and reaffirms his eighteenth-century faith in the noble impulses of science – as if science was free and its impulses sufficient to rein in and steer the very social logic that dominates it. We only need ‘to diagnose and disconnect extraneous political ideology, then shed it in order to move toward the common ground where economic progress and conservation are treated as one and the same goal’.(155) Is it really still news, that ideology constitutes and saturates the social and hence is not simply ‘extraneous’ and ‘disconnectable’; or that value-neutrality, already thoroughly critiqued before World War II and Hiroshima (for example, by Horkheimer in 1937), is an ideological position?

In addition to Wilson’s technocratic reflexes, the basically neo-liberal assumptions that correspond to them also come into view as he introduces his Solution. In some ways, Wilson does indeed propose some radical transformations in the human relation to the biosphere. But these are expected to take place within good old ‘there is no alternative’ parameters. Well, we are revealed by what we always already exclude: ‘The world economy is now propelled by venture capital and technical innovation; it cannot be returned to a pastoral civilization.’(156) Is that the only choice: the continued rule of venture capital or past models of pastorality? Might there not be new models of cohabitation based on new, emerging productive values and practices, such as permaculture? Might not a mix of models promise to be more humane and sustainable than capitalist monoculture? ‘Nor will any socialism return in a second attempt to rescue us, at least not in any form resembling the Soviet model.’(Ibid.) No one wants another attempt at technocratic state socialism on that model, but, again, is this really our only choice: capitalism or that? Encore en effort, Professor Wilson!

But now he explains: ‘The juggernaut of technology-based capitalism will not be stopped. Its momentum is reinforced by the billions of poor people in developing countries anxious to participate in order to share the material wealth of the industrialized nations.’(156) Here we at least have the bones of an argument to go with the assertion. But it isn’t just the poor, is it? I might have put it differently, but Wilson does validly point here to our deep implication, through our desires and participation in the fantasies and enjoyments on offer, in a system that cannot deliver what it promises (at least, not without ‘four more planet Earths’.) So: ‘The choice is clear: the juggernaut will very soon either chew up what remains of our living world, or it will be redirected to save it.’ Science, technology, NGOs and enlightened technocratic despots to the rescue.

Rainforest activist José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, assassinated in Brazil, 2011

I could go on in this vein, but let me stop here. Wilson lays out, with great clarity, the ecological dynamics of the biospheric meltdown and mass extinction, and we should be grateful to him for that. We will have to accept that his handling of the social dynamics driving meltdown and extinction is flawed and inadequate. Only massive pressure from below, opposing the pressures of accumulation that operate routinely, is likely to open the spaces for technocratic policymakers to act autonomously, in the ways Wilson calls for. The current austerity programs are proof enough that the technocratic establishment is unprepared to think or act beyond the given logic of rivalrous accumulation, whatever the immediate cost in public destruction and misery. The current conjuncture also unhappily confirms that we all, collectively, are not yet willing to risk a bold and robust break with the given logic, either. So-called politics is stuck in the untenable but persistent hope that by more belt-tightening we can somehow return to the commodified miracles of the post-1945 economic expansion. Expansion itself is still not in doubt. As for the biospheric meltdown, neither we nor the technocrats have even begun to take that seriously into political account.

Nevertheless, Wilson’s proposals are noble enough, and as goals are entirely worthy. If we fully implement them, he thinks we should be able to reduce the loss of life forms from roughly fifty-percent by 2100 to twenty-five percent. Here are the highlights: Wilson points to twenty-five hotspots of biodiversity that require urgent immediate protection; these habitats, mostly endangered remnants of rainforest, ‘are both at the greatest risk and shelter the largest concentrations of species found nowhere else’.(161) Next, the five remaining frontier forests, including Amazonia and the conifer forests of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland and Scandanavia, must be protected and kept intact. Next, all logging of old-growth forests everywhere must cease immediately. The marine hotspots of the world, above all the coral reefs, must be defined precisely and assigned ‘the same action priority as for those on the land’.(162) The mapping and scientific description of the world’s biodiversity must be completed. Conservation must be made profitable: ‘Find ways to raise the income of those who live in and near the reserves. Give them a proprietary interest in the natural environment and engage them professionally in its protection.’(Ibid.) More restoration projects. More breeding of endangered species in zoos and botanical gardens. And finally: ‘Support population planning.’(164)

Wilson offers some numbers to argue that these goals are not unreasonable or asking too much: ‘For global conservation, only one-thousandth of the current annual world domestic product, or $30 billion out of approximately $30 trillion, would accomplish most of the task. One key element, the protection and management of the world’s existing natural reserves, could be financed by a one-cent-per-cup tax on coffee.’(Ibid) Who would not pay another penny for a cup of coffee! One can only agree with Wilson, that given the stakes, conservation of biodiversity represents ‘the best bargain humanity has ever been offered’.(Ibid)

Wilson puts his immediate hopes in the conservation NGO’s, which have now become sufficiently large and deep-pocketed to buy endangered habitat outright, or else compete for leases with global extraction industries and mediate debt-for-habitat swaps between banks and cash-strapped small countries. The bigger the better here, Wilson insists, praising the efforts of Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund (of whose board of directors Wilson was a member for ten years).

Funeral of Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santa, 2011
Wilson does his best to inspire us with success stories that point to what’s possible. By the last page, I want to give him a hug. And I may even be moved to write a check or two to a land-buying, reserve-building NGO, in addition to more activist groups such as Sea Shepherd. But we cannot duck the fact that Wilson’s approach remains over-optimistic, so long as the social and psychological obstacles to self-rescue have not been confronted more radically. Wilson’s proposals are admirable and achievable. Why, then, have they not been implemented? (In 2011, environmental activists around the world were murdered at a rate of one a week. This morning a new study informs us that half of the coral cover in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has now been lost.) The social returns, like every repressed. By all means, let us push for conservation. More reserves, more sanctuaries, stronger protections. Extinction, as the slogan goes, is forever. But we will also have to push against the master logic that blocks us, even in this modest and reasonable goal of conserving precious biodiversity.

Critical theory suggests that as we hope to change ourselves, we need to struggle and be ready to keep struggling against the social forms of domination. We need to organize continuous and growing pressure on the policymakers and technocrats, but we cannot wait for them to change directions and finally adopt the values Wilson already credits them with. At the same time, we ourselves need to change everyday life by opening and following lines of flight that enable us to actualize our values now. The double strategy from below – political struggle and building our new commons day by day – cannot promise an instant fix. But these are efforts that slowly shift the balance of forces. By such a shift, and probably only by such a shift, can we realistically hope that the hold and global headlock of the master logic will at some point give way to something new and better. What will be left of the wild on that day, if Wilson’s estimates of the rate of extinction hold, will be a heartbreaking question to answer.


Isabella Kirkland, Endangered and Extinct Species

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