The Future of Life
By Edward O. Wilson, Knopf, 2002, xxiv+229 pp, $22, ISBN 0-679-45078-5.
(Reprinted, with permission, from Teachers Clearinghouse Newsletter for Science & Society Education, Winter 2005. )
Wilson begins this book with a letter written apostrophically to Henry David Thoreau about the changes in nature resulting from human behavior during the intervening 150 years. "Now more than six billion people fill the world," he writes. "The great majority are very poor . .. all are struggling to raise the quality of their lives any way they can. . . . We have been too self-absorbed to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions," he continues, "and we will suffer a terrible loss unless we shake off our delusions and move quickly to a solution." (pp. xii, xxiv)
Using the concept of ecological footprint developed by William Rees (as reported in Teachers Clearinghouse, Spring 2004), Wilson observes that to provide the American quality of life for all of Earth's six billion inhabitants would require four more Earths. He sees the immediate future of coping with increased population in the context of finite environmental resources as a bottleneck in the short term, and seeks an answer in the long term to what he calls the question for the 21st century: "How best can we shift to a culture of permanence, both for ourselves and for the biosphere that sustains us?" (p. 22)
Biodiversity is Wilson's chief concern. His list of factors endangering species forms the acronym HIPPO: Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Population (human), and Overharvesting. All five result from human behavior. Under a "business as usual" scenario Wilson sees the flora of Earth dominated in 2100 by seven alien species that have been particularly destructive of native environments, and agricultural crops, many of them bioengineered. In this scenario "the cosmopolitan flow of alien organisms" (p. 77) will have created a homogenous ecosystem for a given latitude and altitude throughout the world. Technology will have brought water to grow food even in the vastest desert, but "An aging and wiser human population understands very well -- too late now -- that Earth is a much poorer place than it was back in 2000, and will stay that way forever." (p. 77)
Although Wilson sees moral reasons to preserve the species of the world, he also points up economic reasons to preserve them as well. In 1997 an "international team of economists and environmental scientists" valued "ecosystems services," including "the regulation of the atmosphere and climate; the purification and retention of fresh water; the formation and enrichment of the soil; nutrient cycling; the detoxification and recirculation of waste; the pollination of crops; and the production of lumber, fodder, and biomass fuel" as $33 trillion per year, nearly twice the "gross world product" of $18 trillion.
Although 90% of agriculture is based on "slightly more than a hundred plant species out of a quarter-million known to exist," and "twenty species carry most of the load, of which only thre --wheat, maize, and rice--stand between humanity and starvation" (p. 114), Wilson sees the world's other species as potential edibles, medicines, and genetic donors to bioengineered crops. Thus, present species must be evaluated for their future value even if they have none at present.
Thus, while Wilson recognizes ethical differences between those who put the environment over people and those who put people over the environment, he also recognizes that "the ethical solution is . . . to move toward the common ground where economic progress and conservation are treated as one and the same goal." (p. 155) To this end he advocates a 12-point program embodying both economic progress and conservation, two points of which should be noted here. Admitting to being an "extremist" on conservation, he would increase the present 10% of Earth allotted to nature to 50% ("half the world for humanity, half for the rest of life. . . ." (p. 163)); and he would "support population planning."
But at a time when improving the standard of living for all humankind would require four more Earths, population planning would be essential to increase the percentage of Earth allocated to nature Wilson waxes more optimistic in claiming that "Earth is still productive enough and human ingenuity creative enough not only to feed the world now but also to raise the standard of living of the population projected to at least the middle of the twenty-first century." (p. 164) Wilson is buoyed by the success that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have experienced in recent years in protecting large tracts of undeveloped land, and he attributes this to "some of the better attributes of business corporations" (p. 181). But he adds that more is needed: "The tropical wilderness areas and the hottest of the hotspots . . . which together contain perhaps 70 percent of Earth's plant and animal species, can be saved by a single investment of roughly $30 billion," which he points out is one thousandth of the annual combined gross national products of the world -- "or, viewed another way, one-thousandth of the value of services provided free each year by the world's natural ecosystems" (p. 183).
John L. Roeder
The Calhoun School
J. Robert Oppenheimer: And the American Century
By David Cassidy, Pi Press, 2004, $28, 480 pages, ISBN 0131479962
David C. Cassidy’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a concise, well-written book about the life of the famous 20th century scientist. The broad lines of Oppenheimer’s public persona are well known: as the foremost American theoretical physicist in the 1930’s, the aesthete scientist with communist sympathies was called by his government to lead the successful effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb only to be humiliated in 1954 when his security clearance was stripped shortly before it would have expired. Two portraits of Oppenheimer have typically appeared in the public’s imagination: he has tended to be cast either as Faustus who sells his soul to the devil (read Pentagon) for fame and power only to eventually pay a terrible price, or as Prometheus, a Titan who unleashes the energy of the atomic nucleus in service to his country only to suffer at the hands of powers intent on promoting their agenda now threatened by an authoritative figure.
Oppenheimer has often been described by his acquaintances as a man who did not know who he was, an extremely complex individual with no deep sense of self. According to Cassidy, an intuition about Oppenheimer’s fundamental insecurity partly explains why General Leslie Groves chose him to lead the Manhattan project: He could be manipulated. Furthermore, the choice of Oppenheimer, despite his communist sympathies, would foster a sense of indebtedness that would give Oppenheimer the impression that he needed Groves as a shield against future accusations. Groves eventually withdrew his protection when he testified against Oppenheimer at his security hearing.
Long before we read about the hearings, Cassidy tells the tale of the wealthy Upper West Side Jewish family where Oppenheimer was born. His father, Julius, emigrated from Germany to work in the garment industry where he prospered and became part of the Society for Ethical Culture. The Society had sprung in 1876 from the largest and wealthiest Jewish congregation of the United States, the Reform Judaism Temple EmmanuEl. Composed at the time mainly of wealthy members of German heritage, the Society’s goal was to improve the real world through morally motivated action. In order to fulfill this end, the Society’s tool of choice was transcendent reason applied to the urban social problems caused by industrialization and immigration. At the turn of the 20th century a new wave of more religious Jews from Slavic countries entered the United States causing some consternation amongst many older, established, Jewish families originally from Germany who strove to assimilate within New York high society. The Ethical Culture Society’s assistance to the new more Orthodox Jewish immigrants stemmed to some extent from a desire to facilitate their integration into American culture. The Oppenheimer’s membership in the Ethical Culture Society and young Robert’s schooling for ten of his twelve years at its Ethical Culture School inculcated young Oppenheimer with the view that economic inequality is a major underlying cause of urban and societal ills and was probably the root of his lifelong liberalism. The book implicitly suggests that the Society’s emphasis on the secular and its rejection of the divine (Judaism) as a basis for morality may have contributed to Oppenheimer apparent trouble with developing a core sense of identity.
This helps explain how Oppenheimer could transform himself from leftist outsider to the ultimate government insider with the highest security clearance. The book does go into some detail about Oppenheimer fragile psyche as a young man including an episode where he attempted to strangle fellow Ethical Culture School alum, Francis Fergusson, during a conversation on personal and professional matters as well as his habit to become suddenly “ill” whenever faced with an unpleasant prospect. How these mental woes affected Oppenheimer’s career as a physicist is only a guess. But an assessment of Oppenheimer as a scientist invariably leaves the impression that he could have contributed far more if he had been more focused, and David Cassidy makes this point on more than one occasion.
The book also discusses the scientific climate that saw Oppenheimer’s coming of age as a physicist. The scientific content of the biography is adequate and its description of scientific ideas is passable. Cassidy draws parallels between the research careers of Oppenheimer and Werner Heisenberg, the leader of the German Bomb project. In particular, he compares the subject matters of the papers written by the two physicists in an effort to reveal their basic style of research. Within this context, Cassidy gives an account of how Oppenheimer and his collaborators provided the correct explanation of cosmic ray showers by staying close to experimental results while their German counterparts looked for fundamental theories that kicked in at energies of a few hundred MeVs. Although Heisenberg’s physical insights have had a far more profound impact on our understanding of nature, Oppenheimer’s more data-driven approach to physics probably contributed to the success of the Manhattan project in contrast to the German effort.
The book concludes with the security hearings and their aftermath. From the records, it is clear that the purpose of the hearing was not so much about whether or not Oppenheimer was a security risk, since his one-year contract as an adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission (which required the security clearance) expired one day after the final report from the commission. As an alternative to holding public hearings, the AEC could have simply not renewed the contract if they held misgivings about Oppenheimer. Instead, the public hearings were more likely designed to pull down an influential man who had opposed the construction of the H-bomb in such a fashion as to send a powerful message to the scientific community: As non-elected consultants, their role was not to set policy which should be left to elected officials. Their role was confined to providing technical advice on what can and cannot be done and no more.
Oppenheimer is a book about the foremost representative of American science in the 20th century and is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the coming of age of American physics and how the weaknesses and strengths of one of its leaders shaped the relationship between science and the government for decades to come.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory,