The Future of Life by Edward O Wilson

Edward O Wilson started with ants, then broadened his vision to embrace not just the present but the future of our planet. Michael McCarthy hails a rare Green optimist
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Realists see further. Realists are not blinded to the nature of the world by their own vision, as are romantics, ideologues and utopians. Realists are the people, throughout history, who have ultimately controlled outcomes, often picking up the pieces which the dreamers have left behind.

Yet we of this age instinctively love a dreamer, and despise a realist. With the bittersweet echoes of the Sixties still jangling seductively in our ears, we think of pragmatism as one of the worst insults we can throw, equating it with betrayal, with Machiavellianism, with that most mortal of Sixties sins, the sell-out.

All the more surprising, then, to find a passionate plea from a passionate conservationist to save the earth's rapidly disappearing wildlife couched in entirely realistic terms. Since the latest wave of environmental concern began washing over public opinion 15 years ago, there have been a thousand formulae for saving the planet, and nearly all of them have been utopian.

Green campaigners invariably visualise a new model of society and dilate upon the lifestyle changes necessary for each of us if the vision is to be implemented. Get out of your car and on to your bike, use energy-saving lightbulbs, make sure all your rubbish is recycled, eat less meat, don't buy this but do buy that.

Well, we should. But many people won't. With one crucial exception. Edward O Wilson, the greatest naturalist of our age, does not so much as hint at mass lifestyle change in offering his solution to the desperate crisis of survival now facing much of the staggering diversity of life that evolution has produced on earth, from ants to elephants, from nematode worms to the blue whale. He merely says: throw money at it. Huge, huge sums of money. Intelligently.

The exception is population control, which Wilson says is the sine qua non of continuing to have an earth both with the vast variety of life we know today, and with the possibility of human happiness for more than a few. With the world's population having reached six billion, on or about 12 October 1999, and now heading for nine or, failing controls, even 14 billion by the middle of the century, "it should be obvious to anyone not in a euphoric delirium that whatever humanity does or does not do, Earth's capacity to support our species is approaching its limit."

Yet the population of the industrialised countries is falling now, and population control itself, once a taboo idea in much of the developing world, is gaining widespread support. By 1996 about 130 nations subsidised family planning services and more than half of all developing countries had official population policies, with 90 per cent of the rest having stated their intention to follow suit.

So, says Wilson, we can do it. We really can save the planet and its thousands of animals, plants and other life-forms now threatened by over-harvesting, by pollution, by destruction of their habitats and by foreign species invading their ecosystems. He gives a point-by-point strategy – much of it to do with buying vast nature reserves – and says that all we need is money and nous, and the political will to get it done.

Nary a mention of energy-saving lightbulbs or public transport or vegetarianism or any of the other lifestyle changes of the typical eco-blueprint for the future. They sometimes cause the heart to sink, because one knows these will remain the concerns of activists, and not of citizens. Wilson instinctively wants to work with the imperfect grain of human nature, and you come away infected, as a result, by his bizarre optimism. Yes, maybe we can do it, after all.

He is the world expert on ants. He is the Pellegrino research professor of zoology at Harvard. He is the most celebrated of the new Darwinians, that pioneering band of biologists who have found new insights in evolutionary theory in the last 30 years. Indeed, Wilson has been called the new Darwin. Hyperbole, perhaps, but it is certainly true that with the 1975 publication of Sociobiology he took his great predecessor's work a major step further and began a new science (and an enduring row with the Left) in claiming to found human nature on evolution and genetics rather than on culture.

The Future of Life is much more concrete than its rather portentous title would suggest. It is a grippingly detailed account of how much of the world's biodiversity is now really threatened with extinction, with Wilson's prescriptions for saving it. The title is actually an echo of his 1992 work The Diversity of Life, itself a magisterial and unforgettable picture of how life has evolved into its millions of different forms.

As always with Wilson, the book is a great pleasure. The wonderful range of detailed and often arcane knowledge of the natural world – just read what has been done to the native wildlife of Hawaii, the birds, yea, the snails – is matched by the limpid clarity of his prose.

He complements his picture of what is happening to the world's wildlife by constructing his own account of why it matters, and completes it by offering his solution – realist, pragmatic and rational. That unusual optimism is the result. "The situation is desperate, but there are encouraging signs that the race can be won."

Michael McCarthy is The Independent's environment editor