Edward O. Wilson: The Elegant Agitator

In his newest book The Future of Life (Knopf, $22), conservationist philosopher and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson calmly and with stately dignity aligns himself squarely in the rebel-rousing Henry David Thoreau camp surrounded by the rowdy, hippie-inspired environmentalists who stomp up and down at World Trade Conventions and tie themselves to redwood trees marked for destruction. He calls these bedraggled and often-reviled protesters the Earth's immune-system response team. After some 200 pages of Wilson's extraordinarily concise depictions of our relentless rape of the planet, I can't imagine any reader not wanting to scream out some of his terrifying findings at every corporate philistine out there.

While the reductionist philosophical a prioris he outlined in his controversial Consilience (1998) may be a few decades out of date (and he seems to back down a bit in The Future of Life), his good practical sense informs him of what seems obvious to most reasoning humans, but has been arrogantly ignored by the primitive brains of the Bush League: We're fucking up the only planet we got. Of course, Wilson is more discreet and eloquent than that. A beautiful and careful writer who has won the Pulitzer twice, he weaves prose fit more for the 19th than the 21st century. What he says in 20 words I could say in four. But he sets the mood: a chillingly sober mood that makes me scratch my head and wonder how he can be so damned sunny after he has laid out a perfectly cogent case that humanity is Earth's supreme killer. By the middle of the book, I was literally ready to cry.

The story he tells reminds me of the fellow jumping out of the Empire State Building. As he passes each floor shocked, onlookers hear him say, "So far so good." But in this variation, the man is bringing whole species with him as he falls, eating them or simply blindly killing them as he plunges faster and faster, barely aware he's even falling, offended when you suggest his fate might be that of a bug against a windshield: the last thing through his mind is his own sorry ass. He's convinced that even if you're right about the fall, he'll come up with a last-minute save-the-day stunt before the splat. After all, he's special.

Like all great American philosophical visionaries, Wilson is short on sentiment and long on that strange optimism. His quiet, professional delineation of the problem and its solution is invigorating; the picture he so convincingly paints declares that we are in the last minute. Perhaps Wilson's reputation and intellectual cachet can convince those power boobs who are in control of the money that bio-diversity is economically sound. While I can't convince the Hiding Cheney of anything, perhaps a man of Wilson's standing can. I hope so, for without a planet, there won't be much room for discussion of the intricacies of phenomenology or capitalist prerogatives or strained metaphors, eh Mr. Wilson?

Edward O. Wilson will speak as part of the KLRU Distinguished Speakers Series on Wednesday, April 17, at 7pm in the LBJ Library Auditorium (2313 Red River). Call 477-6060 for ticket information.

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The Future of Life, Edward O. Wilson

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