A tribute to a great naturalist: E.O. Wilson “The most successful scientist thinks like a poet—wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical—and works like a bookkeeper.” E.O. Wilson “Unless we move quickly to protect global biodiversity, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth.” E.O. Wilson When the preeminent American scientist Edward Osborne Wilson died in December last year at the age of 92, the world lost not only one of the greatest naturalists of the last 70 years, but a man who was so much more than a scientist. Wilson was a myrmecologist, one who studies ants, and he was even nicknamed Ant Man. Famously, he discovered how many insects communicate through the production of chemicals called pheromones. I have read many of Wilson’s books. His breadth of knowledge was astounding, and that is why I was drawn to his remarkable pursuits. Books with names such as The Meaning of Human Existence, On Human Nature, The Diversity of Life and The Social Conquest of Earth tell us that Wilson was a man who pondered huge ideas. Was he the foremost expert on ants? Yes, but as the most prominent evolutionary biologist of the last century—he has often been called “the heir to Darwin”—he explored a vast array of potentially controversial subjects throughout his life and loved the challenges associated with these monumental projects. One of Wilson’s controversial theories was sociobiology, which he explained as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Many prominent scientists thought it was outrageous to say that altruism, for example, could have evolved through natural selection. Evolution through natural selection was thought to foster only physical and possibly behavioural traits, but Wilson thought this theory did not delve far enough into the multi-dimensional raison d’être that a portrait of the complete human needs to explore—and not just humans, he was quick to say. It is unusual for any scientist to have such a profound influence on the course of so many areas of knowledge, and Wilson relished bringing the humanities and science together to solve our greatest problems. He has been one of the most vocal proponents of bringing together the unity of knowledge. It was his view that the cultural significance of the humanities was critical for there to be an expansive understanding of who we are, and that when scientists team up with the humanities to solve our most far-reaching concerns and aspirations, humanity will come together. “It is within the power of the humanities and the serious creative arts within them to express our existence in ways that begin to realize the dreams of the Enlightenment,” he wrote. He liked to imagine that extraterrestrial beings, upon coming to Earth, would not be interested in our technology or science but rather would be fascinated by the art, music, literature and other fields in the humanities that make us unique. Like Darwin, whom he called the greatest scientist in history, Wilson was not only a driven discoverer of previously unnamed species.
For years developing countries have asked for industrial countries to put aside US$100 billion a year to help poorer countries that never caused the climate crisis and enable them to adapt to the worst of climate breakdown. The money still hasn’t arrived in any consistent amounts and now that goal is probably being further put off by the prospect of war with Russia. In fact, Germany just announced that €100 billion will be spent on defence. As social and ecological nightmares bear down on the world as a result of Putin’s madness, the greatest planetary crisis, climate and biodiversity breakdown, is accelerating. The west has steadfastly refused to act swiftly on weaning itself away from methane gas and oil for its energy requirements—until now, when the safety of renewable energy (not nuclear) has become more appealing in the face of a decision to stop Russian imports of gas. How perverse and ghoulish is it that it takes a war for Europe to take insulating homes seriously! Meanwhile Ukrainian scientist Svitlana Krakovska, a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has said that the sale of gas and oil to Europe by Russia has funded the war. “This war…makes this window of opportunity [to stop climate breakdown] even more narrow, because now we have to solve this problem first.” It takes years to put together and have the world’s governments accept the scientific findings of the IPCC, which published its first report in 1990. It is eight years since its last exhaustive report came out. On February 27 this year the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report was published. Please see the 37-page Summary for Policymakers (https://tinyurl.com/ipcc-ar6-summary) to learn more. The full report runs to thousands of pages. It assesses the impacts of climate change by looking at ecosystems, biodiversity and human communities at global and regional levels. It also reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change. Many scientists are now telling us ominously that these current reports will be the last ones that can guide us away from a doomsday future. Unless the world acts now, a 2030 report will be too late to ferry the world into a safer and more stable climate. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has already called the climate crisis a ‘code red’ emergency, and now with the publication of the second part of the IPCC’s latest report he is more specific. He tells us that this report painfully details what a code red world looks and feels like. Calling the abdication of leadership by world powers ‘criminal’, with the largest polluters “guilty of arson on our only home”, he goes on to say that the newest report is “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership… With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.” A synthesis report will be published in
We…must come to terms with nature, and I think were challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves. – Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring In the past the December holiday season and the coming New Year imbued many of us with a vision of a prosperous and loving future. For most of us the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster: people we love have died, how we work, learn and communicate has been severely hampered, daily comfortable schedules have been uprooted, financial woes have been exacerbated, our mental health has suffered through unprecedented isolation, and our sense of overall security in a world we thought we could have some control over has been smashed. Those who could choose to take cruises and planes at a moments notice have found themselves sitting at home. Even moneys perceived ability to fix any problem will not loosen the grip of this virus. A cure-all vaccine is trumpeted, but it seems that many people will refuse it, questioning its efficacy and the motives of governments and the pharmaceutical companies that produced it; some even speak of dark and tyrannical objectives. Fear and trepidation permeate our daily lives. At last humans are realising that we are part of Nature, which we have abused for so long. But is this reluctant and grudging acknowledgement coming too late for us? Our ever-increasing encroachment into natural habitats and refusal to respect the notion of limits to growth for humanity, characterized by global unethical capitalism run amuck, is now in the process of ruthlessly pursuing climate breakdown. Covid-19, it appears, represents one more landmark on the road to devastation that we collectively continue to encourage. Thomas Homer-Dixons recently published book, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, comes at a time when many people believe humanity is soon to be forced to its knees. But Homer-Dixon states: Real social and political change only happens in times of crisis, because crisis is needed to discredit existing systems of worldviews, institutions, and technologies, and the structures of power that sustain them. Commanding Hope is dedicated to Homer-Dixons two young children, Ben and Kate, who are continually alluded to throughout the book, whether that be in a drawing of theirs or in dialogue between them and their father and mother. To put it succinctly, Homer-Dixon wrote this book as if his childrens lives depended upon it. It took him eight years, and nothing will stop him from finding a non-magical elixir of knowledge and informed action to save his children and ours. He begins with an account of the heroic efforts of Stephanie May, a young Connecticut woman, making phone calls in 1957 asking people to protest against atmospheric nuclear testing. In 1961 she goes on hunger strike while walking up and down in front of the Soviet Unions Manhattan UN mission, asking them to save the worlds children by eliminating the tests. To
Lets speak about our individual worldviews by starting with a cartoon by Marc Roberts that shows a man putting his hand in a glass bottle. At the bottom of the bottle is a car. He reaches for it, and with his hand now enlarged with the car he cant get it out of the bottle. As he struggles helplessly a friend comes up to him and says, Youll have to LET GO of the car. Upon which, while still grasping the car, his face utterly distorted, he screams, NEVER!!! The cartoon appears in Thomas Homer-Dixons newly published book, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril. It depicts an obsessive mans outrage that he cant have everything he wants, and his worldview an important word in Homer-Dixons lexicon is one that has to change if people and the planet are to celebrate a return to ecological sanity by 2100.The possession of a car, for most people in the west who can afford it, is an undeniable right, even if the car brings all manner of ills to our world, including an acceleration of climate breakdown, the destruction of natural places, and questionable resource extractions that upend Global South vulnerable communities.All of this becomes personal, as I have just leased an electric car. Although I was determined never to get an internal combustion vehicle again, I couldnt help feeling uneasy when I viewed the cartoon. Was I the person depicted in the drawing? Was I hell-bent on obtaining a car regardless of the consequences for our planet? Lets face it: electric cars have their problems. Their manufacture and use cause pollution, and thats only the beginning of the dilemma. My rationale for driving an electric vehicle (EV) was interesting to contemplate and goes like this: poor bus transportation in my area; an ongoing pandemic, which means that taking a taxi can be risky, as previous passengers might have been infected; and the desire to take a vacation or get to a national park to cross-country ski or snowshoe this winter. All these clinched my resolve to get the car. Even though I know that not having a car is the best action, I felt I could contribute far less to climate breakdown with the use of the EV by not emitting fossil fuels, despite the fact that the production of the car does exactly that and were told it might take a couple of years before the car becomes carbon-free after all that energy to produce it is accounted for. Walking and continuing to use my bicycle around the area as my primary means of transportation are a good start, as well as not flying, I told myself. Nonetheless, I felt my hand reaching for that car, saying, Never! We rarely dissect our private worldview or discuss what exactly the prevailing worldview is in the country where we live. Our worldview, born from our experiences, gives us a framework, gives us our personal identities, and links us
Pope Francis’ long-awaited encyclical Laudato Si’, subtitled On care for our common home, has been praised by groups as diverse as scientists, anti-poverty and climate justice organizations and governments, as well as by the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders. The encyclical was released to all Catholic bishops in May 2015 and can be read in full at w2.vatican.va It is an astonishing document. As we might expect, it puts forward a strong moral defence for saving Creation. Climate-change mitigation has become a mainstream ethical response to the myriad assaults on life on Earth. The Pope speaks passionately about the climate as “a common good, belonging to all and meant for all”. As our oceans, forests and rivers are under siege, so too is our very climate, which allows all life to flourish. Justice for all encompasses the right to have an Earth, our home, that does not look “more and more like an immense pile of filth”. Furthermore, he admonishes us not to be caught up in a one-dimensional understanding of technological progress: “This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” The encyclical points to the growing inequality of wealth and wellbeing as a major contributor to poverty and an increasing source of concern in the fight for justice and care for our only home. “The earth”, the Pope reminds us, “is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” As billions of people are excluded from any kind of food security or housing, so too are they the ones who face migration in the face of severe climate events, he points out. Although the Pope does not comment on the planet’s burgeoning human population as a major cause of increasing climate instability, his critical remarks regarding hyper-consumption, greed, and water and food insecurity, as well as unfettered growth, point to over-population as a key component entrenched in our global problems. He bids us protect “our common home”, which means making changes in how we understand the roots of poverty and the huge biodiversity/climate crisis now upon us. “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” The Pope tells us that “the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion.” Our home is in jeopardy of being destroyed. We need to have an integral approach or ecology that embraces our common lands, our cultures, and people living in poverty. “I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world,” the Pope explains. He asks us to educate
“The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.” – Mahatma Gandhi The Walk for Climate is a pilgrimage to the centre of Britain. It seeks to find a way back to the strongest values we all share. In order to do this we must include all people, not just those who already share our views. The Walk for Climate is a walk for solidarity with all of Nature. It embraces the deepest and most empathic values the British people hold dear. A day’s walk with people from your community that not only includes the usual ‘greens’ but encompasses people from all walks of life can bring forth the creativity that is vitally needed if the 21st century is not to be one of the last for humanity and many other species. The reverse can be true: a flourishing of Nature and the interconnectedness of us all. Join us. A precept for Buddhists says, “Do not waste, but conserve energy and natural resources.” It is now clear beyond question that Western industrialised countries have caused climate destabilisation, which in turn has brought many species to the brink of extinction. Over the last 250 years the British landscape has been devastated by the mining and use of coal and the development of industries that depended on it. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels has exacerbated climate change, leading to an increase in rainfall and in turn to the flooding that so many communities have experienced in the last few years. The effects of the greenhouse gas emissions already present will be part of the legacy of ‘civilised’ countries for a thousand years. However, a reduction and stabilisation in greenhouse gases in the 21st century can be achieved by a rapid increase in the use of renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, tidal and geothermal as well as other strategies, and thus mitigate a further deterioration in our climate. The precept “Do not harbour enmity against the wrongs of others, but promote peace and justice through nonviolent means” is very important. The climate dialogue has so often been an argument between ‘them’ and ‘us’. We will make greater progress to prevent climate chaos when we connect with those we perceive to be different from ourselves, whether in political affiliation or otherwise. Fortunately, the debate about whether human activity since the 1750s has contributed to changes in the Earth’s climate is over. We must now get on with finding the solutions that will protect our climate, and include everyone in finding those solutions. The ‘wrongs of others’ can easily be found in those who profit from the destructive legacy of fossil-fuel production and use, but those people too need to be part of the discussion. A shift from blame to collaboration and communication has the potential to solve many ecological concerns. Another precept “Do not lie, but speak the truth” leads Buddhists to actively pursue the truth when we ask ourselves how climate-change mitigation can take place.