The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Publisher
For far too long, critics of environmentalism have resorted to a now-familiar false dichotomy pitting humankind against Nature. Human beings are a species apart, they say, detached from the ecosphere but still able (indeed, morally obligated) to reap its benefits. This fallacy is backed up by a related either/or argument, in which any environmental regulation is equated with obstructing the progress and well being of the human race. According to this philosophy, the protection of the proverbial spotted owl threatens the welfare of humanity.
Over the course of decades, science has unambiguously disproved these premises. It has become increasingly clear that in addition to providing innumerable non-material benefits to humankind, the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it bestow upon us equally incalculable eco-services, such as water purification and soil enrichment. Humanity requires Nature to survive. Therefore, it is in our best interests to protect, preserve, and nurture the environment.
This is the argument behind E.O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006). Refuting the tired ideas of anti-environmentalism and presenting the reality of human dependence upon Nature, Wilson demonstrates that the environmental crisis will affect us all, regardless of our ideological differences. It is appropriate then, that the book is not simply a sermon to the converted. Rather, it is a direct address to the very people who stand in the way of environmental progress. Of course, the converted can enjoy it too.
Written in the form of a letter to an unnamed Southern Baptist pastor — a member of a famously anti-environmental, anti-science political coalition — The Creation is Wilson’s compassionate plea to safeguard and care for the biosphere. Though Wilson is obviously attempting to bridge sharp political, cultural, and religious divides — to forge a truce, if you will, between Red States and Blue States — he is just as interested in expressing his personal conception of Nature and humanity’s place in it. And the reader is lucky for that, for Wilson is a fine chronicler of the natural world and his musings are as effective an argument as any.
Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for General Non-fiction, E.O. Wilson has long been one of America’s most prominent naturalists and theorists. In The Creation, he clearly draws upon his decades of work in the fields of sociobiology, entomology, and conservation to produce a document that is brief without being shallow and compassionate without being impractical.
Beginning with a salutation to the unnamed pastor, Wilson goes on to describe the wondrous workings of Nature and the problems that humanity — with its mix of “Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology” — has caused it. “Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature,” Wilson tells us in the first few pages. If humanity and Nature are to survive, this betrayal must be mitigated as much as possible.
Refreshingly, The Creation is not simply a screed or list of grievances, and Wilson doesn’t try to assign blame. Though the many environmental problems we face are well-documented, he is equally interested in compelling a sense of reverential awe for Nature. For each current or coming ecological catastrophe, there is something uplifting, fascinating. So while “the pauperization of Earth” is examined in-depth, Wilson is generous enough to provide a profile of the wolverine and the pitchfork ant (“two magnificent animals”) and the occasional incredible fact (“700 bacterial species thrive as symbionts in the human mouth”). Along the way, he touches upon his own thought-provoking theories of “biophilia” (the theory of humanity’s innate connection to Nature) and “consilience” (the unity of all knowledge), as well as his long love of ants.
And somehow it all works. When I came to the final page, I didn’t feel despondent or angry, but rather, inspired. I was excited to protect that pitchfork ant, as I was every other living thing.
The Creation is less concerned with all of the past crimes perpetrated against Nature than it is with preventing future ones. Wilson only devotes half of the book to the sorry state of the environment. The other half is dedicated to biology as a subject of study — its definition, laws, discoveries — and how to effectively teach a love of Nature to children and students. He closes with a proposal to the pastor to create “An Alliance for Life.” But what of the profound differences separating the author from his symbolic opponent? Wilson has an answer:
“Forget the differences, I say. Meet on common ground. That might not be as difficult as it seems at first. When you think about it, our metaphysical differences have remarkably little effect on the conduct of our separate lives. My guess is that you and I are about equally ethical, patriotic, and altruistic. We are products of a civilization that rose from both religion and the science-based Enlightenment. We would gladly serve on the same jury, fight the same war, sanctify human life with the same intensity. And surely we also share a love of the Creation.”
Published just three years ago, The Creation seems well-suited to the historical moment. With all this talk of national unity and the bridging of partisan divides (cross your fingers), it seems fitting to read a book about hope and change from an author who’s truly a uniter, not a divider. For its affirmative tone, Wilson’s text strikes me as one that begs repeated readings. For those of you fighting the good fight out there — through activism, conservation, recycling and the like — you may occasionally feel as if it is all in vain. But, sometimes, great causes should be undertaken regardless of their chances of victory. The Creation will tell you why.
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