A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet

Brooke Horvath

A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet, by George M. Woodwell (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-262-03407-4) xvi + 227pp. Hardcover, $29.95.


“The world is all that is the case” reads the opening sentence of Ludwig Wittgen­stein’s Tractatus; “We live in an old chaos of the sun . . . Or island solitude, unsponsored,” wrote Wallace Stevens in the final stanza of his great poem “Sunday Morning.” Indeed, for quite some time, we have been assured from diverse quarters that this world of chipmunks and galaxies, microbes and millionaires, is all the reality there is, however imperfectly understood or contested that understanding. To pledge allegiance to this position is, of course, a foundational assumption of secular humanism, as is reliance on science and the refusal to deny established facts, however inconvenient they may be. Having shoved off into what Stevens called “that wide water, inescapable” without the puddle jumpers of religious belief to help them stay afloat, secular humanists know, or should know, that we have plundered and polluted our only world almost beyond reclamation and that no one and nothing is going to save us save ourselves. As George Woodwell explains in A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet, one iteration of what’s at stake regarding climate change alone looks like this:

Allowed to run its course by ineptitude or unwillingness to check the [carbon dioxide-driven warming] trend, the climatic system will follow a devastating course. Pushed to extremes, life will survive. Civilization will not. The biotic feedbacks are clear, inevitable, anticipated, and defined—and still potentially controllable, but only if we abandon the production and use of fossil fuels substantially and immediately with the purpose of reversing the trends in global climate.

Woodwell’s conclusions on our global crisis are considered and carefully detailed in this concise (if often repetitious) summation of a life’s work. The author of several books, including The Earth in Transition (1990), Forests in a Full World (2001), and Ecology for the Common Good (2014), Woodwell is the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center, former president of the Ecological Society of America, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a founding trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council. A World to Live In details the myriad interrelated problems threatening “the basic chemistry of the environment,” those responsible for these escalating problems, and the steps needed to halt and reverse Earth’s accelerating “biotic impoverishment” by alleviating the stresses on the ecosystem’s “biophysical limits.”

Beginning with two chapters recalling the history of the pesticide DDT and the consequences of both nuclear testing and a reliance on nuclear energy, Woodwell offers two clear examples of lessons not learned about how local contamination quickly enters “food webs” globally, affecting “the structure [and] function of biotic communities,” including, of course, the human community. Polar bears, for instance, are today “highly contaminated with agricultural and other industrial toxins including polychlorinated hydrocarbons and brominated flame retardants—all from lower latitudes thousands of miles away.” It is, Woodwell writes, a continuation and exacerbation of what Garrett Hardin described in 1968 as the “tragedy of the commons”: the exploitation of resources for private gain “while the costs are shared among the public at large.” Among the culprits are the fossil-fuel industry, agribusiness, a runaway world population, the fishing industry (by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish), corporations more concerned with the next quarter’s profits than with drinkable water, and a government that subsidizes the very industries that have largely created the environmental crisis while failing to act in the public’s best interests. It has so far failed to understand that a reliance on scientific insight toward the ends of wise “management of environmental resources has become an economic and political” necessity.

The offenders, as I have suggested, are many (you and I are not absolved, though Woodwell is not interested here in encouraging our use of fuel-efficient cars, urging us to rethink lawn care, or discouraging the purchase of pricey bottled water). He does not mince words: Republican members of Congress who, armed with pseudoscience, deny climate change “constitute a derogation of duty in that [their denials] have been advanced to prevent action promised and approved by Congress through ratification of the FCCC [Framework Convention on Climate Change] in 1992″—a failure the reasons for which are not too far to fetch: legislators in thrall to corporate interests because they are addicted to corporate monies. As for corporations, Woodwell contends that if “profits depend on a license to dispose of wastes into the public realm to the detriment of the interest or welfare of others,” then “there should be no basis for the business.” Likewise, “the governmentally supported establishment of the state university system is . . . busy advancing the interests of industrial agriculture over those of human welfare” while U.S. regulatory agencies operate on the assumption that “any ‘waste’ or other chemical intrusion is safe unless proven otherwise,” leaving the scientific community with the impossible task of “testing thousands of substances used, distributed, and released in one form or another by the world’s businesses.” Add to these problems farming, logging, and fishing practices perhaps shrewd in the short run but now proving disastrous; an ever-expanding world population (a “jump from two billion to seven billion people” in the past seventy years); and “an intensified division between the haves and have-nots” (with all of the civil unrest and geopolitical problems this entrains)—and one understands that environmental crisis has been writ large for some time to anyone paying attention.


I have barely sketched the reasons why we find ourselves in our present fix; just so, the effects of such continuous environmental mismanagement beggar brief description: global warming, melting ice caps, more and more people wanting more and more and not getting it, species extinction and the consequent disruption and breakdown of ecosystems, desertification, worsening storms, increasingly unbearable heat-waves. What makes A World to Live In news you can use is the fact- and study-based explanation of how each problem worsens every other problem and affects global environmental health: warmer temperatures, for example, contribute to polar and glacial melting, which reduces the areas of heat-reflecting ice and increases the amount of heat-absorbing open water, which leads to still-warmer temperatures while raising sea levels, which increase the damage of storms fueled by additional water absorption caused by the clearing of forests, which also removes carbon-storing vegetation and results in more carbon in the atmosphere, upping the greenhouse effect—and, as Kurt Vonnegut might put it, so it goes.

Earth’s “restorative capacities” will prove insufficient on their own to save us. Nor should we subscribe to the “myth of adaptation”: that we will muddle through, confronting and accommodating each discrete dilemma once it becomes unignorable: when southern Florida is underwater and the Outer Banks disappear; when the pollinating bees have entirely succumbed to neonicotinoids (a DDT replacement insecticide); when drought destroys an unacceptable percentage of the world’s arable land; when hotter summers kill more than the thirty thousand people whose deaths in Europe in 2003 were attributed to high temperatures.

Woodwell’s is not, however, a picture of despair. What can and needs to be done is in part obvious: ways must be found to limit population growth to “safe or sustainable levels”; governments need to reassert their raison d’être as safeguarding the public welfare (something, Woodwell reminds us, the free market has never done and will never do); fossil fuels must be immediately taxed more heavily, phased out, and energy alternatives developed rapidly. Moreover, “self-sufficiency based on local resources used renewably” must be emphasized with agriculture returned to (improved) versions of “the subsistence farms of the past”; municipalities and industries must become “closed systems” (they must “[contain] their wastes” and not dump them in the commons); the United States must take the lead again (which it relinquished with the election of Ronald Reagan) in taking the steps necessary to arrest and reverse climate change and the ransacking of the planet; notions of “development” and “economic growth” must be seriously rethought; “corporate size and realms of operation” must be limited; forests must be reestablished and native vegetation rebuilt; more vigorous “communal action” must be undertaken; and stricter land-use controls must be established and enforced.

Again, I offer only a partial summary of what Woodwell has to say about “paths to a solution.” All of the large and effortful changes recommended here will require “a revision of purpose to the recognition that human rights to clean air and water and a place to live”—to say nothing of the rights of the rest of Earth’s creatures—“are vulnerable to personal and corporate greed.” This being the case, “Developing new rules defining essential common interests and protecting them is both necessary and possible. But they will emerge only if cultured and defined, celebrated and respected, by an aware public willing to defend essential birthrights as unassailable civil right. Those civil rights, protected, assure the physical, chemical, and biotic integrity of the biosphere, the sine qua non of the continued success of civilization.”

“An aware public”—that is where you and I come in. A World to Live In should assist both our awareness and, perhaps, our commitment to this only world of ours.

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.

“Woodwell’s conclusions on our global crisis are considered and carefully detailed in this concise (if often repetitious) summation of a life’s work.”

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