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Life Stories: Scientists Reflect on Their Lives

A Book Review by Julie Knowles

EarthLight Magazine #47, Fall/Winter 2002/03

Life Stories: World Renowned Scientists Reflect on their Lives and the Future of Life on Earth, edited by Heather Newbold, University of California Press, 2000.

This book is a collection of compelling interviews with sixteen prominent thinkers from diverse sciences such as chemistry, nuclear physics, engineering, astronomy, meteorology, and the life sciences.

Lester Brown of The Worldwatch Institute; Henry Kendall, Nobel prize winner in physics for the discovery of quarks; Ruth Patrick, founder of the Environmental Research Division at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; George Woodwell, founder of the Environmental Defense Fund; and the other remarkable scientists interviewed investigate the planet’s life support system from the perspective of their area of expertise.

The interviews offer rare glimpses into personal and professional reflections and beliefs that have either been spawned by or evolved in tandem with a lifetime of systematic research about the origins, evolution, and future of life on Earth.

The first interview with James Lovelock sets the tone for an ideal scientific philosophy, given the real problems affecting Earth today. Lovelock recalls that as a youngster growing up in London, he would go on his own initiative to the library and get science textbooks, "roaming across the sciences," because he was interested in them all and "did not perceive them as separate." He says that in their totality they revealed to him "one amazing Universe."

It’s hardly surprising then that Lovelock is probably best known for introducing the term and theory of "Gaia" into mainstream awareness (in the face of great resistance from the scientific community). "[Gaia is] a single living entity consisting of Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and land, a feedback system that creates optimal physical conditions for life on this planet, endowed with qualities far beyond those of its constituent parts, the largest of living systems–it is our superorganism."

Lovelock’s future vision is a blend of harsh reality and healthy optimism: human nature being so resistant to change unless external events pull us together, he suggests we need to "manage ourselves, change our thinking from human-centered to planet-centered, and shift our focus from short-term gain to long-term consequences."

Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford entomologist/biologist and self-proclaimed "loudmouth," achieved his fifteen minutes of fame by appearing on the Johnny Carson show several times in the early 1970s because of his spouting off about population control and how evolutionarily, human beings are "going straight to hell." What began as university lectures on this and related evolutionary topics grew into a movement called Zero Population Growth and a book that the publishers retitled The Population Bomb, thus giving Ehrlich the evocative nickname of the "population bomber." (Ehrlich has written over thirty books in his career.) Ehrlich clearly states that the most critical factors that will make a difference for human survival are cutting consumption and reducing birth rates.

Ehrlich is not alone in his conclusion that overconsumption and population control are the two primary factors that must be managed to ensure human survival. All of the scientists interviewed cite related factors and predictions about the inevitable consequences of misplaced priorities. David Suzuki warns us of another component contributing to the current demise of values: "It makes no difference how necessary anything is for life or how much you destroy, because all that matters is money. Economics ensures that we trash the planet because currency is not based on anything real. The economy fundamentally disconnects us from the things that sustain us and give us our quality of life. The belief that progress is to be measured in how much money we make, and how fast our economy grows, is the root of the problem."

Life Stories is a title well-chosen because the book is about personal experiences that are simultaneously collective and planetary. It reveals a common vision of the global condition from vastly diverse perspectives–and a unanimous agreement of the direction of humanity if we continue our forsaken patterns of behavior. The heartfelt sentiments in this book for restoring and revering the planet touch me deeply, the environmental and scientific facts amaze and devastate me, and the consequences of human activity, both favorable and dire, inspire me toward a renewed enthusiasm to respond in action.

Julie Knowles is a writer and editor with a special interest in meaning and the evolution of consciousness.

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