More important than a better shell

by April 2, 2011

Alaskan journalist (and contributor to SCOPE‘s inaugural issue) Charles Wohlforth’s most recent book, The Fate of Nature, is now out in paperback. An extended and deeply thoughtful reflection on human nature and on our collective ability to solve our global environmental problems, the book is at the same time highly readable, well-paced, and often moving. I know this because I came close to reviewing it myself: I read it cover to cover last summer, taking 40 or 50 pages of notes as I did so (it’s that rich), and then had to set the review aside for a more urgent and time-consuming project — the launch of SCOPE. In its stead, I can offer this concise and well-judged summary from Publisher’s Weekly:

Are we, by nature, like hermit crabs, wearing “discarded snail shells as armor against other hermit crabs, whom they attack in hopes of getting a better shell?” This wide-ranging book confronts the “competitive paradigm” to contend that “stronger than our greed and materialism, most of us feel a connection to other people, to animals and wild places, and when we’re faced with a choice between meaning and material gain, we prefer fairness and the bonds of the heart over getting ahead.” Wohlforth, L.A. Times Book Prize winner (The Whale and the Supercomputer) and lifelong Alaskan, takes readers on a heart-wrenching journey through the tumultuous history of the state and its fragile land and seascape, from the complex, mysterious culture of killer whales through the clash of Native worldview and Hobbesian self-interest with the arrival of Europeans, the origins of the conservation movement and its ongoing battle with development, and the devastating Valdez oil spill. Wohlforth concludes, optimistically, provocatively, but convincingly, that “stepping off the material treadmill isn’t denial, it’s freedom.”

You can buy the book here. And if you haven’t read it yet, Wohlforth’s thought-provoking discussion with Peter Richerson in our last issue, on community and evolution, is very much worth the time (see “Current Issue” in the menu above; the exchange starts on page 4 of the issue).