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We will succeed or fail - together (IV/IV): epilogue

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By John L. Craig

· 7 min read

This is part four of a four-part series on caring for our built natural environment. You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

This letter is as prescient today as it was in 2003. Edward O. Wilson (1929-2021) wore many hats in his long and productive life as a world-leading thinker and scientist. Among those hats are ecologist, conservationist, systems thinker, social scientist, and humanist. In this letter, Wilson reaches out to another famous colleague, Henry David Thoreau who lived over 200 years ago, in a search for how humans will continue to live within nature. Our world has changed a lot in those 200 years, not the least of which is the growth in world population with its various impacts on our built-natural environment. From roughly 1 billion people in Thoreau’s time (U. S. Census Bureau, 2022) the population has grown to 8 billion today, with estimates of 10 billion around 2050 (World Economic Forum, 2019). This letter is in its entirety.

A letter to Thoreau


I am at the site of your cabin on the edge of Walden Pond. I came because of your stature in literature and the conservation movement. I came because of all your contemporaries, you are the one I most need to understand. As a biologist with a modern scientific library, I know more than Darwin knew. I can imagine the measured responses of that country gentleman to a voice a century and a half beyond his own. It is not a satisfying fantasy: the Victorians have for the most part settled into a comfortable corner of our remembrance. But I cannot imagine your responses, at least not all of them. You left too soon, and your restless spirit haunts us still. 

I am here for a purpose: to become more Thoreauvian, and with that perspective better to explain to you, and in reality to others and not least to myself, what has happened to the world we both have loved. . .

The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes–cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts. 

No one in your time could imagine a disaster of this magnitude. Little more than a billion people were alive in the 1840s. They were overwhelmingly agricultural, and few families needed more than two or three acres to survive. The American frontier was still wide open. And far away on continents to the south, up great rivers, beyond unclimbed mountain ranges, stretched unspoiled equatorial forests brimming with the maximum diversity of life. These wildernesses seemed as unattainable and timeless as the planets and stars. That could not last, because the mood of Western civilization is Abrahamic. The explorers and colonists were guided by a biblical prayer: May we take possession of this land that God has provided and let it drip milk and honey into our mouths, forever. 

Now, more than six billion people fill the world. The great majority are very poor; nearly one billion exist on the edge of starvation. All are struggling to raise the quality of their lives any way they can. That unfortunately includes the conversion of the surviving remnants of the natural environment. Half of the great tropical forests have been cleared. The last frontiers of the world are effectively gone. Species of plants and animals are disappearing a hundred or more times faster than before the coming of humanity, and as many as half may be gone by the end of this century. An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. But it is not the cosmic war and fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.

The situation is desperate–but there are encouraging signs that the race can be won. Population growth has slowed, and if the present trajectory holds, it is likely to peak between eight and ten billion people by the century’s end. That many people, experts tell us, can be accommodated with a decent standard of living, but just barely: the amount of arable land and water available per person, globally, is already declining. In solving the problem, other experts tell us, it should also be possible to shelter most of the vulnerable plant and animal species. 

In order to pass through the bottleneck, a global land ethic is urgently needed. Not just any global land ethic that might happen to enjoy agreeable sentiment, but one based on the best understanding of ourselves and the world around us that science and technology can provide. Surely the rest of life matters. Surely our stewardship is its only hope. We will be wise to listen carefully to the heart, then act with rational intention with all the tools we can gather and bring to bear.

Henry, my friend, thank you for putting the first element of that ethic in place. Now it is up to us to summon a more encompassing wisdom. The living world is dying; the natural economy is crumbling beneath our busy feet. We have been too self-absorbed to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions, and we will suffer a terrible loss unless we shake off our delusions and move quickly to a solution. Science and technology led us into this bottleneck. Now science and technology must help us find our way through and out.”

Excerpted from the prologue of The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson, 2003, Vintage Press.

Some words of wisdom

“We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.”  

– Donella Meadows

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”

– Robert Swan

“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” 

– Albert Einstein

“Being responsible is not a cost.”

– Virginijus Sinkevičius


This four-part series was written in 2023, before COP28 and Davos 2024. COP28 and Davos 2024 (54th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum) ended with criticism and mixed results, including transitioning away from, rather than cessation of, fossil fuels. Regardless, these outcomes are important steps in resolving and mitigating the many Planet Earth issues. We should be pleased, but certainly not satisfied, with these outcomes as the story of Planet Earth and human society continues. 

It is increasingly likely the Paris Climate Agreement’s aspirational goal of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst outcomes will not be met. Note that the actual goal is less than 2.0 degrees below pre-industrial levels. It is already at 1.4 degrees (World Meteorological Organization, 2023). There are also scenarios where the increase could be 5.7 degrees more than pre-industrial levels by 2100 (Henson, 2021). This portends a future disastrous for Planet Earth, including humans. I am heartened, at least somewhat, by recent reports that are more optimistic based on the evidence, despite that we are on track to exceed pre-industrial levels by about two degrees. This is not the optimal outcome we want and need. There are myriad issues and challenges facing Planet Earth and the community of life that inhabits it (global warming/climate change, habitat/species diversity loss, etc.). Still, there are reasons to feel positive (Hickman, 2024; illuminem, 2024; International Energy Agency, 2024; Rathi, 2024; Ritchie, 2024; Tanno, 2023), regardless of the inclination to be otherwise.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Literature cited

Henson, B. (2021, August 9). Key takeaways from the new IPCC report. Yale Climate Connections. Retrieved January 27, 2024, from 

Hickman, K. (2024, January 15). Start the Week – Climate resolutions. BBC. Retrieved January 27, 2024, from 

Illuminem Briefings. (2024, January 23). ‘It’s not game over – it’s game on’: why 2024 is an inflection point for the climate crisis. Illuminem. Retrieved January 27, 2024, from 

International Energy Agency. (2024, January). Electricity 2024: Analysis and forecast to 2026. IEA Publications. Retrieved January 27, 2024, from 

Rathi, A. (2024). Climate Capitalism: winning the global race to zero emissions. Greystone Books.

Ritchie, H. (2024, January 9). Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet. Little, Brown Spark.

Tanno, S. (2023, December 23). After a terrible year of climate news, here are 5 reasons to feel positive. CNN. Retrieved January 27, 2024, from 

U. S. Census Bureau. (2022, December 5). Historical Estimates of World Population. Retrieved June 4, 2023, from

World Economic Forum. (2019, July 15). These 12 charts show how the world’s population has exploded in the last 20 years. World Economic Forum. Retrieved June 4, 2023, from

World Meteorological Organization. (2023, November 16). Provisional State of the Global Climate 2023. World Meteorological Organization. Retrieved January 27, 2024, from

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About the author

John L. Craig is a senior leader in engineering, construction, transportation, and the natural environment to improve people's lives, the economy, and the environment. He has led multibillion-dollar megaprograms in the public and private sectors, including joint ventures, public-private-partnerships, international consortiums, and joint and multinational operations.

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