Alfred Russel Wallace’s Prophetic Prescription for Course-Correcting Away from Ecological Catastrophe and Toward Widespread Human Happiness

Alfred Russel Wallace’s Prophetic Prescription for Course-Correcting Away from Ecological Catastrophe and Toward Widespread Human Happiness

The polymathic British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (January 8, 1823‐November 7, 1913) is best known as the man evolution left behind. While Wallace arrived independently at the theory of natural selection and while the paper about it he jointly published with Darwin in 1858 fomented the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, it was Darwin — who had kept his controversial ideas under wraps for years, until Wallace gave him the courage to go public — that took the laurels of evolutionary theory. But Wallace holds a different, long overlooked distinction, the cultural impact of which might well shape the evolution of this planet’s living future more profoundly than the evolutionary history of its past.

Darwin became the face of evolutionary theory because, with his intensely focused autism-spectrum mind and its acute attention to this particular branch of knowledge, his science was just stronger. Russell, unlike Darwin, had a mind too fractal with ideas to stay within the bounds of any one discipline and a humanistic spirit too concerned with the social side of life to remain confined purely to science. And so he became one of the first scientists to seriously consider the ecological footprint of our species and caution against the environmental assault of human industry.

Alfred Russel Wallace circa 1895

Writing not long after Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in an obscure German scientific book and long before Rachel Carson made it a household word with the unexpected bestseller that awoke the modern ecological conscience, Wallace drew an unambiguous causal link between the economic and political decisions by which our society governs itself and the ecological consequences for our species, for all species, and for the planet itself — and then he considered what it would take for us to divert the catastrophic path we had just set out on then, and on which we still remain.

In the final years of the nineteenth century, with Darwin long dead and the Earth newly laced with train tracks and telephone cables, fogged with factory fumes, and cratered with oil wells, Wallace published an extraordinary 426-page reflection on the promise and peril of what we so blindly call progress, titled The Wonderful Century (public domain | public library) — a far-seeing cautionary yet ultimately optimistic vision for how to course-correct our civilization, so that the rise of capitalism as a global economic system based on exploitation and extraction would not corral our species into its own misery and threaten the survival of all species on an irreplaceable planet that is a miracle and not a resource.

Art from the 19th-century French science textbook Les phénomènes de la physique. Wellcome Collection. Available as a print and as a face mask benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Wallace, having lived far past his era’s life expectancy and watched generations claw at the rungs of so-called progress, writes:

One of the most prominent features of our century has been the enormous and continuous growth of wealth, without any corresponding increase in the well-being of the whole people; while there is ample evidence to show that the number of the very poor — of those existing with a minimum of the bare necessaries of life — has enormously increased, and many indications that they constitute a larger proportion of the whole population than… in any earlier period of our history.

Born in an era when there were only a handful of millionaires in the world, he adds:

This increase of individual wealth is most clearly shown by the rise and continuous increase of millionaires, who, by various modes, have succeeded in possessing themselves of vast amounts of riches created by others, thus necessarily impoverishing those who did create it.

[…]

The development of steam navigation, of railroads and telegraphs, of mechanical and chemical science, and the growth of the population, while enormously increasing productive power and the amount of material products — that is, of real wealth — at least ten times faster than the growth of the population, has given that enormous increase almost wholly to one class, comprising the landlords and capitalists, leaving the actual producers of it — the industrial workers and inventors — little, if any, better off than before.

Wallace observes that of the thousands of millionaires already in existence, most are in America — “a country having a much larger amount of natural wealth and of human labor to draw upon.” (For a sobering calibration of how this asymmetry has swelled, a century after Wallace’s death there were already tens of millions of millionaires in the world, so many of them in the United States as to dwarf the rest into a statistical irrelevance.) He observes, too, that this leap in income inequality has been paralleled by a doubling of mental illness and suicide in the same time frame — an increase in “the total mass of misery and want” that has far outpaced population growth.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

More than half a century before Rachel Carson admonished that those atop the capitalist pyramid of extraction and exploitation maintained their position of power by feeding the rest of us “little tranquilizing pills of half truth” to conceal the fundamental malady ailing our civilization, Wallace writes:

This is exactly what we have been doing during the whole century, — applying small plasters to each social ulcer as it became revealed to us — petty palliatives for chronic evils. But ever as one symptom has been got rid of new diseases have appeared, or the old have burst out elsewhere with increased virulence; and
it will certainly be considered one of the most terrible and inexplicable failures of the nineteenth century that, up to its very close, neither legislators nor politicians of either of the great parties that alternately ruled the nation would acknowledge that there could be anything really wrong while wealth increased as it was increasing.

Epochs before humanity became ready to take the reins of its own catastrophic extractionism with actionable ecological resolutions like the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal, Wallace weighs “the injury done to posterity” — that is, to us — and portends the inevitable end of the greedy industrialism just beginning, in the kiln of which our own modern lives were set into shape:

The struggle for wealth, and its deplorable results [in the human sphere] have been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable. Not only have forest-growths of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth’s surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equalled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Fate of Fausto — a lovely painted fable about the absurdity of greed

At the dawn of the petroleum craze that would soon give rise to Big Oil and the world’s first corporate monopolies, whose magnates would swell the score of millionaires and swell our species’ carbon footprint to a size capable of stomping out all of life on this rocky world, Wallace adds:

In America, and some other countries, an equally wasteful and needless expenditure of petroleum oils and natural gas is going on, resulting in great accumulations of private wealth, but not sensibly ameliorating the condition of the people at large.

[…]

This rush for wealth has led to deterioration of land and of natural beauty, by covering up the surface with refuse heaps, by flooding rich lowlands with the barren mud produced by hydraulic mining; and by the great demand for animal food by the mining populations leading to the destruction of natural pastures.

In a passage that stuns with its tragic timelessness, bellowing down the hallway of time an indictment not only of his century but of every century that has followed it, Wallace writes:

The final and absolute test of good government is the well-being and contentment of the people — not the extent of empire or the abundance of the revenue and the trade.

Wallace questions why, in an era marked by “altogether unprecedented progress in knowledge of the universe and of its complex forces,” marked also by “the application of that knowledge to an infinite variety of purposes,” our knowledge alone has not improved our social harmony and individual wellbeing at a commensurate rate. (A generation before Bertrand Russell — easily the most lucid and luminous mind of his time — located the source of this disconnect in the astute distinction between “power-knowledge” and “love-knowledge,” Wallace writes:

The bounds of human knowledge have been so far extended that new vistas have opened to us in directions where it had been thought that we could never penetrate, and the more we learn the more we seem capable of learning in the ever-widening expanse of the universe… But the more we realize the vast possibilities of human welfare which science has given us, the more we must recognize our total failure to make any adequate use of them. With ample power to supply to the fullest extent necessaries, comforts, and even luxuries for all, and at the same time allow ample leisure for intellectual pleasures and aesthetic enjoyments, we have yet so sinfully mismanaged our social economy as to give unprecedented and injurious luxury to the few, while millions are compelled to suffer a lifelong deficiency of the barest necessaries for a healthy existence. Instead of devoting the highest powers of our greatest men to remedy these evils, we see the governments of the most advanced nations arming their people to the teeth, and expending much of their wealth and all the resources of their science, in preparation for the destruction of life, of property, and of happiness.

And then this stunning prophecy, vindicated by his future that is our history, haunting the unchanged reality of our own present:

When the brightness of future ages shall have dimmed the glamour of our material progress, the judgment of history will surely be that the ethical standard of our rulers was a deplorably low one, and that we were unworthy to possess the great and beneficent powers that science had placed in our hands.

Illustration from Le monde physique. Wellcome Collection. Available as a print and as a face mask benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

And yet Wallace — a man who devoted his long life to science precisely because he believed in its humanistic potential — ends on a note of lucid optimism, to which we are yet to live up:

Although this century has given us so many-examples of failure, it has also given us hope for the future. True humanity, the determination that the crying social evils of our time shall not continue; the certainty that they can be abolished; an unwavering faith in human nature, have never been so strong, so vigorous, so rapidly growing… The people are being educated to understand the real causes of the social evils that now injure all classes alike, and render many of the advances of science curses instead of blessings. An equal rate of such educational progress for another quarter of a century will give them at once the power and the knowledge required to initiate the needed reforms.

The flowing tide is with us. We have great poets, great writers, great thinkers, to cheer and guide us… And as this century has witnessed a material and intellectual advance wholly unprecedented in the history of human progress, so the coming century will reap the full fruition of that advance, in a moral and social upheaval of an equally new and unprecedented kind, and equally great in amount.

While the vector of Wallace’s prophecy was correct, the predicted velocity of progress falls tragically short of reality — instead, the century that followed brought the world’s first two global wars, which hijacked hard-earned scientific knowledge for inhumane ends. It now seems touching, laughable with a bittersweet laugh, that Wallace estimated it would only take another quarter century of intellectual illumination to bend the arc of progress toward universal human flourishing. But wrong as he was about the timeframe, he was unassailably right about the mechanics of change: New world orders only ever come by once new knowledge exposes the corruptions of the existing order, then moral guidance from our poets — in the largest Baldwinian sense of the word — transmutes that knowledge into the wisdom necessary for navigating the inevitable upheavals of change toward new vistas of possibility.

Art by Ryoji Arai from Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada — a lyrical Japanese illustrated meditation on change, landscape, and resilience

It might just be that the impossible always takes a little while longer than we wish to give it — and yet give we must, for as Albert Camus so astutely observed in considering what it really means to be a rebel and in solidarity with justice, “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”