What Mother Nature needs from us; The Wooing of Earth, by Rene Dubos. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. $8.95
An avid gardener I know likes to tell a story that has special meaning for people with green thumbs. Mr. Ogilvie, it seems, was busy tending his vegetable plot one morning when his nongardening neighbor, Mr. Winslow, leaned across the fence. "Nice garden Mother Nature and you have there," Winslow ventured. "Yep," Ogilvie replied, "but you should have seen it when Mother Nature had it by herself -- nothing but weeds."
Rene Dubos would smile at that. "Human beings can improve on nature," this eminent microbiologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author assures us. They can make the environment more livable and more meaningful, he says -- grander than it could ever be on its own. And this is where he parts company with ecologists who look down their noses at man's "interference" with nature.
While admitting that the human touch can blight as well as brighten, in "The Wooing of Earth" Dubos sets out to celebrate our most successful interplays with our planet. These can help us enhance not only the natural world, he believes, but the prospects for survival of our own endangered species.
although Dubos is optimistic about humanity's maturing conscience and nature's resilience, he sees dire problems looming up. Never shrill, his warnings are nevertheless sobering:
"As deforestation is proceeding at an accelerated rate in all tropical regions, planet Earth is likely soon to be threatened by physical disturbances and biological impoverishment. . . . Although it is not possible to predict in detail the climatic changes that would result from continued growth in energy consumption, most experts believe that global disturbances can be expected around the year 2000 and significant regional disturbances much sooner."
Dubos doesn't want to waste too much ink, however, reviewing an "ecological crisis [that] has been discussed to death and hardly needs further elaboration." So here he attempts to offer a counterbalance to the doomsayers' message. And he largely succeeds.
At his command is a vast geographical, cultural, and historical sweep. he finds models to cite from China to Egypt and the South Pacific. He quotes Petrarch, the ancient Greeks, Malraux, John Muir, and Emerson. He discusses what the ancient Mesopotamians did wrong, what Napoleon did right.
Though never polemical, he's not above challenging some dearly held notions: Wilderness lovers, he chides, don't always practice what they preach. Thoreau, for instance, preferred the "wilderness" adjacent to Concord, Mass., to the more genuinly untamed Maine woods, which he found "grim and wild . . . savage and dreary."
Among the many fascinating environmental success stories Dubos tells, one seems especially relevant to an America worried about strip-mining damage. Owners of the Fortuna lignite mine, operating for 35 years near Cologne, West Germany, have found it economical to fully rebuild the villages, roads, and farmland gobbled up in its path, providing forests, recreational areas, even a canal that weren't there before.
What makes the difference between the environmental rights and wrongs? Not mistaking action for direction is the key, Dubos says: ". . . Development of means without worthwhile goalsm generates at best a dreary life and may at worst lead to tragedy. . . . In the final analysis, management of the Earth must be value conscious and value oriented."
Unfortunately, it's at this stage that the book falls short. One wishes for elaboration on the kinds of values that should influence decisionmaking, and discussion of how these can be fostered and implemented. But perhaps Dubos shouldn't be faulted, since this is not so much the role of science as of religion.
Still, Dubos gives us much to think about as we weigh the validity of his convictions. Among them the belief "that Earth has potentialities that remain unexpressed until properly manipulated by human labor and imagination. But work is not enough to discover and bring to light the hidden treasures of Earth; it also takes love."
Dubos quotes the Bengali poet from whom he borrowed the title of his book as saying, "The heroic love-adventure" of humankind has been "the wooing of Earth." Earth couldn't ask for a more thoughtful, engaging, or learned matchmaker than Rene Dubos.