Preserving Half the Earth

In Review: Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
By Edward O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 259 pages

Biologist and prolific writer Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus of Harvard University, has thrown down a challenge to humankind. In order to preserve the biological diversity of the Earth — all the plant and animal species that share our planet — we should set aside half the surface of the Earth in the form of biological preserves, with the remaining half devoted to human needs and resources.

Photo of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life Book Cover

A tall order!

In fact, several reviewers have objected to his new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, on the grounds that it is not specific about just how this immense shift in land use is to be accomplished. It’s true — Wilson argues for protection of large tracts of lands and waters to preserve our Earth’s biota, but does not present any pathway to get there.

But Dr. Wilson is not an activist or a planner; he is rather an advocate for the things he has studied and loved all his life, namely, the world’s diverse flora and fauna. Like many conservation biologists, he believes the measures we have taken so far to protect wildlife and wild lands simply aren’t enough. We have created preserves all around the Earth, but few are big enough or protective enough to ensure species’ survival. Furthermore, the long-term health of biological systems depends on the interchange of species and landscapes that are now chopped up and isolated from each other. As a result of this fragmentation, we continue to lose species around the world to extinction — species that can never be replaced.

Wilson’s concern also extends to the false thinking that humankind can now build its own artificial systems of crops and livestock for food, cities and towns for shelter, and reservoirs and other water projects to slake our civilized thirst. These human ecosystems are unlikely to be stable enough, Wilson argues, to survive very long. So even if our interest is purely selfish, we must preserve natural ecosystems to ensure humanity’s survival.

After all, humans are a part of the Earth’s living biosphere, and we cannot live for very long apart from it. Wilson explains: “We ourselves, our physical bodies, have stayed as vulnerable as when we evolved millions of years ago. We remain organisms absolutely dependent on other organisms. People can live unaided by our artifacts only in bits and slivers of the biosphere, and even there we are severely constrained.”

So, too, Wilson condemns the business interests that argue destructively against the evidence of climate change. He also makes a forceful argument against anthropocentric thinking, and belief systems that place humans outside of, or above, the natural world, emphasizing that we cannot depend on God to save us from this human-made disaster.

Though Wilson doesn’t detail all of the policies and financing that would be necessary to protect half the Earth, he does outlines a number of areas that can be protected and restored to promote biological diversity. These include the Congo Basin in western equatorial Africa, California’s redwood habitats, portions of the Hawaiian archipelago, Borneo in Southeast Asia, Lake Baikal in Siberia, and the grasslands of the Serengeti, among numerous others. He believes our future survival depends on protecting the Earth’s ecosystems as much as we can, warning that if we continue to destroy species, we will also be destroying future sources of biological stability, food and drug resources, and ecosystems that supply clean air and water that we cannot replicate.

But we also owe this effort to our fellow travelers on Earth. It would be a very lonely Earth if all the wild was destroyed, and only humans and a few companion and food animals survived. (That’s assuming we could survive on such an Earth, which is doubtful.) Yet we are quickly headed in that direction.

Half-Earth is the final book in a three-book series by Wilson about the history and status of biological diversity on Earth. The series started with The Social Conquest of Earth, outlining humanity’s impacts on biological diversity, and The Meaning of Human Existence, positing a reason for human existence based on science and appreciation of our unique place as part of the planet Earth’s biosphere.

As environmental visionary and Earth Island Institute Founder David Brower once said, progress may not mean taking another step forward, as the next step may take us over the cliff edge. Real progress may require that we turn around and take another direction entirely — one that leads to sustaining our planet rather than destroying it.

Wilson seems to agree. As he puts it: “We have come a very long way through the barbaric period in which we still live, and now I believe we’ve learned enough to adopt a transcendent moral precept concerning the rest of life. It is simple and easy to say: Do no further harm to the biosphere.”

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