In his latest book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, famed biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. These arks can protect up to 85 percent of all current life as the planet’s human population continues to grow from the current 7 billion to an expected maximum of 11 billion in coming decades. He believes humans have a moral obligation to be stewards of the millions of species that also call the planet home. And if we do not undertake such an ambitious conservation effort now, there could be potentially massive negative impacts for us, too. He reminds us that human survival is dependent on the survival of millions of other species, some of which are very tiny and not well understood.
Wilson is highly critical of our current approach to the environment. “We are still too greedy, shortsighted, and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. Much of the time we behave like a troop of apes quarreling over a fruit tree. As one consequence, we are changing the atmosphere and climate away from conditions best for our bodies and minds, making things a lot more difficult for our descendants.”
He seems shocked by humans’ collective thoughtlessness, which has severely affected other life forms as well. “We are unnecessarily destroying a large part of the rest of life. Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though species of the world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Do we have no shame?”
Wilson concurs with other leading scientists that the planet is now facing its sixth great wave of extinction, largely thanks to us. While the conservation movement has essentially kept the patient — in this case, the world’s most critical ecosystems — on life support, the “heroic efforts” of both public and private-funded organizations haven’t been enough. Extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than normal. Furthermore, according to a 2010 survey of two hundred experts on vertebrate land animals that analyzed the status of 25,000 known species, a fifth of these species are threatened with extinction and only a fifth have been stabilized due to conservation efforts. Wilson writes, “We might be inclined to say to the conservationists, ‘Congratulations. You have extended life, but not by much.'”
Oceanic ecosystems, which are still little understood, are even worse off, because vast swathes of the open seas aren’t managed by any one country. The result is a primary example of the “tragedy of the commons” in which “blue water, belonging to no one, is subject to no regulations whatsoever, save that established by international negotiation,” and, as a result, is plundered by all. “For generations, all marine waters, variously protected to some degree or not at all, have suffered over-harvesting of edible species. The downward spiral has been hastened by habitat destruction, spread of invasive species, pollution with toxins, and eutrophication from excess nutrient runoff.”
In Half-Earth, Wilson finally responds to those who see some glimmer of potential in the new Anthropocene, our current planetary epoch shaped by man. Their vision is of a planet made up of “novel ecosystems,” successfully managed to serve humans and perhaps some beneficial “nature,” but now degraded to its base functioning as “ecosystem services.” Their approach is a response to the failures of the conservation movement. It’s also rooted in their belief that “pristine nature no longer exists, and true wildernesses survive only as a figment of the imagination.”
Wilson says some practical ideas have come out of this “new conservation movement,” like managing nature parks and reserves in a way that helps meet the needs of people, too. However, he is scathing in his critique of the clique of writers, restoration ecologists, conservation biologists, and designers promoting this vision, accusing them of great ignorance of how ecosystems actually function. “It is been my impression that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wild lands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who had the least personal experience with either. I think it relevant to quote the great explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt on this subject, as true in his time as it is in ours: ‘the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.'”
To save biodiversity, scientists, policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers, and the general public must “understand how species interact with one another to form ecosystems.” Yet, Wilson says our current state of knowledge about ecology is “so poor as to limit this effort.”
In light of this general ignorance about ecology, he instead calls for protecting the “best places in the biosphere,” polling 18 international conservation experts to select those areas that can act as the few protected arks of life on earth. He writes that if these places can be protected and restored, “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can be saved.” In the U.S., these places include the redwood forests of California; the Longleaf pine savanna of the American South; and the Madrean pine-oak woodlands.
Furthermore, Wilson calls for the world’s scientists to accelerate efforts to map and make more easily accessible the Earth’s biodiversity. Some efforts are already underway. For example, multiple universities and research institutes have come together to create the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which will eventually hold more than 500 million records. There’s also the Encyclopedia of Life, a web site that describes some 1.4 million species, or more than 50 percent of known species. Other projects include the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Map of Life, USA National Phenology Network, AntWiki, FishBase, and GenBank, which catalogues DNA sequences. Wilson sees a future where snippets of DNA sequences of mitochondrial genes can be typed into a search engine and the results would spit out likely species. To collect all this natural data, Wilson also calls for greater respect and support for the world’s naturalists — the professional or amateur collectors of specimens out in the wild.
Wilson concludes the book with his call to action: greater respect for the almost unfathomable complexity of our ecosystems, which he argues are even more complicated than the human brain. “If the approximately one billion years of evolution it took for the single-celled bacteria and archaea on our planet to evolve into more complex life forms were added, it is possible to sense how delicate our birthplace is, how complicated those parts of the ecosystem that shelter each species are, and how intricate and intertwined are the nonlinear interactions of the species.” Destroying this complexity in favor of short-term economic gains is a recipe for “self-inflicted disaster.”
Maximum diversity equals maximum level of stability. This is in fact the essence of resilience, Wilson reminds us. An Anthropecene in which a much more circumscribed designed nature is managed to deliver humans various ecosystem services is a “large and dangerous gamble.” Only restoration to natural ecosystems will bring back that complexity, even if baselines are hard to establish.
In today’s world of novel ecosystems, re-establishing baselines will be hard but also deeply rewarding work. The process involves “dealing with fascinating challenges deserving combined research in biodiversity, paleontology, and ecology. This will be one of the challenges met as parks and reserves are made centers of research and education around the world.”
Coupled with protecting and restoring half of the Earth, Wilson calls for higher-intensity and more sustainable development, which he believes is increasingly possible. Given our current constraints and the expected population boom, “the pathway of economic evolution will be set by growth that is increasingly intensive and less extensive.” And what will be the root of this new pattern of sustainable growth? Wilson believes it will be “contained in the linkages between biology, nanotechnology, and robotics.” Our planet’s rich biodiversity together with ever-advancing human technology will be the foundations of future growth and prosperity.