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Silver Bullet Solutions: Half-Earth

November 5, 2014

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Desperate times call for bold solutions. E.O. Wilson is up to the task, proposing that half of earth be reserved for human use and the other half preserved for the planet’s 8 million other species. Here’s how he describes “Half Earth”:

We’re just one species, but we’re covering the entire planet with ourselves and our artifacts and activities. As a result we’re systematically eliminating a large part of the remaining species.

Half of them by the end of the century could be extinct or on the brink of extinction. Based on estimates made with fossil species and what we know about ongoing declines, that’s about a thousand times faster than before humans arrived on the scene. So this is a serious problem for the estimated eight million species that constitute the living world—which we’re tearing up.

And we really should be considering the moral implications of what we’re doing. What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: We arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

Now we come to the solution, which I’m developing fully in a book that will come out toward the end of the year. I’m not trying to sell the book. I just wanted to say that, yes, this has matured to the point where it can be presented systematically. Simply put, half to us, half to the other eight million species. Of course you’ll say, Oh, but that’s impossible! We’re still increasing in numbers. We’re breeding and multiplying—that’s human nature, and we’re not going to stop it.

According to United Nations estimates, the population will peak at about ten billion by the end of the century and then begin to come down. There are also reasons to argue that the digital age, and the spearpoints of industry and the economy, indicate that the amount of space needed by each human is going to shrink a great deal. This will free up territory for the other species.

The way it could be done is to take the remaining wildernesses of the world, on both land and sea, and set those aside as inviolate, while we go on with our chaotic and unpredictable, destructive future. Safeguard the rest of life until we settle down.

The big task is to settle down before we wreck the planet. There are large enough sections of wilderness or near wilderness, and there are procedures for protecting them that can work. This is especially true of the sea. Deep, blue-water reserves, along with the coastal shore waters, can easily be divided into inviolate areas. Marine ecologists believe that endangered species would then multiply back rather quickly. This is practicable. And I think we should at least start seriously considering it as an alternative.

It’s a breathtaking idea, yet compelling in its simplicity. Of course, the political hurdles would be enormous. But they exist only because we don’t value the other species on earth, and we are not willing to make sacrifices on their behalf. If that doesn’t change, we will wreck the planet no matter what is proposed. But if that COULD change, an entirely different way of life, and political-economic system, would be possible.

Wilson, in fact, is counting on growing awareness of just how much damage we are doing to wake us up and open us up to new thinking. I think that is right, but of course the real question is WHEN we will collectively wake up as a species, and what will be left to protect when we do.

At the very least, the benefit of such bold and creative thinking is that it forces us to confront all the issues of morality and planetary impact that we so easily ignore or dismiss.

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