Book review: Edward O Wilson’s plan to save the planet

Renowned biologist Edward O Wilson believes the only way to safeguard Earth’s future is to turn half of its natural resources into protected reserves. We follow his argument, in Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life.

Biologist, naturalist and writer Edward O Wilson, at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, presents a bold solution to avert the destruction of ecosystems and the environment – turn half the planet into natural reserves. Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe via Getty Images.
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Even at 86, Edward O Wilson still thinks boldly. The renowned biologist, emeritus professor at Harvard University, path-breaking evolutionary theorist, and author of more than two-dozen books, is gravely worried about the future of the planet, which he argues, has reached a tipping point.

It’s not only climate change that concerns Wilson. His major concern is the future of biodiversity, the complex webs of three inter-related components: ecosystems, species in that ecosystem and the genes of the species. In many parts of the world, habitat destruction (itself exacerbated by global warming) and invasive species have upset and destroyed these webs, endangering the future of life itself.

But against the temptation to throw up our hands and muddle through crisis, Wilson offers a concrete solution. In Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, a short, succinct if sometimes wandering treatise, Wilson outlines his radical answer to the problem, one that will surely provoke much debate.

“The Half-Earth proposal offers a first, emergency solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: I am convinced that only by setting aside half of the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilisation required for our own survival.”

Wilson doesn't do modest. In the seventies, his evolutionary theories, which he advanced in one of his major works, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, earned him sharp rebukes and charges of racism. Much of this grew out of Wilson's lifelong fascination with, and study of, ants, whose social structures rival human beings for their sophistication and intricacy.

Bugs, not just the ant, are important for Wilson. Indeed, though he is concerned about the plight of “star species” such as the elephant – he includes a poignant reflection here on the decline of the rhinoceros – Wilson is an eloquent champion of insects, “the world-dominant invertebrates, the little things that run the natural world,” many of us would otherwise dismiss as mere “critters”. He also stresses the critical importance of frogs and salamanders, “predators that help stabilise moist forests, streamsides, and freshwater wetlands”.

“Humanity has failed the amphibians, especially, to date, the frogs,” Wilson laments. He points to the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus, which is absolutely lethal to the frog. Spread by aquariums used to transport frogs – another chytrid attacks salamanders – it “is the equivalent the Black Death for humans that swept through Europe in the fourteenth century”.

The spread of chytrid could have been checked, Wilson argues, highlighting the phenomena to stress the problem of invasive species. “Inevitably, one immigrant species or another turns into a mega-invasive rivalling the frog chytrid.” (There are also enormous economic consequences: in the United States alone, invasive species cost up to US$137 billion [Dh503bn] a year.)

It is dazzling to see how Wilson thinks across species as he details the interactions of a myriad of life forms, from mammals to microbes. Our fate depends on sustaining the connections fostered by healthy ecosystems.

But there is much militating against his vision. He notes a particular branch of the environmental movement that contends we should accept the damage done to the planet and live with it. In this human-centered ideology, biodiversity is of secondary concern. Wilson vigorously dissents from such a view.

He also points out that as we neglect and destroy habitats, scientists are far from finishing a complete inventory of all the world’s species. We are eradicating living things we do not even have names for. Wilson issues a passionate defence of the naturalists who give names to the species of the world, and pleads with the scientific community to place more importance on taxonomic efforts.

And now to Wilson’s daring solution. To further these ends, he proposes a vast restoration/conservation scheme to preserve wetlands, deserts, wildernesses and other ecosystems. These include the Amazon River Basin; the grassland of the Serengeti; the longleaf pine savannas of the American South; the Congo Basin; parts of Antarctica; and Borneo.

At first blush, the feasibility of such a proposal seems downright ridiculous. How on Earth could “Half-Earth” even be possible? Wilson writes that his proposal “does not mean dividing the planet into hemispheric halves or any other large pieces the size of continents or nation-states”. It does, however, mean setting aside significant acreage to further the goal.

The key lies in reducing our ecological footprint. Some prevailing trends support Wilson’s contention. For one, he notes that population growth over the long-term has slowed considerably. (In the near-term, world population growth is increasing: the trend Wilson says won’t happen until the early 22nd century.) Second, per-capita consumption will change in interesting ways. The free-market system and competition, coupled with high technology, will allow us to consume plenty but take up less space doing so.

Wilson points to teleconferencing, online purchase and trade, genetically-modified foodstuffs, and other technological advances that will “yield more and better results with less per-capita material and energy, and thereby will reduce the size of the ecological footprint”. (He also advocates using the very same distance-destroying technology so that we might enjoy, via some 1,000 high-resolution cameras, the reserves set aside under his plan from just about anywhere.)

Yet even if these trends do pan out – Wilson indulges in a lot of speculation and crystal ball reading, no matter how much he backs up his arguments with hard facts – a unique effort must be made by “partnerships of scientists, activists and political and economic leaders” to spearhead the conservation projects that are key to preserving the habitats he singles out. In some cases, this means removing invasive species or reintroducing keystone species that have died off; in others, where the environment has been badly degraded, it means a radical restoration starting at the microbiological level. Wilson notes the successful efforts of two figures, one in the American South working to restore the longleaf savanna, the other in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, as signs of plan’s feasibility.

As for the moral shift required for such a profound undertaking, Wilson is frustratingly cursory. He allows that human self-interest is powerful and deterrent to his plan. But, he argues, an instinct for altruism is part of the human make-up. We have the ability to think beyond our family, tribe, race or nation and to embrace Wilson’s planetary vision. But this is even more of a huge “if” than the material conditions needed for the Half-Earth proposal to take shape.

Still, Wilson’s passion for the planet shines through on these pages. He looks at life in its broadest, grandest sweep. Human beings are only one part of the chain of existence. Wilson is a thinker in the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th century German explorer and naturalist whose own global environmental notions anticipated the author’s own.

His closing words are poignant in their optimism, even if the odds of his plan being successful are decidedly slim. “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.”

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The National.