Half-Earth or Half Solution? E.O. Wilson’s Solution to Species Loss

Credit: David Barnas
Credit: E.O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Published by Liveright / W.W. Norton in March 2016 (ISBN 978-1-63149-082-8)

Despite my somewhat snarky title, which is based on my assessment that Half-Earth is missing a key strategic component, E. O. Wilson’s book is engaging and even inspiring. Wilson makes a compelling case that our planet is facing serious and accelerating species loss, that human beings are the primary cause of this phenomenon, and that, most importantly, we are capable of doing something about it.

The first three-quarters of the book describe the problem we are confronting. Wilson provides the reader with a comprehensive and vivid description of the loss of species in general on the planet and moving, vivid descriptions of the loss of particular species such as the rhino. Readers who have not previously been steeped in the fields of ecology or biology will find the writing here not only accessible, but deeply engaging.

Rather than just take on this or that environmental problem, Wilson looks at the whole planet and sees it through the ecosystems that comprise the natural world.  He explains basic but critically important things, such as how complex ecosystems depend upon the interrelationship of a wide variety of plant and animal species. This work is deeply rooted in the scientific literature, and Wilson draws the reader in with vivid descriptions of the natural world.

I was particularly impressed with the way in which he explains his assessment of the extent and pace of species loss, the impact of recent and current conservation efforts, and the basis for optimism in the struggle against species loss. His quantitative reasoning will be accessible to even the math-phobic and his conclusions reinforced by his vivid narrative descriptions of various natural processes.

A concrete example of his reasoning with respect to how well conservation is working:  A 2010 survey of the 25,780 known vertebrate land animals (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians), found one-fifth threatened with extinction and, out of those one-fifth, one-fifth had been saved by conservation efforts. Over the last century conservation efforts have cut the loss of bird species by half.  But at this rate, the loss of species across all ecosystems is still accelerating. He shows that we could reverse this, but so far we are only making an important but marginal difference. The book includes a fascinating description of the most important places on the planet in need of species protection.

Wilson’s first argument is that human beings do not know as much as we should about our fellow species. He believes the biology profession needs a higher ratio of naturalists, whose focus is particular species or ecosystems, to those in more specialized fields such as cell or molecular biology. He goes on to argue persuasively that, due to changes in scientific knowledge and technology, we are now capable of a relatively complete global census of all species (including bacteria!), on which we would develop appropriate solutions to the loss of species diversity.

The entire book is infused with Wilson’s dry humor, as, for example, when he describes humanity as “obsequious to imagined higher beings, contemptuous toward lower forms of life.”

The last section of the book sets out a clear goal or solution:  set aside half the planet for undeveloped wild nature. While Wilson makes a compelling case that this is a necessary and feasible goal, he is less successful in explaining how we can accomplish it. I will argue that his approach lacks an adequate analysis of what forces are actually driving species loss and a strategic sense of who are our friends and enemies in the struggle against the problem.

In his chapter “Are we as gods?” and elsewhere throughout the book, Wilson defines the enemy responsible for our problem:  Increasingly over the past 65 million years, we have lived on a planet dominated by human beings. He labels this the “Anthropocene Epoch.” According to Wilson the fundamental problem is the world-view of the “Anthropocene enthusiasts,” who defend the right of the human species to rule the world in our own self-interest and without regard for other species. Certainly this ideology is prevalent if not entirely hegemonic today.

However, the book seems to root the causes of this view in the ideas of individuals and societies.  Wilson holds a particular animus for those who believe that the natural world is already gone, unrecoverable, and that the best way to protect other species is to develop the human world with an eye toward how the survival of other species can be useful or even essential to us. He argues that the survival and recovery of other species can only be based upon a radical shift in philosophy that places the survival of all species as the highest principle.

Ironically, even his own examples of successful ecological restoration projects are primarily ones where the benefits of conservation for local people are central to the design of the programs. His argument that we need to choose between conservation programs that are primarily aimed at benefiting human beings or ones that benefit other species is not persuasive. I’d say we’re better off with strong arguments for why species diversity matters to us on the basis of self-interest. In practice, the two views are not incompatible.

 More significantly, Half-Earth says not one word about the actual political economic system that is the primary driver of habitat destruction and the species loss that it creates. Although increasing numbers people on the planet have come to subscribe to the materialistic consumer-based values generated by a capitalist system, it is not human nature or accident that drives this outcome, but the profit maximization that capitalism demands.

 At one point, Wilson says:

Because it is clear that a healthy biosphere is good for the economy, we trust that the public and business and political leaders among them will join us and come to value the living world as an independent moral imperative that also happens to be vital for human welfare.

Unfortunately, the materialistic cultural views and practices that Wilson believes we need to transform are deeply rooted in the logic of corporate imperatives. Human beings do not rip up millions of acres of rain forest and other sensitive ecological areas because we want to dominate other species, but because there is money to be made in developing these areas in ecologically destructive ways.

The cessation and reversal of such destruction depends not simply on a change of world-view in various societies, but on the development of an alternative economic system that does not depend upon such extensive use and abuse of natural resources. In our contemporary economic system that now virtually covers the globe, the real decision-makers are transnational corporations that do not make their decisions on what is good for people, the planet as a whole, or even the economy as a whole, but, rather, on what will maximize their “bottom line.” They are equally prepared to destroy human lives as those of other “lesser species.” We need both a cultural transformation and an end to the economic system that drives the need for conspicuous consumption, the raw materials on which it depends, and the destruction of species that accompanies their acquisition.

In the end, this is an engaging and optimistic book that may well inspire individuals to work more fervently for conservation of the natural world. It makes a compelling case for the necessity to do so and that this is not yet a lost cause. But it does miss a central point with respect to a strategy to accomplish the goal we no doubt share with E. O. Wilson.