I finished Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life over the weekend. It starts off so well but the end is rushed and fails to cement his bold proposal into anything but pie-in-the-sky thinking from a crazy old man. In a nutshell, Wilson proposes that to save as much of the planet’s biodiversity as possible, half of the Earth, including both landmass and ocean, should be set aside as wilderness reserve.
As of 2015 the number of known species, is over 2 million. However, scientists estimate that the Earth hosts something like 8.7 million species of plants, animals, algae, fungi and microorganisms with mitochondria and other organelles. If scientists are even in the ball park on their estimates, there is so much we haven’t even discovered yet about life on this planet. But with climate change and all of the other things we humans are doing, it is a race against time and almost certain that extinction is happening to species right now that we don’t even know about.
Biologists acknowledge that 99 percent of species that have lived during the 3.8 billions years of life on Earth are extinct. So, why worry about extinction? Wilson points out that while a good many species completely disappeared, a good many more evolved into something else. Wilson worries about biologists who embrace an extreme Anthropocene worldview of humans dominating the entire planet where all of its resources are put to our purpose and everything is judged by whether or not it is useful to humans because we are the only ones that really matter.
That is the first half of the book. Even though it is really interesting, Wilson doesn’t present an argument for biodiversity stronger than “because we haven’t discovered everything yet.” Ok, I thought, maybe he is saving up the hard hits for later. But no. The second part of the book goes off the rails.
There are two kinds of scientists in Wilson’s opinion. The first become scientists in order to make a living. The second kind find a way to make a living in order to study science. Wilson places himself and the majority of his friends in the second group. He declares they are the hardest working, least competitive and lowest paid. They do science for the love of the work not to become wealthy from patents or famous for their discoveries. He goes on to lament how the world has turned away from funding his kind of science and prefers to fund the kind of science that generates money. He gets moralistic and judgmental.
Then he takes a survey of eighteen senior naturalists around the world and asks them what would be the best places to reserve for biodiversity. The following is page after page of brief description of the areas chosen from the redwood forests of California to the western Ghats of India and the entire islands of Madagascar and New Guinea. This might be interesting if each area got more than a one paragraph.
Next Wilson veers into how all of the research on biodiversity is currently being scanned and made available on the internet and what a great thing that is for researchers. He goes into great detail, including naming some of the databases. The goal, of course, is to document and classify every single living thing on earth. Wilson estimates the job won’t be done until the twenty-third century in part because of all those scientists who are interested in making money.
Finally we get back to Wilson’s original proposition. If we follow the Anthropocene extremists, Earth will end up being nothing more than a spaceship and do humans really have the technology and know enough about everything to keep us all alive and fed on an Earth that no longer has any kind of naturally functioning ecosystems? Absolutely not, says Wilson. Yet in almost the next chapter he rhapsodizes about the melding of brain science and artificial intelligence and how AI and robots will lead to a more rational world and save our bacon. He babbles on about freeing our minds from superstition and religious dogma. He insists that scientists “know better.” And that they and AI will help us build a world that requires fewer resources to sustain.
He doesn’t talk about how to go about setting aside half the Earth for wilderness reserve, how and where to relocate people, how to convince the world that this is even necessary. Nope, it took 3.8 billion years for all this biodiversity to evolve and wouldn’t it be a shame to be the cause of its disappearance? That’s the best he can do. I don’t need convincing about the value of biodiversity, but if he is trying to persuade the unconvinced, he does a poor job of it.
In the end he does mention, in a two-page appendix how we might go about setting aside half the Earth by using UNESCO’s World Heritage Foundation. He mentions a few instances where countries are working to restore habitat, and suggests that between that, currently existing reserves, and the areas his naturalist friends want to preserve, we are off to a good start. Where and how we go from there is left open and unexplored. Wilson somehow seems to think that humans will become rational, unbiased, community-focused and equality-minded creatures not driven by wealth, consumerism and their own self-interests, as though there is some kind of button or switch than can be flipped. He is so disconnected that it is hard to take him and his proposal seriously.
Wilson is an expert on ants and in the book he relates a story about how he once stuck his arm into a nest of fire ants to see what would happen. Within seconds he had been bitten dozens of times. If you have ever been bitten by a fire ant — I have a few times as a kid and it hurts worse and much longer than a bee sting in my opinion — you can either admire Wilson for his nerve or shake your head at his stupidity. Half-Earth is kind of like the fire ants.