My first reaction after reading this book was “thank you Edward Wilson for making such an important contribution to a very important issue, and doing it with such a fantastic book”.
This is a book that engages heart and mind. It manages to both explain the science behind the fieldwork that can inform our biodiversity/conservation strategies and also provide a passionate description of what it is to approach nature in all its beauty. To read a book by someone who has knowledge that is so deep that it is better described as wisdom, and so much passion that you can feel the energy oozing from the pages feels like a privilege.
But the book it more than another call for biodiversity/conservation. The books central message is the title of the book “half-earth”, a concept so radical and that it requires us to radical rethink our place on this planet. How do we, Homo Sapiens, that represents one species, relate to the million known and million unknown other species that we share this planet with?
A disclosure, the main reason I read this book is that I have discussed the idea of “half for our species/ half for all the rest (living organisms on the planet)” for a few years now. I have done this from a purely ethical standpoint, not – as Wilson is doing – (also) from a (scientific) biodiversity perspective. My own “half-approach” was the result of trying to define the vague term “sustainable development”, in a way where it actually could be used in strategies with concrete targets.
While exploring different aspects of sustainability, the ethical aspect (see below), “acknowledging the rights of all individuals, groups and species to evolve” emerged as one of the most interesting aspects. I have argued that “half for our species/ half for all other species” arguably is the best starting point and that it is not a very radical proposition from an ethical perspective. Most people define the starting point for basic equity as “equal”, i.e. same for me and same for you. This simple equity can later be modified, but it is hard to find a better place to start. When we think about all the different species, all the “individuals” that are non-human, and think about their rights and needs; a deal where half of the planet would be for all other species and half for us humans feels as a very good deal for us. So if we start from what could be considered ethical, instead of what we are used to, half-earth seems like a good start.
With this disclosure of my personal interest in “half-earth” out of the way the challenge of what aspects of the book should be discussed emerges. My notes, after reading the book, are almost as long as the book itself. This is a book that really should be read so instead of trying to capture the most important ideas I will begin by highlighting some of the things I really like about the book, then discussing some of the key issues where I think further discussions are needed, finally I will list a few ideas for possible ways forward.
The first thing that struck me when reading this book is that it is written with a balance of knowledge and passion that for me approaches wisdom. This mix is something I appreciate when a new radical concept is presented. Talking about wisdom, do not imply that everything in the book is correct, or that Wilson does not have personal grudges that makes the book difficult to read sometimes. It is clear that he does not care much about fame, money, or any other mainstream gratification. His focus is on biodiversity conservation and he really wants to know why we are not better when it comes to taking care of our planet.
The language is also very beautiful. Just read the introduction:
What is man?
Storyteller, mythmaker, and destroyer of the living world. Thinking with a gabble of reason, emotion, and religion. Lucky accident of primate evolution during the late Pleistocene. Mind of the biosphere. Magnificent in imaginative power and exploratory drive, yet yearning to be more master than steward of a declining planet. Born with the capacity to survive and evolve forever, able to render the biosphere eternal also. Yet arrogant, reckless, lethally predisposed to favor self, tribe, and short-term futures. Obsequious to imagined higher beings, contemptuous toward lower forms of life.
Have the evolution of humanity and our current highs and lows ever been better described better in less than ten sentences? Complementing the beautiful language are illustrations of different animals and plants from each chapter, such as the two waterleafs below.
The book is also entertaining. It is easy to imagine the kind of people that will be scared/frustrated and/or even angry when their lack of capacity to think beyond incremental change is exposed. The only time where he feels diplomatic (dishonest/not as frustrated as you can read between the lines) is when he talks about current conservation organizations. I understand that he does not want to make the people fighting for the same thing as he does frustrated, but I would have liked to see a more frank discussion about the limits of the current conservation strategies.
The discussion about current trends is very good. Wilson makes it clear that the fact that we over the last few years have managed to slow down the extreme speed of extinction cannot be seen as a victory. He is rightfully frustrated that too many are celebrating a slightly slower mass extinction as a victory.
The discussion about future trends is not as good as current trends, but still much better than most discussions out there (and definitely better than almost everything relating to biodiversity as those books tend to ignore future disruptive trends). He addresses both macro aspects of biodiversity, population and lifestyles/technology. For the population he is long-term optimistic as much indicate that the population growth will stabilize wen people move out of poverty, but he also acknowledges that before that stabilization we will have a lot more people on this planet. There is however not a discussion about the risk here, as the probability for continued population growth should not be dismissed..
For the global population we know that we could see continued population growth well beyond 10-15 billion people. That we need to focus on how to avoid such scenarios should be highlighted in books like this. Population growth is a sensitive issue so I understand that Wilson did not spend too much time on it. However, the risks with new technology would have been good to address in some detail.
He also discusses the potential for future technology breakthroughs, but that part is not very good. However, it is not often you find a hard-core conservation activist talking about biology, nanotechnology, and robotics. Still, what is seriously lacking in these areas is also a proper discussion about the risks, both technological and political
In Wilsons defence I would like to add that he is obviously aware of the duel nature of technology and writes: “The explosive growth of digital technology, by transforming every aspect of our lives and changing our self-perception, has made the “bnr” industries (biology, nanotechnology, robotics) the spearhead of the modern economy. These three have the potential either to favor biodiversity or to destroy it.” But he needs to be careful as it will be too easy for people to interpret him as naïve when it comes to the problems with technology. I say this from personal experience, as someone who have spent a lot of time talking about the opportunities that technology provides. I know that it is important to keep in stressing obvious negative possibilities also as the current discussions about technology is very polarized.
The different stories from the field add to the overall narrative. Rather than an attempt to provide an authentic alibi that only feel artificial, as these kind of “snapshots from reality” tend to feel like, Wilsons stories from nature provide both a reminder of what is at stake, but also a glimpse into the experience that helped shape Wilsons passion for nature.
The outbursts of frustration that are sprinkled throughout the book are so good that only those would make the book worth reading. I guess that says something about how good I think this book is. Just listen to this reaction by Wilson to those who dream about humanity evolving into a civilization capable of utilize almost unlimited amounts of energy. Here is a snippet from the book:
“Meanwhile, in imagination, we may attain the status of what the astronomer Nikolai Kardashev called Type I civilization, a society in control of all the available energy on Earth. Thus we conceivably could press on to Type II civilization, in control of available power in the Solar System, and even Type III civilization, taking control of all energy in the galaxy.
May I now humbly ask, just where do we think we are going—really?”
“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.
And while at it, we are unnecessarily destroying a large part of the rest of life. Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in the making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though the species of the natural world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Have we no shame?”
The way Wilson describes the Kardashev scale (a scale to measure civilizations) and then put into context made me laugh hard and I hope some of those spending time on the Kardashev scale could reflect on the kind of issues Wilson discusses.
Further discussion needed The book is however far from perfect, as no really interesting book is. Below are six areas where I think further discussions in needed to take half-earth, or any serious conservation attempt forward:
- A clear definition of half-earth and what is needed One of the major weaknesses is that there is no clear definition of half-earth.Where geographically should this half be (important from a biodiversity perspective and a human settlement perspective) and how connected must the different parts be? Perhaps even more important is what kind of protections from humans would this half have. Currently protected areas are categorized into seven categories. These range from “Category Ia: Strict Nature Reserve” that is only light human use to “Category VI – Protected Area with sustainable use of natural resources” where low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation can take place. It is significant difference between the different categories and research has also shown that the categories with more intensive human activity often have significant problems. See for example the study “Cautionary thoughts on IUCN protected area management categories V–VI” by Craig L. Shafer I find it difficult to imagine that Wilson would think it is enough to only have Category VI for half-earth.Also, currently there is no category that excludes all human use. In on our way to a half-earth future such a category, that moves beyond an anthropocentric perspective, should at least be explored.
- Assessment of the direct and root causes of the biodiversity loss Another major problem is that Wilson does not provide an overview and assessment of the importance of different drivers of biodiversity loss. HIPPO (Habitat destruction, Pollution, Population growth, and Overhunting) is used to give an overview but it does not really say anything about the drivers. Also it is not very smart to include “population growth” as a separate category the way Wilson does. It is, as Wilson also writes, a multiplication of population and lifestyle that affects the biodiversity. The first example of a driver of biodiversity loss that Wilson use in the book is the Chinese craving for traditional medicine. This is obvious a significant problem, especially for some high profile animals, but it is insignificant compared to the western over-consumption lifestyle. A more detailed overview of different technology scenarios would also be very helpful, as this will affect the possibilities to deliver a half-earth solution. Many people skeptical to technology do not understand the enormous potential new technology has, but many technology optimists do not understand the risk we face and that current trends will result in a situation where new technologies are used to accelerate destructive trends and that new rules/regulations and values are needed to guide the development in a sustainable direction.
- The arguments for half-earth A challenge for the half-earth idea, that hopefully can be turned into a strength, is that there are many arguments for it. Unfortunately Wilson does not provide much clarity in the book. Too often for my taste he uses short-term anthropocentric arguments; i.e. the species we threaten might have direct economic value to us, or that they provide some valuable “eco system service”. The survival of humanity argument is the anthropocentric argument I found most interesting, but I think much better probability data is needed if this is to support a half-earth strategy (most would argue that much less is needed for our survival). What is really lacking is more on the ethical side beyond the anthropocentric, especially as Wilson has introduced the very interesting concept of biophilia earlier.
- The role of the poor, the responsibilities of the rich The need to move people out of poverty and create a more equitable society is something that must be integrated at the core of a half-earth strategy. Here Wilson is weak and that is strange. He does not even talk in general terms about the need to ensure that the poor will be helped by the half-earth process. He does not even mention the “poor” or “poverty” in his book and that feels very strange in 2016. I have no doubt that he has thought a lot about the issue as it is dominating most conservation discussions today. Perhaps he thought it was too obvious to include, if so I think he needs to rethink in future texts about half-earth.
- The technical solutions needed There is no concrete discussion about what technical solutions that are needed to make a half-earth solution possible. Wilson only talks in general terms about new technologies, but to be convincing it would be good to have more clear idea about the kind of solutions that are needed, not just the technological solutions themselves, but the administrative, legal, and economic systems that will allow implementation of such solutions.
- Animal rights The total absence of a discussion about animal rights and how we “use” animals today is surprising, especially as Wilson is supposed to have written the following in an earlier book “If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people". We are already using economic arguments to excuse a system where animals are seen as products, so it is important to show how a half-earth strategy can avoid worsening the situation, and instead be part of the solution.
Possible ways forward Below are four areas that I think would be good to prioritize to get the discussion and action needed
- Create a global map that outline how a half-earth would look like. Perhaps the name should change to “full-earth”, but still keep the half for us/half for them focus, to better reflect that we are on the path to an “almost-empty-earth” with current trends.
- Calculate what natural resources that are needed to provide all that is needed for more than 10 billion people to live a good and equitable life, so that companies, governments, academics can develop guidelines that encourage solution that do not use more resources than that.
- Based on the calculations above provide examples of different half-earth lifestyles with solutions from different companies/entrepreneurs. To demonstrate that an attractive life is not just possible, but would be better than what we have today.
- Identify next steps towards half-earth, for all countries and governments, but with special focus on the G20 countries and Global Fortune 500 companies in order to initiate a race to the top.
I look forward to follow the meme of “half-earth” and it will be my latest additions to current ideas that are interesting to discuss using the Overton window.