Jeremy Hance for Mongabay: First of all, why half the Earth specifically?

E.O. Wilson: Because, half the Earth in an ideal model situation – mind you, we have to start with an idealized situation – but nonetheless, this is based on a very established principle of biological diversity…which I helped discover and create and confirm with experiments in the field in the 1960s [see island biogeography, which Wilson developed with Robert MacArthur]. You can predict that if you save half of a natural environment that is in equilibrium – that is, you go into an area in which its natural species are dying off at about one per million species per year and originating about the same rate, one per million species per year. If you go into an area which has equilibrated at that level, and you remove half of [the area], then you’re left with 80 percent or so of the species that can continue on in equilibrium – that is in a sustainable, sustained condition.{12576B96-F76D-44C2-BD04-DB7D8604F448}Img400

And if you start making it less and less, then you decline very quickly in how many species can remain sustainably in that reserve that you’ve left. For example, when you get down to removing 90 percent of the natural area – which has occurred, just about that amount, in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, in Madagascar, and in the Philippine Islands – then you’re left with only about 50 percent of the species [surviving in a sustainable condition].

And, so I’ve just taken that one very common value we have –  [that] parameter in the theory, around which a lot of actual systems fall. You take that [theory] as a starter and then take half of the land out: you’re still going to be left with somewhere around 85 percent of the original species sustainable.

Now that’s what’s surprising about the entire conservation movement in the past, and the solution [i.e. Half-Earth] of which I think it’s fair to say has energized the conservation movement, the global conservation movement, because it actually suggests a solution to the whole problem.

I think what was not realized in the past was the application of that principle to conservation. And that from that principle, you could actually predict with lots of hope and lots of effort – you could actually predict saving the rest of life, the great majority of it, for an indefinite period of time in one stroke.

Mongabay:  You mentioned Madagascar, the Philippines, and the Atlantic rainforest, and I’m curious, how do we deal with places like that, where you’ve already lost so much of the natural habitat? Do we just save ten percent? Do we try and restore them? What is your position on what you do in those kinds of places where the human population is quite large and where so much has already been lost?

E.O. Wilson: This is, of course, up to the people who own the land, whether it’s government-owned or privately owned, usually it’s some of both. The decision is up to you as to whether to try to restore the habitat. And many of these habitats you can restore, particularly if you haven’t damaged it too badly, so you’ve only just timbered the area that was part of that natural domain before. And you can, if you want – and I hope everybody wants to do it – work particularly around the periphery and grow the natural ecosystem there outward.

And that has been taking place in a number of areas. For example, Central America and Southern Mexico, in Chiapas, where all the rainforest has not been cut, and where people who were farming along the edge have begun to leave it to go to towns and cities – which, of course, is a universal, almost universal, phenomenon.

When people have the opportunity to go to a city – and off a farm where maybe the soil is getting poor and they can barely make a living – they go with hopes of getting some kind of employment, even at the bottom. That’s happened in a few places in the world, some Central American areas. And then it begins to grow out. It’s [also] happened, for example, in part of Thailand. And, so the option then is to say, ‘well, we’ll just have to make do with, 80-something percent,’ say if you’ve got [half the habitat] left, anyway. Or we can go for more.

[That’s] what’s been done, for example in the park Gorongosa, in Mozambique, where I’ve been a number of times, and observed the whole process of restoring the park. Actual restoration is underway in Gorongosa on the mountain rainforest, which has been trimmed back. And that forest is so valuable: not just for its biodiversity up there that’s found nowhere else, but also as the watershed for the entire area, both for the park and the people living around the park.

So that’s an example of where that’s being brought to fruition.

Mongabay: Do you envision Half-Earth including all the different categories of protected areas, such as indigenous lands – that are recognized by governments – or sustainable-use reserves? Or should Half-Earth really just be areas where people are only allowed to visit and not live?

E.O. Wilson: Of course, if governments and private individuals and the population say, ‘let’s make this a park,’ with no disturbance, that’s best. And that’s happening around the world. Most of the countries in the world have something like that, at least on paper. The [Democratic Republic of Congo] just recently, even with their autocratic ruler, put aside a very large area as a reserve. You might call it a park.

And, on the other hand, if you can get the area designated a reserve, you know, to be part of this [Half-Earth] plan to just get up toward that 50 percent…you don’t need to abrogate property rights and you don’t need to move anybody out, or anywhere around. And furthermore, you will protect indigenous people who otherwise would find their way of life destroyed as more agriculture and human settlement come in.

Doing field work in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Photo courtesy Gorongosa National Park
Doing field work in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Photo courtesy Gorongosa National Park.

The parallel here has already been worked out pretty well by the National Park system of [the U.S.] in two ways. They’re not very well known, but the practice is there and they’ve actually both been used. And the first is the National Natural Area Designation.

For example, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama, which I’ve been very much engaged in, tried to start the first national park on the Gulf Coast. [It] was in the 1970s designated a national natural area. There was no attempt to keep people out, or at least to ask anybody to move or throw up barriers for trespassing. And this area is still good enough to be a national park.

And another method has been used [in] the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. We’re now talking about a national park – complete protection – except that an area within it, along the side, is set up in what is called a preserve, meaning that this is an area in which people can hunt and fish – even are encouraged to do so, to enjoy the natural environment that way, if that’s the way they prefer to do it.

So, this kind of method can be made quite consistent with acquiring large new areas of land. And you might say, well, it might still go under, because [of the] growing hordes of people, because the population is still growing worldwide. Yes, except that population is not going to be growing at the rate that it used to, for very long.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Image courtesy National Park Service.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Image courtesy National Park Service.

And governments – unless, you know, they’re a pretty awful autocratic, government that doesn’t care about anything like this – tend to like to be able to point with pride [at parks]. Private landowners, who have agreed to having their land put into an area like this can have a lot of pride. And the whole value of the area goes up, because now you have a natural area that otherwise was on its way to being degraded – now you have a natural area that people will want to settle around – even if they feel a little guilty about buying land and then building a house or a ranch or something in the middle of it. It can work.

Mongabay: When you were born there were just over two billion people on the planet, and now we have over seven billion. I’m curious, do you see this as sort of the fundamental problem, or do you see this as something that we’re sort of evolutionarily just fated to be? Or is there a way to change this?

E.O. Wilson: Actually, the latter. We lucked out on this one, and we’ve done it because of a quality of human nature, which has proved just about universal. Yeah, we’re at something like 7.4 billion right now. How high are we going? Around the world– even in very poor countries, like Bangladesh – whenever women are given any kind of economic independence, so that they can earn money on their own, and they can make decisions on their own, then one of the first things they make a decision on, to their own benefit and that of actually the children they’re producing, is to reduce the number of children [they have]. And the number of children, the so-called fertility rate, has been plummeting wherever that has occurred.

[The fertility rate] is commonly right now around three to four children and dropping. It needs to reach 2.1 children to equilibrate. And some countries are already – particularly European countries – below 2.1 children. They’re going into zero population growth.

And if that trend continues and the economic growth continues around the world – that is, that we don’t return to a savage world, where most countries are just full of illiterate, hungry people – and particularly if Africa can go through the demographic transition… and produce a middle class that people are working their way into, then Africa will join…everybody else…in seeing a drop.

Therefore, this is an unintended consequence that is superordinate to most considerations of economics and human greed, and the desire to reproduce.

People want to reproduce. But particularly women want to produce a small number [of] children that they can give a good, long life to. As opposed to playing a kind of lottery – the way a lot of men want it – which is lots and lots of children, and hope that at least one or two will reach maturity and look after you in your old age.

Mongabay: Half-Earth is a really ambitious idea. It’s big. And I think there are probably a lot of people who would be pretty skeptical when they first hear this. So, what do you say to convince skeptics about whether or not it’s even feasible?

E.O. Wilson: Let me first of all tell you why I was astonished from the start. My book [had] just come out a few months before when I attended two of the big international conferences on conservation in Honolulu. It was East-West Sustainability Summit, run by Japanese and American leaders mainly in finance and philanthropy. And then immediately following, the four year, quadrennial meeting of the, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN. And some 8,000 to 10,000 people attended [the IUCN event], mostly conservation professionals.

E.O. Wilson is greeted by President of the IUCN, Mr. Zhang Xinsheng, in Honolulu, September 2016. Image courtesy of IUCN.
E.O. Wilson is greeted by the President of the IUCN, Mr. Zhang Xinsheng, in Honolulu, September 2016. Image courtesy of IUCN.

And I found the book to be the main topic of conversation. I was greeted by the heads of many of the international conservation organizations including IUCN [to] say how much they liked this; they thought it was something to believe in, to try for. And, I’ve heard no, or virtually no, direct face-to-face disagreement.

Probably, I will be hearing some grumbling, but I rather doubt I’m going to hear anything with a scientific basis against it. But [who I had to hear from at the conference are] what’s called the Anthropocene enthusiasts.

Well, the Anthropocene is real. There’s no question about that. The geologists, I think, have agreed that all the changes we’ve created in the earth’s surface and the climate and everything is enough to be regarded by geologists many years from now as [a] pretty big change in the environment of the Earth. And it’s worth calling [this] the age of humans: the Anthropocene.

[The Anthropocenists] are a whole group of enthusiasts for giving it up – running up the white flag, is the way I put it…. These are people who run the gamut from saying, ‘well, we’ve damaged the earth so badly up to this point– and the way people are breeding and so on – there’s no point in even trying, so why don’t we just go ahead and let history run its course, and maybe just think of this as the destiny of earth, to see the rest of life mostly disappear. And we’ll fill it up with our domestic animals.’

And that gives me a chill just repeating it.

But that’s what one group among what I call the Anthropocenists say. And another one says, ‘don’t worry, because it’s true we’re wiping out the natural species, but everywhere around the world, the places, the niches that the natural species had are getting filled by invasive species.’ You know, species introduced by humans and ones that go wild.

Well now, that is the height of foolishness. It’s just foolishness. Because everybody who knows anything at all about invasive species [knows they] pretty frequently [go wild]. There’s a rule of ten, for example, in plants – that is one out of ten species that makes it to the shores can go wild and grow in the spots open to it by cutting off the natural environment. And one out of ten becomes a burden, what is formerly called the invasive species. That means a species that’s established itself and has now become a pest.

And, of course, we can together go down a long list of invasive species from the brown tree snake of Guam – which got introduced from New Caledonia or the Solomon Islands right after the Second World War – and bred so fast as a [predator] specialist on young birds that it wiped out virtually every songbird on the Island of Guam.

And then we can move to all of the threats that occur to the Mississippi, with billions of dollars of damage to electrical and other systems – anything connected with a conductor – by the zebra mussel. [Or] the damage to the fisheries by the invading lamprey. Like you could go on and on and on.

Zebra mussels. Photo courtesy United States Geological Survey.
Zebra mussels. Photo courtesy United States Geological Survey.

The actual damage to the United States alone of these ‘new ecosystems’ building up, which is what the enthusiasts call [it], is over $100 billion a year. We’re trying to keep these darn things out.

If we just open the gates and let them in, with no controls, and say, ‘well, they’re forming a new ecosystem,’ we’d be damaging ourselves badly.

Now, another class of the Anthropocenists – I’m going into this in some detail because there’s going to be murmuring about ‘well, extinction is not the problem we think it is, and we’ll be okay’ – this is, of all of the three, to me the most foolish of all, if that’s possible, and that’s the ones called the de-extinction people.

They say, ‘well, hey, listen, just give us a sample of tissue or preserved creature, and the science will permit the restoration of that species by creating a clone.’

So if we do that with a species as they’re going extinct – put them in liquid nitrogen and then pull them out, and then, in the great biology of the future, we can clone them back. Well, maybe we can clone a few, but they forget that these species that are going extinct – especially the ones that are going extinct or are in danger of extinctions – are the ones that are highly specialized [in] a rich natural environment.

And how are you going to get them back? You know, even if you cloned a bunch of them, how are you going to get them back if their natural environment doesn’t exist? If the niche they occupied is long gone?

An example of this is the passenger pigeon and the American chestnut. These are part of a tremendously rich system. I think the average tree, and this is probably true of the chestnut, for example, carries [or supports] on it something like 20 species of moths alone, and who knows how many other creatures?

Passenger Pigeons. Painting by John James Audubon.
Passenger Pigeons. Painting by John James Audubon.

I’m all behind bringing the American chestnut back. I think that’s ongoing. And I think it’s heroic, and I think it’s a great thing to do. But, it remains to be seen whether the chestnut could then be grown back in forests where it once dominated, and, furthermore, if we then cloned the passenger pigeon, even a flock of them, if that could be done, [that] the passenger pigeon, which was a swarm migrator and feeder, could ever be gotten to back into the American environment.

And on-and-on, for thousands of species that are going extinct. And if you say, well, in America, that’s not so bad, is it? Then I’ll give you a figure. Forty-six species of freshwater fish have been extinguished in the United States since 1895. That’s almost 1,000 times the extinction rate that was occurring in freshwater fish species before the coming of humans, and we know that because we have a good fossil record.

Mongabay: So when you talk about the Anthropocenists and the different groups you’ve been discussing, is this sort of a new version of the ‘new conservation‘ philosophy that you’ve been critical of in the past?

E.O. Wilson: No, I think it’s somewhat different. I was critical of the Nature Conservancy.

I’m an enormous admirer of the Nature Conservancy. I served on the board. And I think that in many ways it’s the most effective conservation organization in America, maybe even in the world, because it’s in the business of creating reserves.

I don’t want to [criticize] the Nature Conservancy now. [But] it did have a period in which it decided to emphasize gaining new reserves – that’s wonderful – but [by] dubious means, in my mind, which was to emphasize in all of its efforts to gain new reserves what it could do for humans [what] it could give to human health; [and] the benefits [for] mental health; the income that it would generate around the park, and so on. And that was put in such heavy emphasis that I felt they were losing ground….

[They] were losing the main moral and human reason for reserves, which is to allow the rest of life, that created us, that we evolved to live in, that we innately cherish, and should be feeling responsible for… You’re passing that over to give preeminence to human profit and health rationales.

Of course, [these rationales] exist. But, I think it was taking away the main argument which the Nature Conservancy had that this is the right thing to do – is morally the right thing to do. And that’s why people flocked to the Nature Conservancy, including countless wealthy people who had substantial property – and they just wanted to leave it [as a protected area].

Why, they said? Because, you know, it’ll bring money to the people who are living around it? No. Because they left it in most cases, and are leaving it, for future generations. They knew what they were talking about.

Mongabay: Do you feel that the Nature Conservancy has sort of gone back on that and gone more to its more traditional routes in the last few years?

E.O. Wilson: I honestly don’t know. I had some very friendly, frank meetings with [the head of the Nature Conservancy] Mark Tercek….Tercek is a very smart man, and he’s devoted to the success of the Nature Conservancy and its basic goals. So I don’t worry too much about the Nature Conservancy.

Mongabay: Are you willing to comment at all on the Donald Trump presidency and what that could mean for biodiversity in the US and abroad?

E.O. Wilson: Well, like a lot of people, he scares me. And, of course, I was naturally hanging on for word of who would be Secretary of the Interior. And, my understanding is that the Secretary of the Interior now has been decided and is [the] Congressman from the State of Montana, Ryan Zinke.

Range land in Montana. Image via U.S. Geological Survey.
Range land in Montana. Image via U.S. Geological Survey.

But, I know very little about him, except for the fact that he’s in favor, apparently – and I don’t want to say anything incorrect about him – [of] opening federal lands to harvesting and mining. Now if that’s not true, I apologize.

However, on the plus side is that I’ve had a lot of experience in Montana, and I know and just love the people there. I’ve made a number of visits to Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch – which is I think the biggest in America – which has been converted almost into one of the best prairie, natural reserves in the world, with the megafauna intact in it.

And, of course, there are big disagreements in Montana. But there’s a wide movement and trend in Montana to be a state that preserves its wide-open spaces and its natural environment. And I’m rather hoping that this new Secretary of the Interior will share that feeling about parks and environments.

Mongabay: In Half-Earth you wrote that you really wanted to find a goal that people could aspire to. Is there something in our human evolution where we kind of need a goal in order to move forward, to feel hopeful? Or do you think that it’s something that’s sort of, you know, just a part of our emotional experience in the contemporary world?

E.O. Wilson:  You know, if you notice the subtitle of my book, it’s Our Planet’s Fight to Save Life. And, that is correct. What I feel has been lacking in the global conservation movement… And I hate to use the word lacking, because a lot of really great people, and I mean it – I’m not using it in the Trump-ian sense, meaning I like them – they’re really great, noble people, have put their lives into moving the conservation movement ahead. And they have succeeded substantially here and there around the world.

But they’re way short of the amount of reserves that they need. They’ve been very wise in selecting places and lands within the United States and around the world that have the most diverse fauna and flora and the most endangered species, the so-called hot spots. It’s been a great movement.

But it’s still far short, and it’s just the process. I don’t want to denigrate it by calling it a process, but that’s essentially what it is.

I served on, I guess, most of the major conservation boards myself, starting with the World Wildlife Fund in the eighties. And, it’s just  exciting work, but it’s still not doing the job. And the reason I say it’s not doing the job is recent studies that show that if you take the vertebrate species on the IUCN Red List…that’s mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fishes. If you take the 20 percent of those species of land vertebrates that are [listed as threatened] on the Red List on some point in that descending scale, the recent studies by a big team of specialists in different groups of vertebrates have found that all the conservation efforts together have succeeded in slowing the descent toward extinction of only one fifth of that 20 percent.

It’s sort of like a surgeon in an emergency room who’s attending an accident victim, he’s put in the whole night with everything he’s got, and his team, and they’ve slowed the hemorrhaging of the patient, [the] bleeding of the patient by 20 percent. It’s a brilliant piece of work and just tremendous dedication, but the patient will be dead by morning.

And that’s what the problem is. Now, so you’ve got a process going. It’s intensifying. It’s spreading. But it’s still so far from the mark; we’re going to lose a lot of species.

Half-Earth shows how to do it in one shot, and, therefore, Half-Earth is a goal.

Whereas, all these efforts that are going on, they’re essential. They will continue. If anything, I hope they’ll be accelerated, because now the emphasis…is focusing on habitat – the size of the habitat – [and that] shows that we have a goal. And that’s immensely different in energizing people. Give them a goal.half-earth-graphic-for-homepage-2-460x260

We’ve seen that done and how effective it can be. The war on cancer, you know.

Mongabay: Yeah.  

E.O. Wilson: The fight to save so and so. The fight to immunize against polio. People respond to it. They’re ready to go to war. And if they can go to war with a noble cause then they will really put themselves to it. And so I think that’s what Half-Earth has done, is to state a goal.

I hope I don’t sound grandiose, but it’s the principle, anyway. When John Kennedy decided he was going to go all out for the moon shot – and what we’re talking about, this Half-Earth thing, is kind of a moon shot, but it’s doable – anyway, when Kennedy announced it, he did not say, ‘before this decade is over, the 1960s, we will make important progress towards landing a man on the moon.’

He said, ‘By the end of this decade, we will put a man on the moon and bring him home.’ And when the American people heard that, they just couldn’t wait. They were ready to put anything behind that. They saw that, God, we could do it, yes; this man has promised we would do it. And, the space program is so high in our esteem, and it’s achieved so much, I think we can do it.

And that’s pretty much what I’m trying to say here. I, from my little, low perch, but to say: yes, we can do it.

Mongabay: Let me ask you about bringing sort of a diverse table to this Half-Earth goal. You’ve written a lot about religion; you have a whole book on writing to a Baptist pastor. There seems to be, in the media at least, a lot of science and religion pitted against each other. Is there a way that scientists can communicate science and biodiversity to a religious audience?

E.O. Wilson: Yes, there is, and I think that I was able to show that when I wrote the book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, which is a long letter, an ‘apostrophic’ letter. Apostrophic is a Harvard word for imaginary pastor.

At any rate, I wrote that to him, right? He’s a Southern Baptist evangelical. I knew I was talking to someone I could understand. And I wrote this letter starting off saying, well, you know, I don’t believe – I’m a nonbeliever now – and base that on my knowledge of science. And I’m way over on that side. And I know that you are a dedicated minister with your mission radically different from the way I conceive my life and mission.514iRxfWAmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

But I think we could sit together at a table and talk about this and talk about that, and soon be good friends, and that we could then come together as friends on a common goal – which I know you have, as well as I, and that’s to save the creation. It’s just I have my reasons, you have your fundamental reasons, even though I believe that you also would agree with me about the empirical, secular reasons too. And let’s see what we can do.

And then I explained in the rest of the book what biodiversity was, and what’s being done, and what the interesting organisms are that are out there in biodiversity that most people never heard of, and that’s among the things we’re saving. And that [book] had a substantial impact on the religious community.

I was invited, to meet some religious leaders. I was invited to attend the college in Birmingham [Alabama] – that’s where I was born, Birmingham – to come and talk. I think there was a kind of mutual unspoken understanding that I wasn’t going to start lecturing on evolution, so I just let that slide.

Mongabay: Sure.

E.O. Wilson:  I talked about the creation. And I got a warm reception, and I think I’m still in good stead with that particular ministry. [And] I spoke with a number of other religious leaders. I went to a retreat with a few Zionists and some religious leaders in Georgia where for several days we talked about the whole issue. I was invited by the elders of the Mormon Church to meet them in the President’s Room to talk about it.

So, I think that yes – I’m giving you this from personal experience – I’m certain that people, with a very strong, absolute religion even, could be persuaded to be strong supporters of global conservation.

Mongabay:  This has been a tough year for a lot of people, and there seems to be a lot of disillusionment and hopelessness about the state of affairs in the world. I’m curious what gives you hope, especially in regard to conservation and the fight to save biodiversity for the future?

E.O. Wilson: I believe there’s a lot of political theater going on. There is of course, always, a clash of ideologies. But I have faith that the vast majority of these people – you know, our leaders in both parties and, the Lord help us, I hope Mr. Trump, too – that there’s a very common human quality shared by all that the natural world is worth saving. That the rest of life – those other 10 million species – are worth saving. And this is an innately compatible – with [almost] everyone – moral command that we all respond to. And the response has the ability to make us proud and strong, and in one way, at least, united.

Mongabay: Dr. Wilson, you’ve accomplished so much, both in science and conservation. You’ve had a long and historic career. What do you want to be most remembered for?

E.O. Wilson: You know, everybody dreams of a hole in one. You dream of putting the ball over the fence, you dream of the $10 million lottery winning ticket – and so I dream that I could have had a major influence in moving global conservation ahead.

Hear portions of this conversation on our podcast, here, and learn more about the Half-Earth project here.

Jeremy Hance is a freelance journalist, blogger for the Guardian, and a senior correspondent for Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter via @jeremy_hance.



Article published by Erik Hoffner
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