Edward O. Wilson


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Half-Earth Summary

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Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016) is Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biologist Edward O. Wilson’s in-depth look at the planetary threat of mass extinction taking place at our own hands. In order to avoid such a fate, Wilson claims that we must move quickly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet. Essentially providing a roadmap for saving the planet, the author concludes that the situation we are facing is too vast and dire to be solved with small efforts. Instead, Wilson prescribes a solution that meets the magnitude of the problem by declaring that we should devote a full half of the Earth’s surface to nature. In identifying specific regions of the planet that can still be saved, Wilson calls on us to act to save what remains of our planet’s magnificent biodiversity.

Wilson describes how, in only a flash of geological time, humans became the architects and sovereigns of this epoch. He outlines the ramifications this has had and will have on all life, both our own and that of the natural world. Providing a naturalistic portrait of precisely what we are losing in the mass extinction we are currently helping to perpetuate, the author pays tribute to creatures both great and small, noting that several ongoing extinctions are inevitable.

Wilson considers not just large animals and well-known plant species, but the millions of microorganisms and invertebrate animals that form the foundation of the Earth’s ecosystems. Victims include the yellow-blossom mussel, the mammoth, the plateau chub, the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger, the stirrup shell, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the dodo, and the baiji dolphin. He laments that when we are not constructing holiday resorts, factories, farms, and dams that annihilate existing habitats, we are exploiting the atmosphere by using it as the carbon garbage can of the Industrial Revolution, and we are massively transforming the Earth’s climate. Wilson refers to this alteration of habitats, climate, and the very ground we walk on as the “Anthropocene.”

He informs us that extinctions are now occurring up to one thousand times faster than they did during the pre-human era. This is comparable to the Fifth Extinction that resulted from the Yucatan asteroid that affected the Earth 65 million years ago. Rates of extinction are on the rise, and soon, warns the author, we will lose the majority of species comprising life on Earth—that is, unless humans stop destroying wildlands.

As major biodiversity havens, tropical forests, coral reefs, rivers, and streams are under particular threat. Rather than focusing solely on the impacts of climate change, Wilson points to other culprits. We live, he says, in a biosphere that is being threatened by dying and invasive species; pollution of land, water, and air; overhunting and habitat destruction; human population growth; and the vast impacts of climate change. He makes clear that we are in the midst of a Sixth Extinction, and human activities are the driving force behind it. The author also delves into the politically charged topic of population growth, stating that obviously, reproduction is necessary, but it is generally not in the planet’s best interest.

Wilson makes clear that he does not buy into the notion that nature should serve humans. Asserting that the biosphere is not ours to possess, he takes on several fallacious ideas, including the notion that such mass extinctions could be compensated for by introducing alien species into new ecosystems and that species that have gone extinct can be brought back using cloning.

Wilson also attacks those who would support “new conservation,” or “anthropocentrists,” an assemblage of revisionist environmentalists who think that engineering and technology can save the human species. The author claims that this human-centered approach to conservation is actually anti-conservation in nature. For example, the Nature Conservancy is criticized in the book due to its increased focus on ways the natural world can help support people and the economy.

Wilson goes on to contend that reserving half of the Earth’s surface, to include key loci of biodiversity, would save 85 percent of the species on the planet. He also includes a worldwide compendium of locations where biodiversity persists. Among them are the California redwood forests, the grasslands of the Serengeti, and the Amazon River basin. Wilson also gives two examples of ongoing restoration projects: the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and the long-leaf pinelands of Florida.

At once a celebration of the Earth’s vast range of species and a lamentation of humanity’s assault against it, Half-Earth defies prevailing conventional wisdom by suggesting that we still have the time to allocate half of the Earth to preserve the remainder of the planet’s biodiversity. Pervaded by an insightful Darwinian understanding of the Earth’s fragility, the book urges us to act, offering an achievable goal we are capable of striving for on behalf of all life on Earth.