To Stave Off Extinction, Protect ‘Half-Earth’

15:54 minutes

Wilson, Edward O. © Jerry Bauer
Wilson, Edward O. © Jerry Bauer

Last month, President Obama designated three new national monuments in the California desert: Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. All in all, the new monuments protect nearly two million acres of sand dunes, lava flows, snow-capped peaks, and Native American trading routes.

But if you add it all up, the tally of protected land in the U.S. is only about 14 percent; worldwide, it’s about the same. And that, argues Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, isn’t nearly enough to stave off another mass extinction of the world’s biodiversity.

Wilson’s prescription for the planet, which he lays out in his new book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, is to set aside half the world’s lands and seas for nature to do its thing.

Segment Guests

Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson is a professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University in Cambridge. He’s the author of multiple books, including A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk Through Gorongosa National Park (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last month, President Obama designated three new national monuments out in the California desert. You have the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains. All in all, they protect nearly two million acres of sand dunes, lava flows, snow capped peaks, and Native American trading routes. But add it all up and the tally of protected land in the US is only about 14%. Worldwide it’s about the same.

And that, according to my next guest, isn’t nearly enough to stave off another mass extinction of the world’s biodiversity. His prescription for the planet? To set aside half the earth, half of it, including land and sea, for nature to do its things with no human intervention. Sort of off limits to people. And he lays out his vision for how we’ll get there in his new book Half Earth– Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Doctor E.O. Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University and the author of Half Earth. And we have an excerpt of the book at sciencefriday.com/halfearth. And I have a question for all of our listeners while we’re talking to Dr. Wilson. What areas of earth that currently aren’t protected, what areas not under protection, would you set aside for conservation? Our number 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255. Or tweet us @scifri.

Welcome back to Science Friday, Doctor Wilson.

DR. E.O. WILSON: Well it’s always a pleasure to be with you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: It’s always a pleasure to have you. This half earth idea, it’s not about taking a knife and splitting the earth in half, is it?

DR. E.O. WILSON: No, not at all. It’s a matter of putting together by just in a [INAUDIBLE] fashion all the remaining real wilderness areas, which are substantial, in the land and the land that can be utilized in the category of a reserve around the world, on down to relatively small plots. It also means the– it can be done easily in the sea, where we have 3% covered now. And we can take it up over 50% by simply setting aside the open seas and preventing fishing there. Now before you respond by saying, oh now that’s impossible. It’s not, because new studies have shown, concerning the migration and reproductive speed of ocean going, open ocean going, organisms, where a lot of the food supply comes from, that freeing it up and not fishing there anymore will actually supply the territorial maritime areas, the exclusive economic zones, through– in a way that increases substantially the total global marine production of fisheries and other marine life. That’s just a peculiarity of the way the world, the oceans, work.

And in the land, for the land we go from 15% to 50. That’s not as difficult either, as it might seem. Creating corridors, picking the largest areas that are available and designating them. And just moving it on up until we come to about half. And at one half, for reasons I can go into if we need to, at one half we are now very roughly in a position of moving the extinction rate to 80 or– sorry, moving it down, to 10 to 20% over what’s going to happen if we leave it alone.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying 80% of species would survive going in the–

DR. E.O. WILSON: That’s a first crude estimate. The relation between the size of the habitat and the number of species that can live in the habitat sustainably is pretty much almost an ecological law. An approximation of that is the number of species that can be maintained in an area sustainably is roughly the same as the square root of the area. And so working off that and a lot of other information about sustaining a species, keeping them alive under different conditions, would allow us to piece together a worldwide reserve of, on the land. Not just the sea, but the land of half.

IRA FLATOW: What’s it going to take for you to convince the world’s countries to do something like this? It’s going to need a coordinated effort, right?

DR. E.O. WILSON: Well yes, but we already have various devices within the United Nations and the help and support of a number of these developed nations to include the world’s biodiversity. That is, the rest of life, and the habitats required to keep them, in our foreign policy agenda.

IRA FLATOW: According to the World Bank, countries like Germany and Slovenia have already protected about half their land. So it seems like at least in the right political climate, this sort of thing is possible.

DR. E.O. WILSON: There are a lot of countries that are in that position. The United States, actually, is one of them. And Brazil, which has one of the richest biological diversity in the world, along with Colombia and Ecuador, could manage that.

IRA FLATOW: Mmm-hmm. What about people who say, a lot of these places might be where we grow our food? I mean, are we going to ask people to go without food?

DR. E.O. WILSON: Oh, yeah. Well I’ve looked into this in some detail, on food productivity in the present biological boundaries of the planet and so on. And it’s not a bad picture if we have certain trends right now continue, and the unintended consequences allowed to occur. That includes, according to United Nation projections, but I suspect others would come pretty close as well, we are going to peak at about a world population of about 10 to 11 billion. That’s a 50% increase in population. And then start coming down.

We have, in addition, an implosion into cities worldwide that’s going on, that’s clearing land. For example, in Central America, there are areas that are re-growing rainforest just from that alone. But then in addition, we have high technology and some of the developments of high technology that are very promising for increasing productivity. As for example, vertical gardens in warehouses with LED lighting can greatly boost a lot of the parts of agriculture, and on and on.

The whole trend in the modern techno-scientific economy is toward more efficiency with less material and less energy. So what we should do is to encourage those, which we’re getting better and better at anyway, and link it to setting aside reserves as fast as we can.

IRA FLATOW: In case, you’re just joining us, talking with E.O. Wilson about his new book Half Earth– Our Planet’s Fight for Life. A lot of folks want to get in on this. Let’s go to Los Gatos, California, with Tom. Hi Tom, welcome to Science Friday.

TOM: Yeah, thanks for taking my call, Ira. You really have a fantastic show. I’m happy to be a part of. Yeah, I’d like to start with the Pacific Ocean, which covers about a third of the Earth’s surface. So we would have to relocate the people that live on the Micronesian islands, it’s such a small population. Even Australia would not really make a big impact. It’s the world demand for fish and other oceanic resources, oil and so on, that’s the problem. And that should be restricted year by year, maybe 10% a year over 10 years, until the ocean is pristine. All the plastic and everything in the gyre, Pacific gyre, is cleaned up. And the fisheries replaced by fish farming, even inland in the deserts to give the depleted fish stocks a chance to recover. The starfish, which has been decimated by some kind of a mysterious virus here on the Pacific, the west coast of the United States.

We could even relocate people in big cities like in Japan, who’ve had the Fukushima disaster and are in danger of other earthquakes, Nepal and so on, to stable land masses. Without respect to nationality, of course, race, gender, or anything else.

IRA FLATOW: I hear you. All right, Tom, I’m going to get a reaction.

DR. E.O. WILSON: I think there’s a question in there somewhere. And let me just see if I can fish it out.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s start with fishes. Start with fishing. I mean, most of the Earth is covered in water, right? Is that a good place to begin?

DR. E.O. WILSON: Well, that’s right. And at the present time, we have driven the fisheries of the world down, according to one study involving about 170 population, to between 17 and 1% of their original quantity. And it’s going on down with predictions of a lot of fisheries collapsing within 50 years. How do we get out of that? Well, one way we get out of it is, I think I’ve just said, setting aside, that is making a reserve, of the entire open ocean. And the result would be, it looks pretty firm to me, an increase in the worldwide production of the fisheries in the coastal waters.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let me go, let me go to the phones and move on, because there’s so many things and so little time. Let me go to Gainesville, Florida and Emilio. Hi, welcome.

EMILIO: Hi, how are you? Thank you for taking my call, and I’m honored to speak to you, Professor Wilson. My question is as follows, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we’ll protect 50% of the world ecosystems. I’m a tropical biologist myself, and I do a lot of my research in the Amazon, so I get to see firsthand what happens there. And my question is, we’re going to put up walls around these areas and wall them off from humans, but humans have been living in them for millennia. They’ve shaped them ever since they’ve been there. And they’re, in fact, living in them now. So what are we going to do with these communities of people who are, who live there, who have always lived there. And who are central, I think, to both its conservation and its protection down the road?

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Wilson, before you answer, let me just big jump in here and remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. OK.

DR. E.O. WILSON: OK. Good question. Of course, it’s what should be immediately on everyone’s mind. And the answer is, we’re not going to move anybody. And we’re not going to. This can be done without moving anybody, I should say, and it could be done without abrogating private property rights. The National Park system, unknown to most people I guess, already has a series of methods by which this can be done to great efficiency. Including the setting up of what is called the National Natural Landmarks. And that is to designate an area that’s particularly rich and can be hopefully preserved. And then with that designation, allowing people who are there to continue being there and having their own property. There might be one person who owns all of it, but by persuasion, by pride, by agreement with many from the start on what the purpose is of setting aside this particular valuable area may be. I think by persuasion alone it’ll be possible to do that.

But there are a lot of others. One is to set up a park. This is a fairly recent National Park Service policy, setting up a park and including with it what is known as, and in the same ecological domain, is called a Preserve. And that is where hunting and fishing could be allowed. So the people who have been hunting and fishing in an area would be allowed and even encouraged to use the Preserve. And there are other, numerous, methods that could be used to build up land to a substantial amount, without moving anybody or harming anyone’s personal rights.

IRA FLATOW: Aren’t most biologically rich places on the planet already protected in some way or another?

DR. E.O. WILSON: Oh, unfortunately not. Or if they are on paper protected, that’s being violated.

IRA FLATOW: Such as?

DR. E.O. WILSON: The worst place, such as in magnitude, Indonesia. Which has laws against the cutting of more rain forests in many very rich areas like Borneo, but the laws are just overlooked. And we’re still getting massive cutting and burning throughout Indonesia to plant oil palm. Well this comes down, not to what government policy is or is stated and voted upon, I guess, in their legislature or equivalent. It comes on just public leaders, political leaders, looking the other way. So if we can mount at the same time as realistic procedures to aim for that half earth mark, and the 80 earth percent or so species saved, then increasingly that can be a moral issue that could, might, I hope, eventually, be universally accepted.

IRA FLATOW: Well good luck to you, Dr. Wilson. And it’s a great book. It’s called Half Earth. E.O. Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. And we have an excerpt of the book at sciencefriday.com/halfearth. Thanks for joining us today.

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