Half baked: E.O. Wilson’s plan to save half the earth

E.O. Wilson has been called the “father of biodiversity”. He’s described about 450 new species of ants. He’s won more than one hundred awards. He’s written dozens of books. He’s won two Pulitzer prizes.

His latest book is a shocker. The title, “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, sums up Wilson’s argument: the only way to protect a large percentage of the earth’s biodiversity is to set aside half of the earth.

Wilson argues that,

“The only solution to the Sixth Extinction is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater.”

Conservation refugees

Currently, protected areas cover something like 15% of the earth. Millions of people have been evicted from their homes to make way for these protected areas. Estimates range from 10 million people to 40 million. In a 2005 essay, titled “Conservation Refugees”, Mark Dowie wrote,

The true worldwide figure, if it were ever known, would depend upon the semantics of words like “eviction,” “displacement,” and “refugee,” over which parties on all sides of the issue argue endlessly. The larger point is that conservation refugees exist on every continent but Antarctica, and by most accounts live far more difficult lives than they once did, banished from lands they thrived on for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Wilson does not talk explicitly about kicking millions of people out of half the earth’s surface area. But his book has little to say about the indigenous peoples and local communities who live in the areas that Wilson wants to set aside.

Wilderness: Places not yet yoked to the human will

Wilson’s wordview is antipolitical. To give just one example, he refers to the western part of the island of New Guinea as Irian Jaya. This is the name given to it by the Suharto dictatorship, after Indonesia invaded West Papua, colonised it and sold the oil, gold, copper, timber and gas to foreign or Indonesian companies.

Wilson mentions wilderness many times in the book. He defines wilderness as follows:

[T]he word “wilderness” refers to undomesticated places not yet yoked to the human will. In the parlance of conservation science, “wilderness” means a large area within which natural processes unfold in the absence of deliberate human intervention, where life remains “self-willed”.

Wilson apparently imagines vast areas of land (covering half the earth) existing without human interference. He adds that,

Wildernesses have often contained sparse populations of people, especially those indigenous for centuries or millennia without losing their essential character.

But Wilson is silent on the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources, as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

He makes no mention of Article 10 of UNDRIPs, which states that:

Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

In their review of Wilson’s book Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, note that,

Research across the globe has shown that many protected areas once contained not merely ‘sparse’ inhabitants but often quite dense populations – clearly incompatible with the US Wilderness Act’s classic definition of wilderness as an area ‘where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. Most existing ‘wilderness’ parks have required the removal or severe restriction of human beings within their bounds.

Büscher and Fletcher comment that, “To extend protected areas to half of the Earth’s surface would require a relocation of human populations on a scale that could dwarf all previous conservation refugee crises.”

Gorongosa Mountain, Mozambique

One of the examples that Wilson gives of a successful conservation restoration project is the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Gregory C. Carr, a U.S. entrepreneur has pledged US$40 million over 30 years to restore the park.

Here’s how Wilson describes Carr’s work:

Carr’s innovation was by no means narrowly focused on science and conservation. From the beginning, he also gave high priority to the welfare of people living in and around Gorongosa. Hundreds of local people were employed in the park from laborers and construction workers to restaurant workers and rangers.

But Büscher and Fletcher point out that actually the National Park “sidelined local people despite their unified opposition”.

It’s revealing to compare Wilson’s version of events at Gorongosa with Christy Schuetze’s version. Schuetze carried out ethnographic research at Gorongosa between 2006 and 2008. She writes that,

A single narrative about the Gorongosa Restoration Project (GRP) in Mozambique circulates widely in the popular media. This story characterises the project as an innovative intervention into an ecological crisis situation. The narrative hails the project’s aim to use profits from tourism to address the goals of both human development and conservation of biodiversity, and portrays the park project as widely embraced by long-term residents. This representation helps the project attract broad acclaim, donor funding, and socially conscious visitors, yet it obscures the early emergence of unified opposition to the project’s interventions among long-term residents of Gorongosa Mountain.

The Anthropocene

Wilson is critical of the Anthropocene worldview – that humanity has already changed the living world beyond repair, we must adapt to life on a damaged planet and accept that humans are in charge of the earth. Wilson calls this view, “the most dangerous worldview”.

But despite his criticism of Anthropocene conservationists, Wilson’s proposals are remarkably close to theirs. Wilson puts forward a technocratic vision of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, genetic modification that will “decouple economic activity from material and environmental throughputs”.

He argues that the free market is working in improving products and simultaneously reducing their environmental footprint:

products that win competition today… are those that cost less to manufacture and advertise, need less frequent repair and replacement, and give highest performance with a minimum amount of energy.

I can only conclude that Wilson must live on another planet. One where throwaway consumerism doesn’t exist, one where water doesn’t come in plastic bottles, one where between up to 12 million tons of plastic doesn’t go into the sea every year, one where one million “supercommuters” in the US don’t fly to work, one where the world’s rivers aren’t dammed, forests aren’t cleared for cattle ranches or oil palm plantations, one where tar sands don’t exist, and one where climate change isn’t an existential threat.

As Büscher and Fletcher note, Wilson’s vision of humanity herded into urban areas to free space for self-willed nature is very similar to proposals in a recent manifesto published by the Breakthrough Institute, one of the main proponents of the Anthropocene worldview.

Büscher and Fletcher conclude their review of Wilson’s book with a sensible suggestion:

How such a global programme of conservation Lebensraum would be accomplished is left to the reader’s imagination. We therefore hope readers will not take Wilson’s proposal seriously. Addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality, not by blaming the poor and trusting the ‘free market’ to save them.

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One Comment

  1. Little Red Panda

    Oh dear. Perhaps Wilson addresses this in his book, which I have not read, but it strikes me that he is misguided and unhelpful in promoting the notion of ‘nature/wilderness’ and human agency as being entirely distinct and to be kept totally apart.

    Does he think that the occurrence of an estimated 80% of all biodiversity in indigenous lands is somehow a coincidence? Does he completely dismiss the evidence that various societies have had in creating or expanding what are often (wrongly) now considered to be ‘wildernesses’?

    It seems to me that a better solution might be to mobilise and reward the hundreds of millions of (often poor) people living in potentially biodiverse areas to stay in them and actively restore and enhance them, rather than booting them out.

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