Half-earth or whole earth?

“The only way to solve Earth’s biodiversity and create a truly sustainable world is to take a giant leap. The goal then should be to raise the area reserved for natural species and ecosystems from 15% land and 3% of the sea to one half of the land and one half of the sea.” That’s E.O. Wilson speaking at the World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i earlier this year.

Wilson is not alone. In 2012, the The International Wilderness Leadership Foundation took out a trademark on the slogan “Nature Needs Half”. On the Nature Needs Half website is the following explanation of the proposal:

Nature Needs Half™  is a science-based and common-sense vision of a relationship between people and nature that ensures enough natural areas of land and water are protected and interconnected – and of sufficient size and resiliency – to provide life-supporting ecosystem and biodiversity services that are essential  to both human health and prosperity and  a bountiful, beautiful legacy of wild nature.

A recent paper titled, “Half-Earth or Whole Earth? Radical ideas for conservation, and their implications”, published in Oryx, aims to open up debate about the idea of turning half the planet into protected areas. The authors are Bram Büscher, Robert Fletcher, Dan Brockington, Chris Sandbrook, William M. Adams, Lisa Campbell, Catherine Corson, Wolfram Dressler, Rosaleen Duffy, Noella Gray, George Holmes, Alice Kelly, Elizabeth Lunstrum, Maano Ramutsindela, and Kartik Shanker.

They agree with the Half-Earth proponents that there is an urgent need to address the current unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss. However, they argue for a different way of addressing the problem:

We argue that the Half-Earth idea does not get to the root of the problems it seeks to address, and would have serious negative impacts both on people (particularly poor people) and probably also on biodiversity.

The authors point out five problems with the Half-Earth proposal:

  1. It ignores the main drivers of biodiversity loss globally: resource extraction and consumption.
  2. It would have significant social impact. Strict protected areas have led to large scale evictions. Many protected areas face serious social conflict. Expanding strict protected areas to half the earth would fuel more conflict.
  3. Many conservation efforts focus on the biodiversity-rich Global South. The Half-Earth proposal would presumably involved turning vast areas of land in the tropics into protected areas, which would impact the poorest communities the most. Ironically, these communities are the least responsible for the world’s environmental problems.
  4. The Half-Earth proposal ignores decades of research showing that protected areas work best when they are supporting by local people.
  5. The proposal provides no agenda for biodiversity in the half of the earth outside protected areas, or description of what it might be like to live in this urban, industrial zone.

The authors conclude that the Half-Earth proposal is “infeasible” and that,

The only logical conclusion of the Half-Earth proposal would be injustice on a large scale without effectively addressing the actual roots of the ecological crisis.

Focus on drivers of biodiversity loss

Instead, the authors suggest that conservation strategies need to focus on drivers of biodiversity loss. This means addressing how the global economy works, how resources are extracted and where they are consumed.

Ultimately, economic growth is the root cause of biodiversity loss. The authors point out that we cannot rely on “free markets, economic valuation, and corporate social responsibility” to get us out of the biodiversity crisis. Instead, they argue, we should take seriously the possibilities of degrowth economics:

Our suggestion is that natural resources and ecosystems become global public goods that are at the same time governed in local or bioregional economies focused on socio-ecological justice.

Address inequality

The authors argue that “conservation strategies must support measures that address inequality” and that, “cutting inequality in half would do more for conservation than attempting to protect half the earth from humanity.”

Half-Earth proponents focus on population growth in poor areas. The authors propose that a focus on the population that consumes the most would be both more realistic and more just. They write that,

instead of encouraging further aggregate consumption and resource use, longer-term equality can only be achieved within a broader political–economic framework focused on ensuring that all human beings can live prosperous lives within local and global ecological boundaries.

The authors argue for a programme of radical conservation. While this may bring unwelcome change, the impacts would be on those who have contributed the most to the ecological crisis, historically and currently. The authors conclude that,

It is crucial, therefore, to turn away from attempts to increase polarization between people and nature, and to rethink and nurture already existing and freshly emerging alternative conservation movements that are more democratic, equitable and humane. These movements see people as part of nature rather than separate from it, and seek healthy environments across the whole Earth. They are not content to leave half the Earth behind.


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