“In ‘Half Earth,’ E.O. Wilson Calls for a Grand Retreat”
A Conversation with Claudia Dreifus
Originally published in The New York Times, February 29, 2016
This week, the biologist Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University and recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, will publish his 32nd book, a personal exhortation to conserve biodiversity titled “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”
The book offers an improbable prescription for the environment: Dr. Wilson suggests that humans set aside roughly 50 percent of the planet as a sort of permanent preserve, undisturbed by man.
We spoke for three hours in the cafeteria of the assisted-living facility in Lexington, Mass., where Dr. Wilson and his wife, Irene, have lived the past 14 years. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Q. Why publish this book now?
A. Because a lifetime of research has magnified my perception that we are in a crisis with reference to the living part of the environment.We now have enough measurements of extinction rates and the likely rate in the future to know that it is approaching a thousand times the baseline of what existed before humanity came along.
Reading your book, one senses you felt a great urgency to write it?
The urgency was twofold. First, it’s only been within the last decade that a full picture of the crisis in biodiversity has emerged. The second factor was my age. I’m 86. I had a mild stroke a couple of years ago. I thought, “Say this now or never.”
And what I say is that to save biodiversity, we need to set aside about half the earth’s surface as a natural reserve. I’m not suggesting we have one hemisphere for humans and the other for the rest of life. I’m talking about allocating up to one half of the surface of the land and the sea as a preserve for remaining flora and fauna.
In a rapidly developing world, where would such a reserve be?
Large parts of nature are still intact — the Amazon region, the Congo Basin, New Guinea. There are also patches of the industrialized world where nature could be restored and strung together to create corridors for wildlife. In the oceans, we need to stop fishing in the open sea and let life there recover. The open sea is fished down to 2 percent of what it once was. If we halted those fisheries, marine life would increase rapidly. The oceans are part of that 50 percent.
Now, this proposal does not mean moving anybody out. It means creating something equivalent to the U.N.’s World Heritage sites that could be regarded as the priceless assets of humanity. That’s why I’ve made so bold a step as to offer this maxim: Do no further harm to the rest of life. If we can agree on that, everything else will follow. It’s actually going to be a lot easier than people think.
Because many problems of human occupancy that we once thought of as insoluble are taking care of themselves. Demographers tell us that the human population could stabilize at about 10 or 11 billion by the end of the century.
High tech is producing new products and ways of living that are congenial to setting side more space for the rest of life. Instrumentation is getting smaller, using less material and energy.
Moreover, the international discourse is changing. I’m very encouraged by the Paris Climate Accords. I was excited to see at the time of the Paris meeting that a consortium of influential business leaders concluded that the world should go for net zero carbon emissions. Towards that end, they recommended we protect the forests we have and restore the damaged ones. That’s consistent with the “Half Earth” idea.
Do you worry that you are risking the reputation of a lifetime with such a controversial proposal?
Controversy doesn’t bother me. In 1975, when I published about sociobiology, I was attacked in many ways. There were mobs in Harvard Square when I was to give a lecture. I had to be escorted to the back of the hall by police! I had classes interrupted. At Harvard! And then the idea won out. Today, there’s widespread agreement: Yes, there is a human instinct and a lot of human behavior is genetic. So, I don’t think I’m risking my reputation with “Half Earth.” All I’m doing is reporting good science and the experiences of researchers who’ve described a biodiversity crisis.
Do you see yourself as a naturally optimistic person?
Yes, I think I am optimistic. I had a rough childhood: family breakup in the depths of the Depression. I don’t know why I’m an optimist. No, that’s not true — I do know. Contrary to my childhood, I married a very wonderful person. That solved a lot. But you know, I had a lot of good breaks as a young person. At 29, I was a tenured professor at Harvard.
What would you say have been the happiest moments in your life?
That’s easy. Exploring natural environments, especially in the tropical forests around the world, places like Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Caribbean. I did a lot of
exploring when I was in my 20s. Even then, you could see the ravages visited upon the natural world, and I was conscious of extinctions. At that time, I didn’t see it as serious enough globally to require immediate action. Maybe I saw the flora and fauna of the world as immortal.
Do you think connecting to your own mortality sensitized you to the fragility of nature?
I would think a vivid sense of one’s personal mortality is part of the wisdom of old age, which is not overrated. You know so much more. In my case, the older I got, the more audacious I got. Now, I’m ready to speak out and gamble a bit.