Writing in Prospect Magazine, Tom Friedman imagines if he were King of the World his ecological plan would be to adopt E.O. Wilson’s vision for Half-Earth, and commit half of the planet’s surface to protected zones.
Read Tom Friedman’s article below, and also come hear him discuss his ideas about Half-Earth at Biodiversity Days, March 2–3 in Durham, North Carolina. Friedman will speak on “Green Is the New Red, White and Blue” on Friday, March 3, and will be joined afterwards for discussion with Thomas Lovejoy (George Mason University) and E.O. Wilson (Harvard University, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation). More details can be found here.
“If I Ruled the World.”
By Thomas Friedman
Originally published in Prospect Magazine, January 17, 2017
What would I do if I were King of the world? I would start by broadcasting a speech about my two broad goals. Firstly, I aspire to create a world in which more people can realise their full potential—to work, invent, parent, collaborate and create joy and wealth with one another. Secondly, I aspire to nurture a planet whose natural systems can continue to sustain human, plant and animal life in as great an abundance and in as healthy a balance as possible.
My eco-plan would be based on the great biologist EO Wilson’s book Half-Earth—a call-to-action to commit half of the planet’s surface—land and oceans—to protected zones. Right now about 15 per cent of the Earth’s land and 10 per cent of its territorial waters are covered by national parks and protected areas. If we protect half the global surface, Wilson argues, the fraction of species protected will be about 85 per cent, which would keep life on Earth in a safe zone. Vast areas will be off limits to logging, fishing and development, except by the indigenous people.
Once I had explained my objectives, I would issue the following royal edicts from the court of King Thomas Friedman:
1. Every child on the planet will be required to complete education from age three through to 12th grade of high school. There is no better way to enable everyone to realise their potential than by ensuring universal education, especially for girls.
2. Every family who wants access to family planning technology and education shall have it for free.
3. No citizen who is not a member of my armed forces or constabulary will be allowed to own a gun, except for hunting, which will require a licence.
4. Anyone seeking to start a new business shall be able to do so with the minimum red tape—ie online and in less than 48 hours. I want my kingdom to be radically entrepreneurial. There will be no corporate taxes. The main taxes will be on carbon, sugar, bullets and a small financial transactions tax. Smoking will be banned. There will be a five per cent income tax up to $100,000 and a 10 per cent income tax on everything above that—with no deductions, so all taxes can be done simply. A minimum income of $20,000 a year will be guaranteed, and healthcare will be provided by a single-payer system supported by a global VAT tax.
5. All post-secondary education will be tax deductible and no college undergraduate degree shall take more than three years. Every accredited university has to offer a low-cost online version of their three most popular majors. These initiatives will encourage life-long learning. Every student will have to take reading, writing and software coding—as well as how to write a business plan—through their primary and secondary education years. Private schools will be banned and public school teachers will pay no tax.
6. The press shall be free to criticise me or anyone else, but if they make a mistake all corrections must run at the top of the front page.
Dear Mr Friedman,
It kept me awake, last night, because my writing to you had been petty and discourteous. I’m sorry. You and the other two gentlemen on that stage went to the trouble to put yourselves forward for a cause that will most affect my generation and my children and beyond, not you. You invited the school children to your event because it is our problem and we are the ones who need to tackle it.
Also, I expect there are those who ridicule following a Half Earth agenda. I admire you for shrugging that off and still having your name and reputation used because the cause is right. Thank you.
I have never had much time for reporters. That stems from my father who has been known to hide in cupboards and toilets when film crews descend upon his hospital to produce a sob story of a very poorly child for peak time viewing. Dad considers it a circus in poor taste and consequently scorns journalists. This week, however, there have been several examples of why the press matters. The Washington Post columnist must have known he was at risk and yet he spoke out. His death has floodlighted the inhumanity at the heart of Saudi Arabia and the hypocrisy of our own governments. The bomb today at CNN illustrated that being a journalist can be dangerous, even in New York. Then, this evening, the BBC reported on concentration camps in China, detaining up to a million Muslims because of their faith. Interviews from escapees told horrendous tales of beatings and humiliation. Those Muslims depend upon journalists to tell the world.
Your presence at the Half Earth event was in that same spirit of informing and inviting action.
Equally, neither Professor Wilson nor Paul Simon had any obligation to disrupt their retirement with yet another public performance. They did so for the best of reasons. I doubt I shall behave as well when I am old.
Dear Mr Friedman,
I understand at your Half Earth event, yesterday, junior high school students were invited to contribute to the discussion. I don’t honestly know whether at 15 I count as junior or senior high school, but I am studying for my GCSEs, not my A levels,and so would count as junior in Britain.
I read your whimsical, “If I ruled the world”. With the two gentlemen who joined you on the platform, yesterday, it isn’t so fanciful: between the three of you, academia, fame, money and global communication are all within your reach.
The Problem Facing the Planet
Our demand is outstripping global resources, including land: if biodiversity and the world ecosystems are to be sustainable limits need to be agreed and maintained.
The Main Culprits
For once, Mr Trump is right when he pinpoints globalism as being a danger, although it is not the globalism he means. In this case, it is the fact that the world’s land and resources are being exploited by the biggest transglobal corporations. These corporations know they are bigger and more powerful than individual governments and they act accordingly. They are truly the agents of globalism. No one reins them in because each government, fundamentally, is scared of their clout and influence. Hence the biggest corporations know that they can cut down forests/exploit the land/pollute/over-farm and then move onto fresh territory, leaving the devastation behind The corporations care only for profit. You can’t blame them, that is what a company/corporation is for.
Foolishly, we look to national governments to impose restrictions to protect the environment. That is naive. Look at South America: which governments are going effectively to tether the multinationals in order the save the planet? The national governments have their own problems of poverty and unemployment and democratically-elected governments are also notoriously short-sighted. They see the investment of the international corporations as a good thing. To be fair, I could see the British Government being reluctant to turn away international investment for the sake of biodiversity. Indeed, Mr Trump is a case in point: when he came with his plans to develop a golf complex in Aberdeenshire, he was welcomed. Questions as to the possible effects on the neighbouring sand dunes were brushed aside when the level of investment became clear. A decade or so later, the biodiversity supported by those sand dunes is in peril and the Scottish Government feels it has been made a patsy.
Take it as a child of a post-imperial power, that what the global corporations are achieving is familiar. It is colonialism. The British East India Company was perhaps the first transglobal corporation. Even though all its shareholders may have been British, the early actions of the BEA Company worked independently of the British Government in its exploitation of India. It worked without conscience for the simple goal of profit. Increased exploitation led to increased profit. It seems to me that that is the same model the huge mulitnationals use today.
With the British East India Company, ultimately the size and the resources of the British Government won through and absorbed the Company. It is different today and the Googles and MacDonalds and even the Rio Tintos are too big. Their lead over national governments is too large. They will not be absorbed, nor curtailed, by any national government.
To return to my previous analogy, the transglobal corporations are today’s British Empire and that took a century or so to halt and reverse. The world – our climate, as well as our eco-systems – doesn’t have the luxury of waiting a century to see the demise of the giants of commercial colonialism. Not only that, there is no guarantee that the nation states will ever regain control. Are our current global corps just the start of an age of new commercial colonialism, where the current crop of multinationals eventually lose their power as they are then over-taken by others? And then again and again, as nation states gradually fade into the former glory of a previous age?
How to Defeat the Multinationals
It is easier to define the problem, than it is to solve it. Cleverer brains than mine are needed and urgently. Still, I understand that your platform of experts, yesterday, invited the kids to find a solution and so why shouldn’t I try?
Nineteenth Century colonialism (especially the British Empire) was built and relied on trade. Our modern commercial colonialists are the same. They don’t cut down the rain forest for any ideological reason; they do it simply in order to make money. Whilst individual governments may be weak against the multinationals, public opinion could potentially be strong. If the consumers act together, change can happen because it can affect profit. I don’t know about the US, but the energy companies in the UK are an example of this. British households are free to buy their domestic energy now from over 50 companies. After all the kerfuffle of the Paris Climate Accord etc, ordinary people have chosen increasingly to choose those companies offering energy created from renewable sources. It has been a quiet, but effective revolution. In the last fortnight, one of the biggest energy suppliers (which had previously relied exclusively on fossil fuels for its energy) has gone partially renewable. They made that move because it was in their commercial interest. That is the key to saving the planet: making it in the commercial interests of the global corporations.
What is on Your Side
Let us go back to your show at the Half Earth Day and just examine the resources on that stage.
Few non-Nobel-Prize-winners have the world-wide reputation of EO Wilson. Ordinary people in a British street have heard of him and that is probably echoed across the world. I know the good professor has written a book or books explaining his Half Earth proposal. I can’t say those books have made an enormous popular impact over here. Harnessing the power of radio/television etc would seem an obvious additional route. You have an enormous asset in Professor Wilson: use it before it is too late.
Professor Wilson is a Fellow at Harvard, I think. That is another route of influence. Recently, I attended a road show of six prominent US undergraduate universities that had come to Europe to tout for business. Frankly, I was astonished by a US undergraduate education because it was so bitty! Over here, university degrees are specialised. One leaves with a goodly understanding of (say) biochemisty or French Literature or whatever. None of one’s undergraduate time will have been spent learning anything else. The contrary seems normal in the States where one could apparently come out with a degree in Engineering, having spent some of the time studying Philosophy or Russian Poetry. Whilst that may have appalled my blinkered brain, it offers such an opportunity here! I came away with (amongst others) the undergraduate prospectuses for: Princeton; Columbia; North Western; Vanderbilt and Duke and yet when I checked down the extensive list of subjects from which I could apparently choose my Minors and Major, “the Half Earth Theory” was not there.If you are serious about this scheme and it is as vital and urgent as you say, why have you not used Professor Wilson’s contacts to have it added on as a well-supported course at these universities? The graduates of these choice universities will go on to positions of influence in many walks of life, including perhaps the very multinational corporations at the centre of the problem. Not only that, but the kind of international student likely to find their way to the best US universities will also be likely to re-appear in the global corporations.
2.. Paul Simon
Mr Simon is famous, rich and a musician.
He is using his fame to promote the cause, but surely he could do so more. I didn’t read the recent authorised biography, but I did read a few of the newspaper reviews of the book because my Nanny is one of his fans. I do not recall finding reference to the Half Earth Project in any of the reviews. If the project is mentioned in the biography, it is not pushed very hard. That was a missed opportunity. Similarly, Mr Simon has fan sites (unofficial, as well as official): if he were personally to write to any of these on the subject of keeping safe half the land and seas of the planet for biodiversity, those fans would listen and publicise his views. Methinks he is too coy about his passion for this campaign.
Corporations, even global ones, are made up of share holdings. You will understand this better than me, but there must be scope for the rich (the very rich, which in my book includes both Mr Simon and your good self) to enquire of their brokers and then to give directions as to which investments they do not want to support. I know I am being as hypocritical as it is possible to be because I invest my paper round earnings in the savings bank that offers me the best deal: I don’t ask how they manage to obtain that return. If I had more money, it is unlikely I would be more inquisitive when the sums I might otherwise lose would be the greater. Still, if shareholders start to take an interest, then the polluters of the land and the spoilers of the planet might begin to take a little notice. And there will be plenty of other investments available that don’t do these things. Financial nudging is not a glamorous approach to saving the planet, but surely it is a pragmatic beginning?
One way to move public opinion is to make David Attenborough documentaries or write learned books; another is to capture the public attention through entertainment. Mr Simon has the contacts to do this through comedy/satire and through music. A popular song pushing the Half Earth agenda is worth a thousand conferences and scientific papers.
No one alive today understands the power of communication better than you, whether it is through the written word or informally face to face with politicians etc. You don’t need me to explore any of that. If your heart is in this campaign, you will know what to do.
What I can say, however, is that the project is currently surprisingly narrow. If one casts one’s eyes across the Half Earth website, the impetus seems for the research papers and the learned, esoteric. That’s nice, but is there time to build a campaign thus? It has taken the debate on climate change decades to move from the Common Room to the public street and, let’s face it, the fact that the science is all on one side of the argument has not been sufficient. Joe Bloggs on the Clapham Omnibus is whom one has to convince. It is the Joe Bloggses who elect Prime Ministers and Presidents.
My little brother is a muddy lad, generally to be found with a bug or two in his pocket and a worm in his hand. We laugh at him, but he cares for nature and, consequently, he is the one in the family who is most energised about your project. Losing a variety of beetle or even a weed concerns Philip and he would like to do his bit to help. I mention this because Philip wrote to our local museum and through persistence persuaded them to mark the Half Earth event. Needlesstosay, that, although the curator had studied EO Wilson, he had not heard of the Half Earth Project (it does not have a big profile in the UK),but he was keen to help. The Manchester Museum did indeed run a Half Earth event on the same day as your conference. That is good and it shows that there is a willingness amongst museums to become involved and to support the campaign. The problem is that there was absolutely no encouragement from the US end. Philip gamely tried. He wrote and duly received replies from some nice ladies in the Half Earth Project. They were polite and sweet, but there was no enthusiasm for outreach events outside the US. Even when it was handed to them on a plate, they were not interested. The Half Earth, it appears, is a wholly and exclusively American operation.
You are a globalist in a good sense. You have the vision to see beyond America. If this project is to succeed, it needs your perspective.
So, after all that, (if you are still awake), what I am writing to say is that that odd combination of three distinguished guys on that stage, yesterday, have, between you, a surprisingly broad reach and, if I were asked how the Half Earth Project can fulfill its goal, I would say through the three of you, using your considerable skills and capabilities. Then the rest of us will listen and follow your lead and, who knows what can be achieved. That isn’t a superhero kind of solution, but I am too old for fairy stories.
Tom Morris (15)