Book Review: “Half-Earth” by Edward O. Wilson

Half-Earth by Edward O. Wilson

Yet another Utopian vision about ‘empty’ spaces, this one from an eminent scientist. (It was particularly sad to read this book at the time when the USA is breaching the climate accord.)

E. O. Wilson is a field biologist, and like all empirical scientists he is both romantic and pragmatic. He writes about the romance of science, the ‘aha’ moments of discovery, a new species or phenomenon, sighting a rare bird, or meeting a wild animal. But the book is about the purely pragmatic crisis of the Sixth Extinction.

Wilson is an ant guy, indeed, the most famous ant guy ever. From his perspective, he sees all the little things in nature, the insects and smaller critters, in all their amazing diversity. He wants us to see them, too, even though they are tiny, shy, and alien to us.

Wilson writes brilliantly about nature (especially about ants :-)), and it is always a pleasure to read about the amazing world we live on and in.

Much of the book is a long discussion about what science knows about biodiversity. We don’t really know all that much, but what we do know is that humans are in the process of killing off most of the life on Earth.  At the rate things are going, we will succeed in this boneheaded project within the lifetime of many living people. This is the Anthropocene, the age of the sixth extinction.

Having spent his life studying ecosystems, Wilson wants us to understand the implications of this gormless behavior.

This book comes at the culmination of his long career, when he has turned to the unavoidable question of the destruction of life on Earth. We all know it’s bad, but Wilson is a deep expert who can give chapter and verse about the badness, the reasons we need to care, and what can be done.

The biosphere does not belong to us, we belong to.” (p. 16)

The title of the book refers to his proposed solution” which is to dedicate far more space on Earth to nature preserves.

The Solution”

“The global conservation movement has temporarily mitigated but hardly stopped the ongoing extinction of species. The rate of loss is instead accelerating. If biodiversity is to be returned to the baseline level of extinction that exited before the spread of humanity, and saved for future generations, the conservation effort must be raised to a new level. 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. This expansion is foroed by unplanned consequences of ongoing human population growth and movement and evolution of the economy now driven by the digital revolution. But it also requires a fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relation to the living environment.” (p. 167)

This isn’t really all that hard to understand, though many people seem to have difficulty grasping both the necessity and the possibility.

Wilson knows what he is talking about, and he gives extremely plausible discussions of how this might be done. No, it is not about dividing the world in half, and tossing people out of the nature half.

Will it happen? I wouldn’t bet on it. Wilson says that time is rapidly running out. I tend to think that it’s already too late. But if we don’t try, it’s all over for sure.

One thing Wilson isn’t so brilliant about is political analysis. With no better option, he presents hopelessly naïve proposals that even he knows are infeasible.

On the other hand, he offers a spirited and lucid critique of a number of so-called “Anthropocentrics”, who argue that “Nature is gone, so forget about it”. The only choice, they argue,  is for humans to manage the planet for the benefit of humans.

Wilson lights into these ignorant “defeatists”, who really have little understanding of how ecology and biology actually work, not to mention a poor grasp of time scales. Even if an ecosystem will regain its balance naturally, it will take hundreds of thousands of millions of years – not really relevant to humans.

In earlier work, Wilson ruminated on the evolutionary status of “moral judgment”, which–spoiler alert–he does not think is really up to the task of replacing nature and running the planet. The human brain evolved out of the Pleistocene, and is notoriously poor at long term reasoning, among other things. Is this the system you think can run the whole planet? Not bloody likely.

It is often said that the human brain is the most complex system known to us in the universe. This is Incorrect. The most complex is the individual natural ecosystem, and the collective of ecosystems comprising Earth’s species-level biodiversity” (p. 206)

Sensei Wilson writes extremely well, especially about nature and natural science. He knows what he is talking about. Anyone with any sense should pay attention to what he says. Get it, read it, learn.

  1. Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.


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