Yet this is the gauntlet he throws leaders of nations, businesses, teachers and citizens of the world in his new, important work Half-Earth.
Wilson is a good person to ask the question. His deep interest in nature, especially ants, began at an early age and for 60 years this octogenarian naturalist has been at the forefront of field research with a library of significant books to his name. Respected internationally as the ‘father of biodiversity’ he has witnessed first-hand global habitat loss and the impact this is having on the estimated eight million species of the world, of which only two million have been named.
Wilson confirms life-forms on Earth remain largely unknown to science and those we do know – the vertebrates and the plants – are declining at a rapid rate. In short, our biosphere, the thin band of life around the planet, is more damaged than we know: we need a bold, new plan.
The professor’s thesis is clear and blunt. Humanity relies on nature in its original state ‘unblemished by menacing invasives’ to provide clean air, clean water, food and shelter if we want a sustainable healthy Earth for a peaked population of 12 billion in 2100.
Sadly the trends of habitat loss, species extinction, global warming and ocean acidification continue to threaten the functioning of our life-sustaining biosphere. To give nature a chance, Wilson advocates a collective commitment to aim much higher than the level the global conservation movement is currently achieving.
“To those who are steering the growth of reserves worldwide, let me make an earnest request: don’t stop, just aim a lot higher”
The argument for massively expanded reserves was first described in The Future of Life (2002). Since then Wilson’s message has been consistent. Extinction is accelerating, invasive species are a menace and climate change is real. To make matters worse, he explains why the ‘Anthropocene worldview’ is now putting human needs before the needs of nature.
Thankfully, Wilson also believes the biodiversity revolution is about to take hold. The true heart of the book is Wilson’s hope and deep conviction that only now do we have the intellectual capacity and deep knowledge to understand the science of habitat loss. And so, with increased moral reasoning, helped by global messaging platforms and our individual hand-held devices, all of us can take a much greater interest in our landscapes and vote for increased protection. In short, now is the best of times to work collaboratively and innovatively to keep biodiversity at the top of the political, scientific, teaching, economic and conservation agendas, for food, water and energy security for all.
The risks ahead undermine the 60 years of hard work by conservationists. While 2.8 per cent of the oceans and 15 per cent of the land currently registered on UNEP/IUCN’s World Database of Protected Areas is a good start, it is nowhere near what is required to deal with future extinctions linked to habitat loss, invasives and climate change. ‘To those who are steering the growth of reserves worldwide,’ he writes, ‘let me make an earnest request: don’t stop, just aim a lot higher.’
An important aspect of Wilson’s case is his restoration theory. His plan is to safeguard the current 161,000 reserves and parks and the 6,500 protected marine environments, asking every sovereign nation to ensure these areas remain close to their original condition, both by removing the invasives and re-introducing key species when required. Degraded landscapes, will need greater investment with soil, micro-organisms, algae, fungi, plants and animals added as required. This includes ‘pockets of restored habitats’ in rural and urban settings, all adding to the combined total of 50 per cent of the world.
Wilson’s optimism believes this really can be achieved by established locally-led groups worldwide, who have the moral courage, knowledge and passion to make this succeed in their own communities, supported by the international agencies, who endorse Wilson’s vision to dedicate half the surface of the Earth to nature. Wilson’s gauntlet has been thrown: let the revolution begin.
This review was published in the September 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.