Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life

Edward O. Wilson

Book cover

I was pretty disappointed in this book. I believe I learned about it from reading a summary op-ed that Wilson published in the New York Times. The general argument is that human-driven species extinction is a significant threat to biodiversity, and the best way for us to combat this would be to set aside half of the earth’s land surface (thus the title) as an eco-reserve to be basically free from human impacts. This is a bold proposal to say the least, but potentially a compelling one, and I was interested to read Wilson’s longer arguments around it.

Suffice to say, the book does not make a compelling argument in my view. In fact, it seems like about the worst book that could have been written from the point of view of someone who is somewhat sympathetic with the message. It comes across as the bleeding heart ramblings of a tenured Harvard professor who hasn’t come down from the ivory tower enough to think about what his proposal would actually mean. Basically 80% of the book is about how wonderful it is to be a naturalist, and how wondrous the biodiversity of the earth is, how little we still know about the species on earth. Then there is a little bit of back of the envelope calculating of how much of the environment needs to be preserved to save how many species, and almost zero about how the proposal might actually be enacted. I don’t have the book to hand, but I mainly remember some handwavy thing about how we could put webcams in eco-reserves so that everyone could still enjoy them without actually going there (with the exception, I’m sure, of cool academic naturalists).

It’s frankly insulting for Wilson to put forward this idea as a “proposal” without giving deep consideration to its social and economic implications. How would humanity decide what the set-asides would be? It seems clear that they would largely be in the global south, seeing as how the global north has already mostly gotten rid of our richest natural environments. Would there need to be some kind of international compensation involved? How would we consider the impacts of the set-asides on people who make their living from the land, either in liberal-approved ways like hunting and gathering or non-approved ways like slash and burn farming? Naomi Klein writes about the “sacrifice zones” entailed by resource extraction, but it seems to me that this would create sacrifice zones of a different but not altogether dissimilar kind. What exactly would be excluded from the reserves? What percent of the potential reserves are already in more or less this state, and how much would have to be created by forcibly displacing human activity? I’m not even asking that Wilson consider the political feasibility of any of this, which I think it would be fair to characterize as a separate issue.

To be clear, I do not at all think these questions are necessarily impossible to answer, and I think a book that made a serious effort to address them would be a really interesting one. I was hoping that this book would be exactly that, but unfortunately, it’s not.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars