Reality these days is a messy business; understandably, we navigate reality via Big Words. But not all big words help us navigate reality in the same way: some potentially carry us farther, along more varied terrain, or more beautifully. Those are the better big words I offer in the book I’m writing.
Thankfully, E.O. Wilson has again assisted in the same manner as his consilience argument (and I suppose sociobiology as well), that is, by bringing into clear focus a highly compelling position I oppose. (Some day I may be lucky enough to meet Wilson, the famous Harvard biologist, conservationist, and writer, and genuinely thank him.) His newest book is titled Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016), and as the publisher’s quick summary reads,
Half-Earth proposes an achievable plan to save our imperiled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature.
The provisional short title of my book, Replacing Nature (see also Proctor 2015), suggests my differences with Half-Earth, but not in the manner you may suppose. I am intrigued by the proposal Wilson and other conservationists have made to greatly augment areas devoted to biodiversity, and I find its reality basis (e.g., the tremendous home range of top carnivores, or the need for ample north-south species migration corridors given climate change) to be compelling.
But, geographer that I am, my question coming into the book was: where? What places does Wilson propose to devote to biodiversity, so as to add up to half of the Earth’s surface? Oddly enough, Half-Earth fails to provide much more than anecdote in this regard. [*See, however, 2020 update at bottom.]
We do have plenty of Wilson the naturalist telling us a good story, e.g.,
[New Caledonia] has the highest number of endemic families of plants, including those with archaic features, most famously Amborella, the most primitive flowering plant known on Earth. Along mountain ridges are still mingled forests of Araucaria and Podocarpus, providing an environment resembling that which prevailed over most of Earth during the Mesozoic Era. I conducted research on the island during 1954 when I was a graduate student, then often had dreams of it during sleep, until I returned fifty-seven years later, in 2011. The magic was still the same for me in real life that it had been in 1954 (p. 150).
But the most common trope in Half-Earth, in addition to numinous nature, is looming apocalypse: the first chapter, for instance, is titled “The World Ends, Twice,” which begins with a giant asteroid collision violently ending the Mesozoic Era, and ends with Wilson imagining scientists of the future looking back on our present era:
“The Anthropocene,” far-distant geologists might say, “unfortunately married swift technological progress with the worst of human nature. What a terrible time it was for people, and for the rest of life” (p. 9).
There’s a lot of that in the book—a lot. And, while people are indeed mentioned, human flourishing is presented as absolutely dependent on—and, frankly, secondary to—the status of nonhumans. The book’s subtitle, Our Planet’s Fight for Life, isn’t about, say (to choose one current headline), the daily struggles of people in Aleppo to miraculously avoid their own government’s cluster bombs; no, it’s not that sort of fight for life. It’s nature’s fight for life. Indeed, the book’s subtitle should arguably be its title.
So, to answer my question I searched further and found a Smithsonian article (Hiss 2014) whose author Wilson credits for his books’ title. And here there is a map—of relatively depopulated North America only: we see, for instance, the Western Wildway, spanning Mexico to Alaska, and almost completely covering the super-conservation-friendly states of Idaho and Wyoming. (One wonders about, say, more populated regions such as Europe or southern Asia.) Additionally, Wilson’s book builds on a 2012 Conservation Biology editorial, “Bolder Thinking for Conservation” (Noss et al. 2012), and here one reads a persuasive meta-analysis of sixteen studies whose mean recommended percentage of terrestrial habitat protection is roughly fifty—half earth. But here again, other than a set of general principles, there are no details as to which half of the earth would be devoted to nature, and which would remain for, I suppose, that other big word, culture.
The earth is a big place. And it’s full of places, my better big word for nature/culture. To replace nature is not to declare open season on nature, to pave it over with culture, because both terms in that binary are arguably meaningless. To ask “which half, which places?” is not to subsume reality under politics, or even pragmatism. It’s to pose a better reality big word point of departure for us to intelligently and creatively—perhaps even civilly—consider conservation, without the nature/culture flip-flop. If the Anthropocene means anything, it’s a reminder that reality is all mixed up (Proctor 2013), and conceptually parsing it a priori into nature and culture won’t help a bit if we really want to parse out, say, biodiversity corridors amidst the many transportation corridors and power corridors and other connections between places. Half-Earth could be a noble goal, but it’s desperate for better big words to get us there; otherwise it will simply inspire praise among some and condemnation (or perhaps just a roll of the eyes) among others.
In an extract from his upcoming book, The Shipwrecked Mind, Mark Lilla tells us the story we all know of Don Quixote (Lilla 2016). His story is compellingly parallel to the narrative of Half-Earth, and perhaps Lilla offers us a way out:
Quixote has convinced himself that once upon a time the world really was as it was meant to be, that the ideal had been made flesh before it vanished.…His quest is doomed from the start because he is rebelling against the nature of time, which is irreversible and unconquerable. What is past is past; this is the thought he cannot bear. Chivalric literature has robbed him of irony, the armor of the lucid. Irony may be defined as the ability to negotiate the gap between the real and the ideal without doing violence to either (p. 49).
Perhaps irony best expresses one of many paradoxes of place: what has changed, what is lost forever, and what can be reimagined and regained in the places we—and this is an expansive, mixed-up “we”—know and love. Just as in the character of Quixote, it matters how we navigate reality.
*2020 update: Since this post was penned four years ago, the Half-Earth Project has become a widespread campaign, with a number of publications (e.g., Büscher et al. 2017; Cafaro et al. 2017; Wilson 2017; Ellis and Mehrabi 2019), and not one but two websites (Nature Needs Half and Half-Earth Project), the latter of which actually asks the same question as this post: which half? The answer points to a whole mapping interface on the site which highlights priority areas of Earth for biodiversity protection…but still fails to explicitly delimit the one-half of Earth that would be entailed.
- Büscher, Bram, Robert Fletcher, Dan Brockington, Chris Sandbrook, William M. Adams, Lisa Campbell, Catherine Corson, et al. 2017. “Half-Earth or Whole Earth? Radical Ideas for Conservation, and Their Implications.” Oryx 51 (3): 407–10. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605316001228.
- Cafaro, Philip, Tom Butler, Eileen Crist, Paul Cryer, Eric Dinerstein, Helen Kopnina, Reed Noss, et al. 2017. “If We Want a Whole Earth, Nature Needs Half: A Response to Büscher et Al.” Oryx 51 (3): 400–400. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605317000072.
- Ellis, Erle C, and Zia Mehrabi. 2019. “Half Earth: Promises, Pitfalls, and Prospects of Dedicating Half of Earth’s Land to Conservation.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 38 (June): 22–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2019.04.008.
- Hiss, Tony. 2014. “Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?” Smithsonian Magazine, September. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/can-world-really-set-aside-half-planet-wildlife-180952379/
- Lilla, Mark. 2016. “Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now.” Harper’s Magazine (September): 49-52.
- Noss, Reed F., Andrew P. Dobson, Robert Baldwin, Paul Beier, Cory R. Davis, Dominick A. Dellasala, John Francis, et al. 2012. “Bolder Thinking for Conservation: Editorial.” Conservation Biology 26 (1): 1–4. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01738.x.
Proctor, James D. 2013. “Saving Nature in the Anthropocene.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (1): 83–92. doi:10.1007/s13412-013-0108-1.
———. 2015. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, May, 1–5. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.
- Wilson, E.O. 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. New York: W.W. Norton.
———. 2017. “Fifty-Fifty: A Biologist’s Manifesto for Preserving Life on Earth.” Sierra, 2017.