Half Earth by E.O. Wilson

After decades of studying ants, and so many of the creatures of the world, E.O. Wilson has published a book: Half Earth, with the same vision for conservation – sharing the world with nature, with 50% of the land conserved for nature:



Mission Blue

Sylvia Earl is driving a similar campaign for protection of the seas, Hope Spots, with no fishing, dumping or drilling – with a goal of 20% of the world’s oceans protected by 2020 – as of 2016, we are at 3%.


What’s the point?

Discussing the 50/50 concept with people often requires clarification of what it is trying to achieve. Saving half of the Earth’s natural habitat is not intended to save every single species in existence today, nor bring about some kind of utopia. What it is intended to do is leave enough un-exploited habitat of all kinds, not just the places people don’t want, to continue to support natural bio-diversity and evolution. Preservation of existing species should become much easier if they have significant contiguous habitat space in which to live, but the main point is to give the whole biosphere space to “do its thing” without intense, close range human interference.

At our present level of technology and economy, homo-sapiens is capable of exploiting most of the planet, and we are rapidly expanding to do this. The areas where man has done this already for thousands of years, such as the Fertile Crescent, don’t look like a great model for a sustainable world. Converting large swaths of homes, farms, factories and businesses to preserved parkland sounds impossible, but it has been done in some large scale areas like the 82 square miles of Mammoth Cave National Park and 2357 square miles of Everglades National park.

Asking people to give back 1/2 of all the Earth’s land to nature is bold, but asking nature to give 100% of the Earth’s surface over to exploitation is foolish. Management through complex education, politically motivated laws and enforcement is difficult at best, and often unsuccessful. What has seen dramatic success is management through exclusion, such as marine and terrestrial reserves. If we acknowledge that some nature reserves are necessary, and that human population has to have some maximum limit, it would ultimately be self-serving for humanity to limit itself well short of whatever “critical collapse point” of exploitation there is.

This is not to say that the preserved areas would become some sacrosanct zone of total human exclusion – ecologists would still study them, identify bad trends like elephants decimating vegetation, and take appropriate corrective action. On the other hand, questions like oil and gas exploitation, conversion to agriculture, hunting, fishing, wind and solar energy collection farms, dumping, and urban development would be met with a resounding NO in the preserved areas – not studied, justified, politically bartered, regulated, mitigated, exchanged or restored, simply preserved. It’s only half of the Earth, we don’t really need it to survive, thrive or compete, but nature does.

Why 50%?

Why not more or less than 50%?  Why an arbitrary checkerboard pattern instead of reasoned selection of preservation zones based on scientific study?  While 50% may be more than needed, our current level of preservation is clearly less than we need if we want to preserve a functioning natural ecosystem.

50% is mostly about the simplicity, there is a certain fairness in the arbitrary nature of the division.  The desire is to shift focus of the debate on how to achieve the goal rather than what the goal is.  If we can shift out of 20 or 30% of the land, we can shift out of 50. At 50%, arguments about critical habitats become less important – some critical habitats that miss the preservation zones can be preserved by exchange, but with over 12,000 preservation areas covering half the planet, most habitat types will be automatically selected without the need for scientific study or argument.

If humankind cannot survive on 50% of the Earth, it certainly cannot survive on 99% of the Earth with the natural world shoved into a tiny piece of the available space, plus whatever desert, swamps, mountain peaks, ice fields and other wastelands that humans just don’t want.

As a Floridian, the idea of preserving 50% sounds almost absurd, looking at Florida’s desirable sand beaches, hardly 5% are preserved from the most intense development – but places like Brazil are already acknowledging the need to preserve 20 to 30% of privately held lands with their laws, even if enforcement of those laws is lacking. 50% is taking it “up a notch” and acknowledging that nature needs space just as much as people do.

Why 2150?

First, it’s a catchy rhyme with 50/50, and 2050 is just too soon to be realistic.  The point of the 50/50 by 2150 idea, at this stage, is to start framing conservation discussion in realistic terms.  Is it realistic to categorize, study and understand every species on the planet and educate every human on the planet on how each species is to be conserved?  Of course not, but CITES, the ESA, and many other conservation efforts seem to be driving in this direction.  Is excluding (non-indigenous) human activity from 50% of the Earth’s surface realistic?  Perhaps in 1950 it was not, but by 2050, the technology and resources will be available to make it possible.  Satellite and aerial surveillance, infra-red imaging, low cost autonomous drones all make it possible to control a border, if you have the will to do so.  It is much more realistic to simply seal a border than to police a complex, ever changing set of laws on a borderless population.

140 years ago, steam power and railroads had just started shrinking the scale of the world for the humans that used them.  140 years from now, those roads, rails, flyways, power lines, communication lines, pipelines and whatever else  humans desire to transport and travel on, could be updated and relocated to preserve half of the Earth for natural systems, and much more easily than the current infrastructure was constructed.

Another point raised is: how will the “displaced” people work their way into developed areas.  Again, over the space of 100 years, it is more realistic that the transition can be managed without unpleasant abruptness or glaring inequities.  There is the problem of overpopulation, but population was at half of present (2010) levels in 1970, and half that again in 1870.  The number of people the Earth can support is finite, and protecting 1/2 the Earth’s surface from advanced human development will not decrease the maximum number of people the Earth can support by 1/2.

What does “preserved” mean?

Developed areas are simple enough to explain, they would follow the same rules of good land and ocean stewardship that are applied everywhere today.  So, what does “preserved” mean?  In short:

  1. No exploitation via agriculture, fishing, forestry, or extraction of natural resources.
  2. No transit by surface or air vehicles
  3. No construction or use of pipelines, electric wires, or other conduit
  4. No dumping of waste
  5. No regular border crossing by humans

These are not national parks or forests open for recreation, hunting and harvesting. The Preservation proposed here is more like an extreme version of the U.S. national wilderness system, although the spirit of the wilderness law comes close to what preservation is attempting to achieve.  In essence, preserve areas are totally cut off from developed human activity, sort of like the area around Chernobyl, but without the radiation.  Any human activity in the preserve areas should be restricted to “natural” levels, to keep the definition simple, no use of metals, composites, or any other “advanced” materials, no engines, metal weapons, or machines.  People who choose to live in the preserve areas would live there more or less permanently, at a level of civilization similar to native North Americans before the arrival of Columbus.  All the intricacies of human habitation in the preserve areas will take a lot to describe, but basically, not many humans should be present in the preserves, and those who are should make minimal impact on the natural world.

Hopefully, the point of all this is obvious.  Each preserve area would be an area for natural biodiversity and abundance to flourish.  Hunting and fishing along the borders should be vastly more productive than in a completely civilized world.  In science fiction, city-planets like Trantor and Corsucant are dependent upon other planets and faster than light travel to support their cities – clearly, Earth doesn’t have these resources.  In addition to farms, forests, mines and power plants, we need our natural areas to support our cities and rural areas.

Total exclusion is an effective conservation of natural resources, simple to explain, simple to understand, simple to enforce, and effective.  Anything less than total exclusion will bring about variations in interpretation over time and location as well as enormous complications in monitoring and enforcement.  Nature didn’t need our help for the last million years, if we simply leave areas of the Earth alone, biodiversity and natural resources will be better off than they are under our present ‘intensive management.”

How big is a degree? How are special areas exchanged?

The checkerboard premise of 50/50 is somewhat arbitrary, but feels like a good subdivision.  Latitude is always more or less 69 miles per degree, while longitude gets smaller as you move from the equator to the poles.

So, near the equator, the proposal is for 69×69 mile (111x111km) preserves, about 3 million acres each.  For reference, Yellowstone park is about 2.2 million acres.  In some areas like deserts or open ocean, it may be desirable to expand to larger checkerboard squares, but it is important to keep representative ecologies in preserve areas (i.e. not make squares so large that entire ecosystem types are contained within a single developed square and not significantly represented in a preserve area.)  Of course, near the poles, especially above 60 degrees latitude, multiple degrees of longitude would be used to avoid the checkerboard sections getting too thin.

In many places, it will make sense to bend the lines to put unique terrain in a preserve area, or to keep urban development intact in exchange for preserving additional nearby areas.  Especially at the corners, provisions would be made for efficient transit roads between developed areas.  Provisions should also be made for transit of wildlife between preserved areas.  Generally, a one mile wide transit space between preserved areas should be connected at at least 1/2 of the corners – picture an elevated highway, power lines and pipelines crossing this area – still counted as developed land for the balance, but allowing free transit for wildlife between the adjacent preserves.

Why not just stripes?  Mostly, transit at the corners would be less disruptive than 69 mile bridges.  With a checkerboard system, surface and air travel can be restricted to the corners and out of the preserved areas.

When choosing areas for exchange, draw triangles from the corners to the the center of each checkerboard square.  For each acre of land in a preserve square that is going to continue to be used for development, at least one acre in the adjacent triangle of the developed square must be preserved.  All preserved land for a given square must be contiguous, including exchange land in the developed square.

Why 111 kilometer squares?  Based on human development to-date, a 2 to 3 million acre area is sufficient to encompass most developed cities and their surrounding areas, it’s not too restrictive, while still remaining small enough to not completely wipe out unique habitats, or human cultural heritage.  Most (though, not all) countries encompass far more than 3 million acres, and can accommodate the preservation subdivision without being completely deprived of access to their various terrains for development.  “Giving up” 50% of your available land for development is a radical thought, but, at least for competitive purposes, if everybody, everywhere transforms 50% of their land (and ocean) into preserves, nobody would have an unfair advantage, and we all would reap the benefits of living on a planet with functional ecosystems.