When I first learned that October 22 marked Half-Earth Day, I thought it was because the date was six months before Earth Day. (True.) But it has a message of its own.
Half-Earth is the idea that for humans to survive, we must conserve Earth’s declining biodiversity by reserving half the planet for nature, stabilizing vast tracts of ocean, grassland, rainforest, and of desert to harbor the birds, insects and ecosystems that affect the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe. Not to mention the economies, cultures and hobbies that sustain us.
The Half-Earth project was inspired by legendary Harvard biologist EO Wilson, who died in 2021 at the age of 92. In “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, Wilson wrote: get out as quickly as possible from the feverish swamp of dogmatic religious beliefs and inept philosophical thinking in which we still wander. Unless humanity learns much more about global biodiversity and acts quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species that make up life on Earth.
It means us the people, which Wilson calls a “lucky accident of late Pleistocene primate evolution.”
Not a particularly happy accident, perhaps, for planet Earth. Since 1970the world’s population has doubled to almost 8 billion. And over those five decades, the populations of wild animals monitored have declined by a 69% average, warns the recent Living Planet Report, a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature on the abundance of species in the world (some species of vertebrates, others are difficult to follow). Freshwater populations were the hardest hit, declining by 83% during this period. A million plant and animal speciesout of estimated at 8 million there, are in danger of extinction.
It’s time to change our habits, to using at steward earth resources. People cannot thrive at the expense of nature. Latin America has seen a huge 94% decline in species populations. Meanwhile, deforestation for crops and livestock, legal and illegal mining and logging, development and devastating wildfires have contributed to a 20% loss of the Amazon rainforest – a territory the size of France. This not only affects the 350 indigenous communities and the countless species of plants, animals and insects that live there, but all of us, as 400 billion trees that make up the Amazon rainforest produce a estimated 6% terrestrial oxygen.
What makes humans more comfortable on earth now threatens the planet: energy, food production, habitat growth and commercial development. These are all systems that Wilson believed needed to be redesigned. But just as the problem is ours, so is the solution.
To get people to action, Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, thinks it’s important to talk about what matters to them, citing health care, clean air and jobs. Morris spoke at a recent Half-Earth Day conference hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, bringing together government, community, corporate and conservation actors like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon and supporters like the Bezos Earth Fund. “Governments aren’t going to move until people move,” Morris said.
The issues are thorny, however: even ambitious efforts can provoke Mother Nature. “The greatest threat to Virginia’s forests is solar energy,” Morris said, referring to clean energy projects planned to cut down thousands of acres of trees. “We can be smart where we put solar and wind power…in a way that doesn’t harm biodiversity,” Morris added.
The Half-Earth Project examines growth through the lens of nature, with tools that map the richness and scarcity of wildlife populations as well as human pressures and existing protections, in hopes of illuminating both preservation and development. I compose their online map to my community, close to the screaming orange urban mass of Washington, DC, but dotted with green conservation areas established by public and private authorities.
The EO Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory – located in Mozambique Gorongosa National Parkonce decimated by civil war and other human ills – provides a plan not only to rebuild biodiversity, but also coaching new biologists and ecologists. The Half-Earth Project also involves Indigenous communities – who have traditionally balanced human needs with nature – in their programs, bringing together past and present, to work together on a sustainable plan for our future.
While the first Earth Day was held in 1970 to celebrate conservation efforts, Half-Earth Day is more of a cautionary tale. Whatever your beliefs about climate change, that is clear. We are losing white tip sharks and harpy eagles, the inspiration for ‘Fawkes’ in the Harry Potter films. finish them Melomys of Bramble Caya small rodent whose habitat, food source and nest sites were wiped out by unprecedented storms and floods. You may never see a pink dolphin, but the interplay of plant, animal and insect species sustains us.
To tackle a problem of this magnitude, we all need to – from those who sit in governments and boardrooms to our own kitchen tables – come together. Too often, the “solutions” are opposed to administrations with their own political agendas. “Meanwhile, we are struggling, horribly driven, with no particular goal in mind other than economic growth, unfettered consumption, good health, and personal happiness,” Wilson wrote. He placed his faith in nature, and so should we.
“We have to listen to what the birds are telling us. We have lost three billion birds of my life,” says Audubon CEO Elizabeth Grey, who is in her 50s. “Birds are sentinels for healthy land and water – if the birds are in trouble, so are the people.”
The canary sings. Listen, before his voice calms down.