Paul Simon’s Recommend Reading: “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, December 25, 2016

The Year in Reading: In this season of giving, we asked some notably avid readers — who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists — to share the books that accompanied them through 2016.

In a year in which one might consider retreating into a world of literature — if only to escape the ugliness of the presidential campaign — I found it harder to immerse myself in a good book than to turn off the lights and go to bed early. I read less, but still found pleasure in Don DeLillo’s “Zero K” and Billy Collins’s new book of poems, “The Rain in Portugal.” However, the book that provided a powerful — indeed inspirational — experience was Edward O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.

I heard Wilson speak 10 years ago at a TED conference. Something he said during his talk concerning our ecological problems stayed with me ever since. Its glistening optimism gave me hope, although I must admit I did little to implement his advice. Paraphrasing what he said: This planet has the potential to be a paradise by the next century if we act now to preserve it. A paradise!

“Half-Earth,” published earlier this year, is written in more dire times. Wilson still sees an optimistic path to the future, but the potential for a planetary catastrophe, or perhaps even extinction, has increased significantly. Simply put, if we don’t reverse the climate change that is causing sea levels to rise, and droughts and flooding to become chronic, the consequences will cause a collapse of the many ecosystems that are home to all the living creatures and plants necessary for life itself to exist.

The solution proposed in “Half-Earth” is to divide the planet into spheres; some perfectly suited to mankind and the Anthropocene worldview, while the remaining areas can be kept as wild as nature constructed them. Wilson is not proposing that we approach Earth with a large knife as we would a cantaloupe about to be sliced. He argues eloquently that enough of the Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity already exist that we can preserve them and still be able to inhabit the rest of the planet in a way that has become the new norm for human beings. Areas like the Amazon River basin, the redwood forests of North America, the Serengeti grasslands, the Congo basin and Antarctica are still pristine and capable of supporting all the species that now live in them. The same approach must be taken with the oceans, which are not polluted beyond repair. Wilson makes the case that we humans must accept the role as Earth’s custodians rather than her master.

As a species, we are well suited to our former living environment, but not the environment we are creating. The point of no return is fast approaching. Questions of human rights, racism, democracy versus tyranny and sexism are just that: human rights. But there will be no rights, or humans, if we do not preserve and conserve a habitable planet. Still, Wilson is an optimist and believes we can preserve our jewel-like planet if we do the job we must do. “Half-Earth” is compulsory reading if we care about the lives of our children, our children’s children and all of the species alive today. A paradise!

Paul Simon is a musician.

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