Half-Earth, conservation, and hope: An interview with E.O. Wilson, Paula Ehrlich and Sir Tim Smit

E.O. Wilson in Lexington, 2021. Photo by Joel R. Johnson

The Half-Earth Project has a large-scale mission to discover, map and identify all the species on the planet in order to save global biodiversity. The project provides resources such as the Half-Earth Project Map which shows what areas could be protected to preserve the highest amount of biodiversity, as well as national report cards to summarize conservation on a national level.

“Through the science of the Half-Earth project, by mapping all the species of our planet at a high resolution, we know where we have the best opportunity to protect the most endangered species and endangered ecosystems,” Ehrlich said.

Friday, October 22, is Half-Earth Day, which honors the publication of Wilson’s book. The day will be marked with a virtual event featuring talks and discussions on conservation education, science, and technology by thought leaders, decision-makers, scientists, and influencers including E.O. Wilson himself, Sir David Attenborough, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Razan Al Mubarak, and more.

Critics of large-scale, area-based protections such as Half-Earth Project and 30×30 (the controversial goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030) say a large number of people, particularly those living in poorer countries, could be adversely affected by conservation efforts that displace people.

“We know barriers persist. That the same people who have been systemically excluded from the process of protecting biodiversity are disproportionately hurt by degraded air, lands, and waters, perpetuating a cycle of harm and exclusion,” Ehrlich wrote in an email to Mongabay. “That is why it is so critical we get the science right, so that we leave no species behind, and that includes all of humanity.”

Sir Tim Smit, executive chairman and co-founder of the Eden Project and a moderator for Half-Earth Day, stressed the importance of stemming the loss of biodiversity.

“Imagine you’ve got the most terrific piece of music and the best orchestra in the world, and every 20 minutes of that performance, five of the performers are dragged out of it. Then listen to the music,”  Smit told Mongabay. “That’s what’s happening to our planet.”

E.O. Wilson, Paula Ehrlich, and Sir Tim Smit spoke with Mongabay staff writer Liz Kimbrough on Oct 14, 2021, to discuss Half-Earth, mapping life on Earth, hope, and as Ehrlich said, “the need for us to drive a moral conviction…to protect biodiversity as one of humanity’s transcendent goals.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay: Scientists have been warning humanity about the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss for decades, but this seems like a particularly dire time. Given your decades, and over a combined century of work in this arena, what is your perspective? How bad are things really, and how urgent is this moment for action?

E.O. Wilson: I think the argument for action at the level of government as well as the individual is more critical than ever, even though the international and local conservation efforts have heavily intensified and are still going, we’re still short of saving a large percentage of the species, many unknown mostly to the public.

We’re moving, but not fast enough to save the heritage of a large percentage of individual countries. I’m speaking in too broad of generalities, but I do speak from having been on the board of local and national conservation organizations for a long time.

Paula Ehrlich: The problem really is urgent as you suggest…There was a recent UN report that more than one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. And the reason this is urgent really is that if we lose these species we lose the ecosystems, right, the intricate web of life that sustains nature and sustains us as part of nature. We’re connected with those species that have evolved around us over three and a half billion years to create an exquisite and careful balance of really interconnected resilience.

So, the urgency is really around a true need for a shift in consciousness that allows us to really come to know and understand the web of life. So that inevitably, by saving the bulk of biodiversity, we also save our place within that web of life as well.

E.O. Wilson: And we save ecosystems. In fact, that’s what I’m up to now, preparing myself here in my apartment in Lexington, Massachusetts filled with stacks of books summarizing research on ecosystems.

You know, as I was speaking just a moment ago, a mouse ran across the carpet and right by my foot. I’ve been looking after this little mouse because I just can’t bear to dispose of a part of the ecosystem.

But let me take the opportunity to mention that in serving as a consultant and also as a member of the board of directors for many conservation organizations, I think they summarize in one sentence the conservation ethic worldwide at the present time, especially in those countries and regions where it’s most needed, is we are winning the battles but losing the war.

So, we all are in this and should take up its importance along with future generations of minds, and love and purposes. Only a permanently winning this war is going to be acceptable, and a few species lost by our indifference as can be managed.

Tim Smit: All I will say is that Ed Wilson will be seen in a generation from now to be the equivalent of a Galileo because he has seen something and he has been banging on, banging on, banging on, and finally the world is waking up. I have no comments from my experience as to whether it is too late. All I can tell you is…in Costa Rica, where [Eden has been a partner], we have a ten thousand acre [four thousand hectares] rainforest that we have been given…The guy who bought all of the land, which was then degraded, said I don’t want any humans in the here for twenty years. After that, they may come in and make it their home.

Today, there is a ten thousand acre rainforest so abundant, so rich in life, and most important of all, for that part of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica where it was previously five months a year of drought, there are now four rivers running 365 days a year.

And the secret to me, well, Ed Wilson is completely correct in the way he’s looking at Half-Earth. Because regardless of whether we achieve half or not, it is a target which feels worthy of a challenge. Whereas let’s say 10%, it hasn’t quite got the same ring, has it? And the really significant thing is the spiritual renewal that takes place when people who live in degraded land, see it come back to life. There is a village of eight thousand people next to the rain forest. And they revere the activity there. They have formed their own fire brigades and everything else. For them, it feels almost like a second coming. Because they say things like, ‘do you know what it feels like to look up at a mountain which for 30 years, it would shimmer with the heat and promise desert to us. Now it shimmers and mist rises and clouds form and it rains and it feels like joy.’ And I think this is the aspiration that Ed has put in many people’s hearts. And we’ve got to really go for it.

I think one of the dangers that we have is that we often come at it from factor-based thinking, ‘X amount or animals, X percent’…when in fact humans are a storytelling creature. And I think the story of humankind arriving at a moment of redemption when it is suddenly realizing that we are Earthlings and we have to protect it, because if we do not protect the Earth and the biodiversity on it we will not only have been wanting as a species, but it will end very badly for all of us. So, that was a rather long-winded way of saying I had no contribution to make. But I was actually just supporting Professor Wilson and Dr. Ehrlich’s comments. Really, I think they’re doing a super job.

Mongabay: Professor Wilson has said that the Half-Earth goal is somewhat of a moonshot idea. Why take this ambitious moonshot approach?

E.O. Wilson: Because you get people’s attention. And it’s the best analogy I can think of, it’s potentially a way that can work…I found it is very hard to take on in the public, as a moral and political issue, and it has worked.

In 2016, I just published a book on this idea [Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life] and I arrived in Honolulu at a conference of conservation professionals and equally effective, non-professionals expecting to be strongly criticized about what I said in the book. But I got praise in prepared talks and also in personal contacts I made there. It was clear that the conservation community was waiting for some kind of a signatory of a moral and economic issue, and that’s the way it has continued up to this time. I hope to live long enough to see this as routine in the political and ethical principles of countries all around the world.

Paula Ehrlich: You’re reminding me, Ed, when you talk about that, something that you wrote about in your book, The Naturalist, about how the last chapter on sociobiology was meant to be a catalyst dropped among reagents that were already present and ready to combine. And it reminds me that sort of what happened when we were at IUCN, that there were already all of the pieces in place, but they just needed that kind of grand vision, that goal under which they could all work together, not just conceptually but inspirationally, to drive all of our work to care for our planet. And that by imagining that we could do it together we would solve this immense problem and learn so much and do so much for humanity. And so, in that sense, it is very much like a moonshot right, just like Kennedy did when he announced the space program, and really imagined that you can move forward towards landing on the moon, not just through a process of putting out fires here and there… but to really work together to achieve a goal.

E.O. Wilson: Oh yes, that’s why I said that I had made one important discovery of personal motivation and that was, through the years serving on boards of directors of several such institutions, I have witnessed the winning of most of the major enterprises of these organizations… and I was just thrilled to listen to the description just this minute about an area where I’ve been and researched in the rain forests of Costa Rica. Thank you, Sir. But I just came up with a personal way of commenting on experiences. What I have learned is that organizations are successful and of course they do the job collectively, but… I had tried to summarize my view of wherever we are at the present time in the conservation movement, and we are winning battles in a losing war.

And so that’s the reason why I think somehow, we should work into the public commonality of thought and purpose a goal as appropriate as any political and economic goals now regarded as paramount to the success of society a thousand years from now.

Mongabay: Why the focus on biodiversity specifically?

Paula Ehrlich: Well, the bottom line is that Half-Earth itself is a simple idea. It’s very engaging and people get right away what it is we need to achieve. The reason we need to protect half the earth is really at its foundation to protect the species of our planet. And by protecting half, as we know the principle that we’ll be able to protect at least 85% of the species on our planet. That comes from the theory of island biogeography and subsequent studies that show us the extraordinary, precise mathematical relationship between area and the number of species that it can sustainably protect.

And so, by focusing on half, we know we have the best opportunity to protect really the bulk of biodiversity. And through the science of the Half-Earth Project, by mapping all the species of our planet at a high resolution, we know where we have the best opportunity to protect the most endangered species and endangered ecosystems. And really, the reason we focus on biodiversity is that that’s the way life is organized. And by protecting life, we can protect that web of biodiversity. By knowing more about the species of our planet, we can do an even better job. By identifying and mapping the spaces of our planet, we can really transform our understanding about how to best protect life on our planet, and also which half we should protect in order to well reach this goal and solve the problem that we’re facing currently around the extinction crisis.

E.O. Wilson:  And in every, almost every complex issue, in health as well as of course the economy, this is a vital subject and does not bear easily any neglect, which I believe has been emphasized well enough, but is going to become increasingly heavy and harming in every issue central to human cooperation and civilization…we’ve come to recognize that the fauna and flora are fundamental in continued human existence.

Mongabay: What are the largest obstacles to protecting half of the Earth?

Tim Smit: The greatest obstacle by miles is human vanity and the fact that we have fallen in love with ourselves and believe that we are above all. And I think the greatest physical barrier to change is the fact that the establishment, us if you like, have failed to speak truth to power for too long, and have enabled power to be brokered globally by people without a moral compass of care. Which means that we are in the outrageous situation now, as it goes, that we have companies owning assets that can damage our birthright and that of all living things without much punishment. It is absolutely unthinkable to me, and I’m sure to Professor Wilson and Dr. Ehrlich that we can allow companies to trade in such a way that they damage the water that is in our planet, the air, and the fertile soils.

What is very interesting is that post COVID, I am noticing that most of the chief executives that I am meeting…there is a huge shift in moral compass taking place in the better companies. And I am hopeful. The reason I am hopeful is that I sense a seismic shift taking place over what corporate responsibility will come to mean, and it will take on board stakeholders in the widest possible sense. And I think we will see, I am hoping we will see, a return to some form of sanity where we understand that we have a moral obligation towards the stewardship of the earth. And I think it will no longer be seen as being motherhood and apple pie, but as if we’re playing the most dangerous game of Jenga imaginable, where we think that we know what is happening in the world because we know a few small things. The bigger patterns are still probably obscured to us. And it would only be a fool that would not think that we should rein ourselves back and live within the planetary boundaries, as far as we know them.

E.O. Wilson: Thanks for that analysis. It matches the opinions of several of the best writers at least in the New York Times…in a short sense, it is a description of human nature. And that’s a subject I’ve written on because I’ve worried a great deal myself of the consequences of human nature having evolved in an environment that would be considered very primitive today, but was the shaper of human nature that most try to accommodate themselves to while believing that all of that mess that’s been left to us by our ancestors is just part of the struggle and the discomfort caused by it, to the ultimate paradise that awaits the one intelligent, perfect, culture-making species that exists on Earth…Thank you. That was intended as an expression of gratitude for a belief I’ve had for a long time.

Paula Ehrlich:  And I would reiterate the same thing, that really the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is rooted in, in what you’ve said, Tim, and what Ed has thanked you around which is the need for us to drive a moral conviction to act to protect biodiversity as one of humanity’s transcendent goals. And we also really carry forward in the soul of our organizations the scientific ambition that transforms our understanding of the world, and what we need to do to take care of it.

In my sense, one of the obstacles to the path and moving forward to protect half the earth or really, who is to achieve any of the targets that we’ve set for ourselves, is having a way to measure our success. One of the best ways that we are currently moving for in the UN level discussions is the adoption of indicators, ways of really measuring how well we’re doing in achieving the goal for conservation, including 30 x 30, or Half-Earth, ways that we can really see and measure how well we’re doing and protecting the species of whatever places we set aside for conservation.

And so, where there are human obstacles, I think there are also tremendous technological, scientific, and research advances that are really starting to overcome the main obstacles we have had in the path to achieving the targets that we set for ourselves. And I share your optimism Tim around the ways that companies are also moving forward, and using those sorts of indicators to be able to measure their own progress, as they think about their purpose-driven mission to protect the planet and how they can incorporate biodiversity.

Mongabay: Let’s stick with this point of optimism, because I believe it’s a really crucially important one for people right now. You’ve both spoken a bit about this. But do you feel hopeful or optimistic about the future of life on earth? And if so, what gives you hope?

Tim Smit: I feel very hopeful. I don’t feel optimistic. I think optimistic is a wishy-washy word, hopeful has a muscularity to it. The reason I feel hopeful is because I go into a lot of schools and universities, and I meet young people who are really angry. I mean, they are really angry that my generation has screwed up this badly. And I feel an undercurrent of unforgiving anger, which I think the parents of those young people are going to really respond to. It’s everywhere, I can’t talk for your side of the Atlantic, but over here [in the UK/Europe], people are just really, really aware that there’s something brewing. There’s a kind of, it’s not been articulated yet properly, but the amount of young people who are getting active, who actually are seeking change, gives me a reason for hope, because they’re smart, they’re bright. And you know, they are losing their complete addiction to stuff. They’re actually becoming less and less influenced by brands and consumption, and more and more passionate about meaning, belonging, relationship, and that, of course, is the heart of everything that Ed has been talking about in his successful career to date. And I think Ed should feel very hopeful that within his life, he will see some very radical changes all over the world. I really do.

E.O. Wilson: Thank you for citing what this is by its intrinsic nature an accurate description of the birth of a, how should I put it, almost religious principle. I hope the evolution of it continues and becomes conspicuously strong in the United States as well. And I think that young people, as you say, are searching for it. They have a need for it that they can express only occasionally in concrete form.

It is fortunate in a way that we have physical evidence that can be pointed to, that most of the advanced countries are the ones that most need to have a fundamentally basic renewal of conservation of the biodiversity of their country. We need, in arriving at that level, we need to have much more of an emphasis on science, and what scientific technology at this point can contribute to our furtherance of this principle. And that’s something that I can proudly say, is fundamental for the Wilson Foundation.  I’m thankful that there have been supporters and impressed by results that have come out of our scientific team in mapping, first of all on the content of biodiversity. We need to know what each unit at the species level is, that is possible to locate with standard practices of taxonomy and biogeography, what the species are and where they are found, and what is their status in the stability of their continued existence.  This is something I think the Foundation, headed by Paula Ehrlich, has been excelling and effective….[They are] doing extremely well and taking leadership of that particular ensemble of projects, and reporting on projects in ways that have influence on every sector of society.

Paula Ehrlich: Well, thank you very much for your comments. We really are trying to transform our understanding of our planet, providing guidance. And sometimes that takes the form of courageous research that really tries to show new ways of understanding and providing scientific leadership in service of a resilient planet. And we were talking also about young people, and how to best engage a global community that really perceives and celebrates the inherent value of nature. My sense is, that it is inevitably through engaging them in this research in the places that they live, that are part of their heritage and that they can carry forward then as part of their own lives and their own careers to care for, well, their own life and their own home. Involving them in that research, in that world-shifting consciousness, allows them to see their place as part of their home and as part of our larger global presence in the world. It really is a shift in consciousness…I sense what you are as well…young people are particularly quite anxious about what we need to do, and EO Wilson, I think continues to be a constant source of inspiration, courage and also focus on what we really need to do in order to move forward and save the planet.

Tim Smit: I think one of the really thrilling things that is happening is the advent of low trajectory, satellites, linked to 5G and 6G technology, will enable us to track life on Earth in a way that will not allow poachers and organizations that are malicious to prosper in ways that they have previously been able to do so…We are often quite scathing about some of the bad effects of technology, but boy would that be good for us to be able to track creatures all over the world in such a way that we can properly protect them and, at worst, identify those who have been malicious.

E.O. Wilson: Well, I was just going to say you have just commented beautifully on the relationship of technology and basic science. It’s worth bearing in mind an algorithm we follow in teaching biology on all levels including beginning biology in grammar school and that is that our living world is organized by a series of levels of organization, each one of which is worthy of a career in education and the furtherance of science itself. And we start with DNA, then we go to the cell and on until the species. And this is the one we need the most, in my judgment, as targets of basic research, is going from the species to the ecosystems. We need basic information for every important unit that can be classified along the chain… And as part of political and economic policy, a reference to those levels, and the condition that each country is in with reference to each level. Because once a level is not paid close attention and looked after, it creates a negative ripple in nature, along the entire chain of causation.  So, I am so happy to witness anywhere I’ve seen it, where and when practiced, a whole range of disciplines of biology, when you come right down to it.

So that’s one reason for promoting a full and complete, formally organized, and labeled conservation practice. I would like to… see the renewal or strengthening, if you wish, of conservation biology and for this to be seen and supported as an economic goal of countries everywhere. And those with small resources and not much to depend upon in their education system and science should be paid the most attention to and helped. The foreign aid of the future should be allowed by the policies and economies of individual countries, especially the biodiversity-rich countries to ease some of them, more of them I should say, it’s been done very nicely in Costa Rica, to the front of the goal.

Mongabay: It seems as though you’re all saying that humans’ relationship to nature is going to need to shift to achieve Half-Earth. What does our human relationship to nature look like in a Half-Earth world?

E.O. Wilson: Not that different if you were drawing a map of the Earth country by country and put in one big category of protected areas or that which people attend to for recreation or for moral reasons. We just need to map that particular domain along with its complexities and put it to the kind of study that includes basic discovery. That is, finding the species that are in the world and then, at the same time, be taking the second step all along to map where they are and what their status is in the places where they’re found. And then a map showing the performance of each of the countries.

Paula Ehrlich:  You know, it’s really about transforming our understanding of our planet so that we can shift our consciousness to inspire truly informed collective action to save the biosphere and make sure we leave no species behind in doing so. It’s that kind of courageous research that you need to remember to do.

E.O. Wilson: Some remarkably large and unexpected groups of species have not yet been found. Because in the realm of science we’ve given up on basic Linnean biology, making reference to Linnaeus who started taxonomy and organizing the natural world in 1735. We need the return of Linnean biology as a fully supported and recognized and studied portion of biological studies across a range of levels of organization to get the information we really need to get a really solid [understanding of] what every species is, what condition it is in, and in what countries and what parts of what countries. And to be able to describe the processes, based on geography and biology, what is the best thing to do for plants and animals, and even down to microorganisms that are disease-carrying, for another thousand years.

Tim Smit: Can I say one very last thing having listened to my hero? One of the things which young people really get, I’m talking about 8 to 12-year-olds, is when you asked: Why does biodiversity matter? Why are you focusing on it? The best description I can give you is, imagine you’ve got the most terrific piece of music and the best orchestra in the world, and every twenty minutes of that performance, five of the performers are dragged out of it. Then listen to the music. That’s what’s happening to our planet.

E.O. Wilson: Unfortunately, that is a highly original and quite accurate analogy to make. Thank you for that.

Mongabay: Thank you all. Let’s keep the music playing.

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