Listen: “Living on Earth” Interview with E.O. Wilson on “How to Save the Most Species”

Within decades Earth may lose as many as 50% of the species currently living on our planet. To avert ecological disaster, renowned conservationist and Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson has proposed a radical idea in his book Half-Earth: to set aside half of Earth’s land and sea for nature. He believes that this could save 80% of the species and preserve ecosystems. Host Steve Curwood spoke with E.O. Wilson to learn why the 87-year-old ecologist is optimistic about the role of technology to help with this mission.

Host Steve Curwood interviews E.O. Wilson at the ecologist’s home in Lexington, MA. (Photo: Jenni Doering)

Host Steve Curwood interviews E.O. Wilson at the ecologist’s home in Lexington, MA. (Photo: Jenni Doering)


CURWOOD: A bold new proposal to stem global species’ loss has been created by one of the world’s top experts in ants.

WILSON: Edward, middle initial “O” Wilson, honorary curator of insects at the museum at Harvard.

CURWOOD: E.O. Wilson, as he’s commonly known, has won two Pulitzer prizes, including one for his book on ants. But the distinguished Harvard biologist has been studying the challenge of species loss for years, focusing on unique habitats that should be conserved to protect the diverse ecological webs within them.

Now in his book “Half-Earth,” he has done the math. He says we can preserve the bulk of species and ecosystems if we set aside half of the Earth’s surface, both land and sea. I spoke with Professor Wilson at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, and he explained why many ideas for how to tend to Nature are, well, misguided.

WILSON: I’m concerned because those that I like to call the “Anthropocenists,” that is, those who feel humanity has so thoroughly changed the surface of the Earth and the seas as well, that we might as well give up. The Anthropocene, carried to an extreme in its conception is that we’ve lost the battle in terms of saving natural areas, even in terms of saving most of the biodiversity, the variety of life left on Earth, so we should follow along now in the next stage either one, to just let it go, and proceed to humanize the entire globe. Maybe that’s the destiny of the planet. The second version of Anthropocene enthusiasm is, “Don’t worry, the species that have gone extinct. If we keep specimens of them, we’ll keep their DNA, and we’ll find out a way to clone them, and we’ll put them all back eventually and recreate natural ecosystems”. All these and similar schemes that have been suggested, relatively the same in my view, is running up the white flag as soon as you see the pennants of the enemy appearing on the horizon.

CURWOOD: So we can do better, you think.

WILSON: We better do better! Yes, we can do vastly better, and the conservation movement around the world has been doing everything possible in a conventional worldview with nobility of purpose, with enormous energy and effort and dedication. It’s saved a lot of species.

But what most people don’t realize is that in addition to those beautiful big animals that we so admire and we see going extinct or up to the brink of extinction, there are literally millions of smaller creatures that are the foundations of our ecosystem both on the land and the sea, and that they, too, are probably disappearing at about the same rate. So that we simply are not doing enough for the vertebrates. That’s the group we know the best because we know all of the vertebrates. We know the fish, we know the amphibeans, and we know the birds and mammals and reptiles. One-fifth of those vertebrate animals I just listed are sliding down at a pretty rapid rate and going off the cliff to extinction, and of that one-fifth we’re losing, even with our best efforts, 80 percent or so.

We haven’t stopped it. We’ve slowed it, but we haven’t stopped it. So, we needed something completely different.

CURWOOD: And the bottom line? Of course, we’re talking about your book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”.

WILSON: Yes, the book’s premise is that what we need to do is try for a moonshot, and the moonshot is to set aside half the surface of the land and half the surface of the sea as a reserve, a reserve that doesn’t exclude people by any means – Indigenous people are, in fact, encouraged to enjoy them and continue their way of life – but, if we could give half of the Earth primarily to the millions of other species that inhabit the Earth with us, then we would be able to save about 80 to 90 percent of the species, bring the extinction level down what it was before the coming of humanity. That would be a successful moonshot.

CURWOOD: So, talk to me with some math about the concept of Half-Earth. Just how could this work? How would this work?

WILSON: So, where are we right now? And I can tell you that, in the United States, we have already put aside about 15 percent of the land surface, and, for the planet as a whole, this is land. We’re about the same. We are at about a 15 percent mark around the world for the land. And for the sea it is far less, somewhere about one to three percent, and in the United States it’s up towards what it is for the land. It’s about 10 percent of the territorial waters of the United States. So, we need to move that on up to about half in order to reach a fairly safe level.

Can we do it? Yes, we can do it. Just taking opportunities, gerrymandering small pieces, linking existing parks and small reserves together, we can move the United States up to 50 percent.

[MUSIC: Morgan Matthews & Radio Paint “Motion,” not commercially available]

CURWOOD: That’s biologist and conservationist EO Wilson. When we return, he describes how we might help create the protected wild space he advocates by linking North America’s natural spaces together.

WILSON: I have a notion I call “squaring America”.

CURWOOD: That’s just ahead here on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

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This is PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Morgan Matthews & Radio Paint “Motion,” not commercially available]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. We’re back now with renowned conservationist E.O. Wilson, whose recent book “Half-Earth” proposes a daring idea. He says we need to set aside half of the Earth’s land and sea for the 10 million other known species on the planet. To reach that ambitious goal, Professor Wilson imagined how we might conserve so much North American land.

WILSON: I have a notion I call “squaring America”, North America, including the United States. We start Yukon to Yellowstone. That can be done right now, but let’s go on. Yellowstone on down to the Rocky Mountains, and we could easily, well relatively easily, set up reserves all the way down there as a continuation of the corridor. We get to the southern Rockies, and then we have to jump over a bit to the Sky Island mountains of Arizona. If we wanted, then we can continue the corridor – if our Mexican neighbors would like it – in the Sierra Madre Occidental. And we now go back up to the Yukon, and let us think of a great, broad corridor across the coniferous forest the height of Canada.

Then, reaching the Atlantic coast, let’s bring it down through the best-forested areas to Maine and over to the still wild areas of Vermont, New Hampshire, through surprisingly open areas that remain in upstate New York until we arrive at the Adirondacks. Now, we continue the square down onto the southern Appalachians which reaches then to northern Georgia and Alabama.

But now comes the Gulf Coast. We would like to see a corridor from at least as far east as Tallahassee, extending along the Gulf Coast, which is biologically the richest part of North America, incidentally, in numbers of species. It extends on over to Louisiana and Eastern Texas.

That then, if you think about it, would box America, north, south, east, west, on our square. By the time you pull that off, if you can, you’ve really added a large amount of natural area.

CURWOOD: So, what is it about us humans that a majority of people don’t share your view, don’t understand your urgency, your sense of urgency about this? What is it about us as a species that you think gets in the way? And you write about this some in your book “Half-Earth”.

WILSON: I’m afraid that’s part of what we call human nature. I believe the reasons why we do so many stupid things, including having constant war and tribal battles and internecine civic strife and conflict between religious faith, we succeeded as a species. You know, we were just one species out of many creatures that look a little like us, anyway, the Australopithecus and pre-human species. There were quite a few that came into existence and died off, and our stock was the one that got hold of the capacities for language and dividing labors of cooperating groups. We were the one species that got out from Africa, and we did it about 65,000 years ago, and our populations, our ancestral populations everywhere as they spread, and of course as they multiplied in Africa itself, they would enter whole new environments, natural environments, and everywhere they went they met the pristine environments and they found survival by utilizing everything they could get their hands on in that pristine environment.

They began by killing off, in many cases, the native birds and mammals for food. They then cleaned out a lot of the environment with the plant environment by harvesting. They began to develop agriculture – That began about 12,000 years ago – and that meant just spoiling the original environment. We survived. We multiplied. We were Darwinian. Those among us who did the most damage to the environment to our benefit were the ones who typically got ahead of the competitors in the next area over, and surely that has had an effect on the evolution of human rapaciousness when it comes to dealing with environment. That’s why it makes it so hard to say, “Please halt and reconsider before you mow down that rainforest. Please consider leaving enough space on the surface of the Earth and the sea for those estimated 10 million other species that exist, and which we are wiping out at a rapid rate”. We don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re destroying something ineffably beautiful and something the human mind and emotions need. Because we still have a deep love of the natural environment which we evolved and that included the richness of life and the beauty of open unspoiled areas.

[MUSIC: The Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces” on Wide Open Spaces, Monument Records]

CURWOOD: Why do humans need other creatures? I mean, to what extent are they just nice for us to see or how vital are they for our survival?

WILSON: When you start reducing ecosystems by allowing species to go to extinction, then what you were doing is weakening the system as a whole, and then it becomes vulnerable to accelerating change and collapse. We’re worried now with good reason about climate change and the fact that we are racing toward almost lethal conditions for life as a whole if we continue on our present path, but what’s less recognized is that the same thing exists for biodiversity, and the variety of life that make up the natural ecosystems in the world. We’re moving toward a point where the whole thing could begin to unravel with disastrous results for people locally and globally.

CURWOOD: So, some folks would say, “Look, why not novel ecosystems, those that gradually emerge when alien species invade natural ecosystems? They might be good enough.”

WILSON: Oh, you say that so convincingly. [LAUGHS] I know you’re posing the question. Well, we were talking earlier about the Anthropocene, and I told you the stunning fallacies they engage in. This is the next one. They said, “Well, all around the world, humans around the world are carrying, whether they intend to or not, these alien species, and they’re releasing them, and these are in the worst most disturbed areas that sort of building up little ecosystems of their own. These are highly unstable, and they also include some of the worst pests for humans, and of course they’re very bad for the native species that come in contact with. Novel ecosystems are something to resist and not think of ever as a substitute for a far richer and more stable natural environment. If you want an example of a serious novel ecosystem, go to Hawaii. When you get off the plane, when you get your lei around your neck, you will probably not have a single native plant species in there. There will be species of plants – some of them beautiful – that have taken hold in Hawaii and that can be seen at almost any port of call around the tropical world. The birds you see are all going to be introduced birds. So, what you’re seeing, then, is a hodgepodge of alien species from all around, and we don’t want that to be the condition of the world.

CURWOOD: So, one of the things you’re write about this book is having a Lord God moment as a naturalist. Tell me what you mean by that, and your favorite Lord God moment.

WILSON: OK. Well, the Lord God moment comes from the southern name for Lord God bird. The Ivory-billed woodpecker never was very abundant, so that southerners, settling across the south, would occasionally see one. And when they first saw one – the second-biggest woodpecker in the world, you know, brilliantly colored – well, when they first saw the birds, people often said something like, “Lord, God, what is that?” And that spread enough so that many of them called it a Lord God bird.

And what can I say? I have had many Lord God moments, but mostly with ants. One such moment was in the tropical forest when I first saw a swarm of army ants up to millions in one colony marching as a broad front like a conquering army spreading through the forest floor capturing everything it could find and kill for their food and then settling back into a heavily guarded bivouac where they lived. That should be a Lord God moment for anybody to see that.

CURWOOD: Course, the Ivory-billed woodpecker is gone. You can’t find it any more.

WILSON: It’s gone. And the last one was seen, I think, in the early 1940s by a little boy who knew where a single Ivory-billed woodpecker would rest for a while, and he would go out to see it, and then one day that was gone, and all hunts for it have failed. I would have given anything to be able to see an Ivory-billed woodpecker.

CURWOOD: You have a name for the geologic epoch we may be creating here if we continue on the path of destroying habitat and causing species extinction. What is this name and tell me why you call it that?

WILSON: Well, you know, about the time of the name Anthropocene, the Age of Man, came in, I suggested that we use the term for this period that we dominate the world as the Eremozoic. Eremo means lonely. So Eremozoic means the Age of Loneliness. And for me, kind of the saddest part of all, there would be a heavy weight on the human soul if we really entered it, would be the Eremozoic, the Age of Loneliness where most of life on Earth that we evolved in, most of you and I are still living in, was gone forever.

CURWOOD: And maybe our planet, our species, shouldn’t try doing without the other species, huh?

WILSON: I think we shouldn’t try that. I like to call it, “One Earth, one experiment.” We’ve only got one shot at this. Let’s be careful.

[MUSIC: John Koutsouros, “Big Yellow Taxi” on Ladies Of the Canyon, written by Joni Mitchell, Reprise Records]

CURWOOD: I know that you’re especially optimistic about the role that technology could play in conserving biological diversity? Why do you think the digital revolution is going to help nature rather than make things worse?

WILSON: You know, the first reaction to thinking about digital civilization we’re moving into so dramatically right now is going to be bad for the natural environment. That’s because we think about the digital revolution in the same terms that actually did exist leading up to it, but the digital revolution has qualities to it that are not shared, by any means, with the first primitive technological industrial revolution, and those qualities all point to a lessened size of what’s called the ecological footprint. And everyone, I think, should know what the ecological footprint is because it’s critical.

Ecological footprint is the amount of area – of space if you wish to make it three-dimensional – required by the average person to maintain for that one person all of the necessities of life. That ranges from food to water to shelter to entertainment to governance and on and on and on. And for most of the world it’s one to 10 acres depending on the country. For America, it’s much higher than anybody else, and it’s not sustainable.

And why would I be optimistic that the digital world is going to shrink that? That is the nature of economic evolution, that people want and they will select if they have any choice, instruments and material goods that are smaller, consume less energy and material, need to be fixed less frequently and all of that means that the ecological footprint is destined to shrink. If we can now keep our hands off the natural areas in the world, if we can devise entertainment and fulfillment making use of all of the accoutrements and monuments of digital age and develop a conservation ethic, I envision a possible paradise for humanity by the 22nd century.

CURWOOD: Paradise for humanity by the 22nd century, and right now we’re threatened by climate change, pollution, and loss of species at a precipitous rate?

WILSON: Well, I know. But now let’s think about the United States over a comparable period. The development of the nation as a society from, say, 1800 to 1900, humans are making that rate of change, and I believe there’s an inevitability of the shrinking of the ecological footprint, not because people know what it is and want to see it shrink, but because of the economic evolution that seems inevitable.

CURWOOD: E.O.Wilson’s new book is called “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”. Thank you so much, Professor Wilson.

WILSON: Thank you for the opportunity.