News and Notes

Setting Aside Half the Earth for Nature

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Planning magazine. Author Timothy Beatley is the a professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia, and director of Biophilic Cities.


I T IS A BOLD GOAL: That we might dedicate half of Earth’s surface to nature. Biologist and conservationist EO Wilson calls it a conservation “moonshot.” He believes it is the only hope we have to forestall the immense loss of global biodiversity we are facing and protect 85 percent (or more) of the world’s species.

Wilson has been talking about this idea for years; in 2016, he published the book Half-Earth (a term he actually credits writer Tony Hiss with coining), and later, the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation created the Half-Earth Project. Last summer, singer Paul Simon donated the net proceeds of his 19-city tour to the project, providing some welcome funds—and visibility.

Housed at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the project—while only in existence a short while—has achieved a great deal. One of the key things the project has been doing is developing higher-resolution maps of global biodiversity. An initial Phase I Half-Earth Map has been completed (view the results at half-earthproject.org/maps), and even higher-resolution maps will be generated in a second $14 million phase. Anyone can sign the online Half-Earth Pledge (half-earthproject.org/pledge), and the inaugural Half-Earth Day was held last fall, midway between Earth Days, at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

I spoke recently with Paula Ehrlich, President and CEO of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the one spearheading the Half-Earth Project. We specifically discussed the potential role of cities in implementing this vision. Ehrlich believes we are at an important moment for global conservation.

“People didn’t use to talk about extinction, and they do now,” she says. The global extinction train is barreling ahead, with rates 1,000 times what they were before humans were on the scene. And the end game is terrifying. “If it continues at this rate,” she says, “it will eliminate more than half of all species by the end of the century.”

Cities in the Half-Earth era

Urban areas can and must be part of the Half-Earth vision and strategy for it to succeed. What would it mean to be a “Half-Earth City”? No cities have yet used this language or explicitly established Half-Earth as a goal (Australian architect Paul Downton was the first to suggest this terminology in a review of Wilson’s book). But cities can and must play a major role: They have the resources and the opportunities to make a difference in biodiversity conservation. Working to protect biodiversity locally and regionally is one clear and obvious way a Half-Earth City might be defined.

Ehrlich believes we connect with nature at the local level. “People relate to the personal,” she says. Showing beautiful images of wildlife in Africa can only take us so far: “They’re extraordinarily wild places to look at in a photo, but not many people get to them.” Biodiversity conservation and local connections are an essential step—and cities can and do harbor much biodiversity.

The vision of Half-Earth, Ehrlich tells me, is not necessarily one of sharp spatial bifurcation. The places we have the opportunity to manage for conservation to protect the most species will likely be scattered, though hopefully interconnected, and woven into and placed near cities. Some urban areas are already heading in that direction: Greater London has dedicated 47 percent of its land to open space and nature, according to data service Greenspace Information for Greater London, leading geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison to campaign for London to become the world’s first National Park City.

Half-Earth cities must embrace compactness and density to minimize their considerable and growing spatial footprints. Sprawling land-use patterns are a worldwide threat to biodiversity, as a recent study released by the University of Pennsylvania shows. The study maps projected growth patterns in so-called Hotspot Cities—cities like Los Angeles and Sydney that are located within one of the planet’s biological hotspots—finds that most will cause serious habitat loss. Controlling or reducing sprawl in those areas will be a major challenge and goal of Half-Earth.

Even more urgent, perhaps—especially for cities located outside of hotspots—is the need to control our “ecological footprints.” These footprints represent the larger land area needed to sustain and support the consumption of urban populations. Our ecological footprints, especially in the Global North, are strikingly large, as we require huge amounts of land to produce the food, energy, wood, and other goods and services we want and need. The supply lines of modern cities are long, and we are mostly disconnected from the severe habitat-destructive impacts they have on distant locales.

Vancouver, which aspires to be the greenest city in the world, is a notable exception; the city has set a goal of a onethird footprint reduction between 2006 and 2020.

There are many things Vancouver and other cities can do in that effort: grow, source, and produce more things locally; shift in the direction of a circular urban metabolism and economy (where zero waste and reuse are embraced and supported); and procure global products that restore, rather than diminish, species (e.g. sustainably harvested wood). Recent efforts in some places, notably New York City and San Francisco, to divest from fossil fuel companies and invest in renewable energy is yet another way to support the aims of Half-Earth.

Half-Earth Cities can and must be global conservation leaders, politically and financially supporting conservation around the world. This support could take the form of new city-to-city treaties and agreements and work to establish and enforce more distant protected areas like marine parks on the high seas. A federation of cities standing up for bold and immediate actions to set aside half the earth might make all the difference.

An emerging urban ethic

Explicitly embracing the vision of Half-Earth reflects the philosophy that all forms of life matter, that they have inherent worth, and that cities have an ethical duty to blanch biological hemorrhaging. Signing the Half-Earth Pledge and incorporating that goal into a city’s plans could give serious attention to the ways urban areas can lead in global conservation.

It won’t be easy, of course. Reducing the size of consumption patterns—and putting into place more biodiversity-friendly supply lines—are major challenges. New York City and others have developed specific policies, like discouraging the purchase of ecologically destructive tropical hardwoods, but they are few and far between.

Half-Earth holds out hope for a different ethical view of nature, specifically that Homo sapiens have an ethical duty to protect the planet’s biological heritage. “We are the only species that has the ability to care for all the others,” Ehrlich says, “and therefore [we have] the moral responsibility for doing so.”

Is it possible a new kind of urban ethic could emerge, one that understands the imperative of cities to conserve and protect nature, local and distant? Can we enlist cities and urbanites in the global struggle to preserve species and ecosystems that are often removed from their daily sight or consideration? These questions remain open, but as urban areas begin to understand and rise to the challenge of the bold vision of Half-Earth, we might begin to find their true ethical (and evolutionary) bearings.

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