The Earth Charter Preamble reads:
We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.
The forces of Nature are such that our existence is a demanding and uncertain adventure. Like it or not, we remain a biological species in a biological world, wondrously well-adapted to the peculiar conditions of the planet’s former living environment, but not to our current environment or the one we are creating for the future.
The resilience of life on Earth and the wellbeing of humanity depend upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its ecological systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air. The global environment, with its finite resources, is a common concern of all peoples. The protection of Earth’s vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.
In his recent book, Half-Earth, preeminent ecologist E. O. Wilson cautions us “that only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.” Put another way, Wilson’s premise—based on his own extensive research and that of many other esteemed scientists—is that we must protect at least half of the Earth’s land and water to sustain Nature’s complexity, ecological processes, and diversity of life. This is our global imperative, challenging yet doable.
The fate of all life lies inextricably entwined with humankind’s behavior. We can ill afford to wait until our species is thoroughly enlightened, so we must empower inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring citizen leaders who can help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect for the Earth. I call this a Whole-Earth strategy.
Devils and Angels
“We men are wretched things,” spoke Achilles, one of the man-killing heroes at the slaughter at Troy. Literature abounds with convincing examples of the dark side of Homo sapiens. The early great epics—The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Voyage of the Argo—provide fascinating accounts of the ancient world’s mythological heroes immersed in war environments brimming with violent behavior toward women, children, slaves, other fellow countrymen, and animals.
Indeed, my own formative years with SEAL Team One, during which I engaged in roughly 70 combat operations in Vietnam, helped shape my worldview that “some humans ain’t human, some people ain’t kind” (to borrow from singer/songwriter, John Prine).
And yet, we find hope.
In his 800-page tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker describes six trends resulting in our species retreat from violence, including “The Rights Revolution—symbolically inaugurated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a growing revulsion against aggression toward ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals.
Spin-offs from the concept of human rights—civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights—have been asserted in a cascade of movements from the late 1950s to the present day. Pinker describes Five Historical Forces that favor our peaceable motives and that have driven the multiple declines in violence, including the rule of law.
Survival Tactics for Conservation
Our most pressing priorities as conservationists include continuing to strongly advocate, and when necessary, litigate for the retention of the laws we fought long and hard to establish, such as the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Certain laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Forest Management Act, afford us the opportunity to engage in high-level decision-making and land use planning. These laws also empower us to sue when agencies or other entities behave badly. Politically motivated efforts to eliminate the relevance or existence of such laws, through legislative shenanigans and other means, are a threat to our democracy.
America’s public lands will obviously need to play a major role in any North American Whole-Earth strategy.
America’s public lands will obviously need to play a major role in any North American Whole-Earth strategy—especially in the context of climate disruption, which will likely require habitat shifts for many plant and animal species. Among their many values, public lands provide critical habitat for large carnivores and countless other wildlife, and present people with places to experience the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of wilderness.
State-level antics to “take back” public lands are thinly veiled attempts to open protected areas to development and resource extraction regardless of the ecological costs. The Bundy-cloned thugs at Malheur and Bunkerville and their enablers were outright criminals trying to steal land from wildlife, Tribal peoples, and other citizens. By defending and supporting the rule of law, we retain the high ground essential to safeguarding our public lands.
Another vital task for conservationists is to motivate the conservation community and other concerned citizens to remain informed about political happenings and key events, and to be sure to get out and vote. Edward Abbey, in a reflective mood, cautioned against angry, illegal actions that would get us jailed or shot dead. Rather, he offered a well-worn, reasoned approach to political action:
So I hope we can save what’s left of … the United States by legal, political means and I still think we can. I still vote in elections…. I think if enough people get sufficiently concerned, why we can still make changes…needed changes in this country by political methods…God, I hope so.
Optimism in The Sixth Extinction
Some 65 million years ago, a 12-kilometer-wide asteroid crashed into the present-day coast of Yucatan, wiping out 75 percent of all the planet’s species in what scientists have described as the Fifth Extinction. So ended the Mesozoic, the Age of Reptiles, and began the Cenozoic, the Age of Mammals. An estimated 10 million years is required to recover from each great extinction event. Due to human activity the current rate of extinction is 1,000 times higher than natural background rates. Thus, we now find ourselves in the so-called Anthropocene, the Epoch of Man—or, the Sixth Extinction.
As E.O. Wilson puts it, the Half-Earth proposal first of all offers an emergency solution to saving and stabilizing at least 80 percent of the planet’s diversity of life. Half-Earth also enhances current conservation efforts by offering an achievable, albeit difficult, goal. It offers more than hope.
[W]e cannot be complacently optimistic about [environmental destruction], but we can be conditionally optimistic. We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more. Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far.
The point of this essay is to urge conditional optimism. Rather than hope and wait for the second coming, rescue by Martians, Republican enlightenment, or other such fantasies, the better angels of our society must insist upon our using the best available science and adhering to our democratic values in order to protect and restore Wild Nature. Our Whole Earth, this tiny living outpost in a vast and lonely universe, is our only home. Let’s remember: There is no Planet B.