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Whole Earth: How the Other Half Lives

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.

Distinguished man with gray hair and wearing a blue suit smiles in an official setting.
Dr. E.O. Wilson headlines an event at U.S. Capitol Hill, hosted by Wildlands Network and partners. Photo: Peter Hershey

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.

A large white bear straddled by two smaller bears, standing on a pebbled beach
A view of the entire round Earth from space

The resilience of life on Earth and the wellbeing of humanity depend upon a Whole-Earth approach to preserving a healthy biosphere. Photos: NASA (left) and Susanne Miller/USFWS

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.

Kim stands in a boat, with two other boats flanking him. The boats are filled with various river boating gear.
Kim Crumbo. Photo: Paula MacKay

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.

A brown bear stands in a river with a salmon in its mouth
America’s public lands protect myriad wildlife, like this brown bear at Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo: Robert Long

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

A blue and white planet from space, half of it in shadow
Home. Photo: NASA

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.

Pinker wrote:

[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.

9 thoughts on “Whole Earth: How the Other Half Lives

  1. TRUSTING WILDNESS is not about partisan politics. Blaming Republicans for the dumbing-down and domestication of non-human otherness is discrediting and counter productive. The great challenge for defenders of wild nature is to move beyond our own fears of the unpredictable and the unfamiliar. Boundaries (naming and taming) are based on mistrust and a need to control. Political parties create boundaries.

  2. Well said, Kim. Onward! Not to some mythical planet B, but with the Whole Earth Strategy.

    The recent March for Our Lives demonstrates the power we have to do this. Here in conservative Utah, 8000 people – the largest rally in Utah history, I believe – was organized by high school students using social media. High school students spoke at the rally with wisdom and foresight and passion. And although the issue of the day was guns, I think it goes a lot deeper than that, for guns are not the only threat to our lives and we know it. So one reason for conditional optimism is our youth, whose hopes for a livable world depend upon informed political engagement.

  3. Beautiful essay, Kim! While I agree with Mr Gipple that wildness is not about partisan politics, I chuckle at and appreciate your satirical pokes at the Republican Party — at a time when their leaders have forgotten that conservatives are supposed to be conservationists. More central to your argument, your plea for advocating a Whole Earth strategy is wise and needed. I embrace the Half Earth goal as a necessary minimum; but how sad and tragic if we let the other half be a sacrifice zone. I vote for a world of big wilderness and small gardens, as one of our esteemed colleagues aptly put it years ago. That, of course, will require that we compassionately address the human overpopulation crisis.
    With you for all our neighbors, wild and human
    John Davis, The Rewilding Insitute

    1. Overpopulation of humans and overconsumption by humans. Moving beyond our practice of animal domestication would be a giant step toward reducing the human footprint and rewilding Earth. TRUSTING WILDNESS frees both the enslaved and the enslaver.

  4. John and Ross,

    I appreciate the feedback.

    The fundamental principle for this evolving “Whole Earth” perspective is that there should be no “sacrifice areas.” A tall order, to be sure, but necessary, and more discussion and action on this front is required. Conservationist can’t do it alone and hence the need for the Better Angels with social progress mandates to continue their efforts

    By 2030, approximately 5 billion of the earth’s current 7.2 billion humans will live in cities. Cities produce up to 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, use up vast quantities of water, degrade water quality and produce mountains of waste. “As cities go, so goes the planet” (McDonough 2017).

    Clearly, the imperative remains to make cities more efficient, substantially less energy intensive, and more desirable to live and work in. Another tall order, but doable.

    Regarding the peril human overpopulation presents the Earth’s diversity of life, humans included, we are left we few options. War, plague, genocide, for example, would marginally reduce human populations with the well-documented, catastrophic effects on humanity, let alone biodiversity. That may well come to pass, but let’s consider another option more consistent with our hopes and values.

    In his recent NYTs op-ed, Eugene Linden points out that “an important approach to sustaining biodiversity and human well-being is through actions that can slow and eventually reverse population growth: investing in universal access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, advancing women’s education, and achieving gender equality (emphasis added).”

    Obviously, the current administration in conspicuous cahoots with a republican-dominated congress, is actively undermining the US effort to assist in this effort.

    Pinker, in his “Better Angels…” tome points out the amassed evidence “that when women are given access to contraception and the freedom to marry on their own terms, they have fewer offspring than when the men of their societies force them to be baby factories…[and] “that giving women more control over their reproductive capacity…may be the most effective way of reducing violence in the dangerous parts of the world today. But this empowerment often must proceed in the teeth of opposition from traditional men who want to preserve their control over female reproduction, and from religious institutions that oppose contraception and abortion” (page 688).

    Crist: “Excessive consumption is, indeed, the major factor impinging on the biosphere. Humanity is using Earth excessively both as source (for land cultivation and grazing, freshwater, wild fish, bushmeat, fossil fuels, wood products, and so on) and as sink (for nonabsorbable wastes such as trash, nitrogen, pesticides, confined livestock manure, plastic, and industrial chemicals). Stabilizing and lowering our numbers globally— noncoercively [emphasis added], through the exercise of reproductive rights—is a strategy for scaling down consumption on all fronts.”

    I strongly urge all of us to figure out how integrate the “other half” approach in our efforts to rescue Planet Earth.

    Kim Crumbo

    Linden, Eugene. 2017. Remember the Population Bomb? It’s Still Ticking. June 15, 2017. New York Times.

    McDonough, William. 2017. How Cities Could Save Us. Scientific American 317(1):44-48.
    Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. London: Penguin Books. 802 pages

  5. Thanks to Kim Crumbo for this excellent and thoughtful essay. I do have issues with Anthropocene concept. Anthropocene implies equal responsibility of all humans for ecological degradation. We (humans) are not like microorganisms in a Petri dish headed for overshoot. For example, some humans have a much larger carbon footprint than others. Donald Trump bears much more responsibility for ecological degradation than a poor family in Appalachia or Bangladesh. Perhaps Capitalocene or Industrialocene, but not Anthropocene.

  6. Thanks for your organized thoughts on this Kim. “Half,” though, seems inadequate. I think Wilson is referring to the terrestrial part of Earth, but the even bigger urgency is below the sea’s surface that is hidden out-of-sight, out-of-mind. In 1992 at the world environment summit in Rio, I heard José Lutzenberger, first environment minister of Brazil, refer to the idea of natural parks and reserves as an “abomination.” After a collective gasp from the audience he explained that we have it backward. We should be declaring specifically outlined areas of disturbance for human use. All the rest should remain functionally (ecologically) intact.

    Our global challenge is to mainstream an ethic of moderation. The Swedish culture of Lagom is a beautiful concept of how a population embraces it. OK, so we are not all Swedish. But there are economic (perhaps “survival’ is a better word) mandates for long term utility of limited resources. Ismail Serageldin talked about the three fundamental forms of capital held by a nation. Human, Natural, and Social. The extent that its people invest in these determines the prosperity of that population.

    So how do we move in that direction? You point to education. Particularly of young women. There is probably no longer lever on earth.

    Evaluation of the evidence, Pinker’s observations notwithstanding, causes a sense of panic among the conservation community. That panic is not servings us well. We shout shrill warnings from the rooftops. And nobody listens. The sky may be falling, but it’s falling so slowly that we are collectively complacent about it. The trick, I believe, is not in scaring or threatening ourselves into reasonableness, but removing obstacles along the path. We humans do what is easiest.

    I think we need to change the message. Rather than “we’re all going to die” we need to show how long term, large landscape planning with good local governance results in great outcomes. There are cases. Cape Town, is in dire straights right now with its water supply. However, Nairobi has seen enormous gains from thoughtful watershed management that improves agriculture upstream and water quality and quantity downstream.

    We can tell that story with a smile.

    1. Joe,

      Great to hear from you! No, you don’t have to be dead to legendary, but it is safer.

      To your points. E.O. Wilson includes the oceans in his “Half Earth” plea. “We can go from 10 percent to 50 percent coverage, land and sea… and this includes the necessity of accommodating people living within those reserves. Any proposal to massively increase the protected land and sea is going to have to take into account what most people consider primary to their hopes and intentions” (Mingle 2015).

      According to the World Data Base on Protected Areas (WDPA) there are more than 120,000 covering more than 8 million square miles. Protected areas cover about 13 percent of the terrestrial planet, and about six percent of oceans. It’s only a start, to be sure, but it is worth remembering. It’s also worth remembering Barack Obama advice to “reject the notion that we’re suddenly gripped by forces that we cannot control.” Pinker’s advice that the fact that many measure of environmental quality are improving (his case for this is thoroughly presented in his Better Angels of Our Nature) does not mean that everything is OK, that the environment got better by itself or that we can just sit back and relax. I’ve found his “conditional optimism” helpful, if not essential, pragmatic advice on saving our planet, not to mention getting up in the morning.

      So, to paraphrase Tolkien’s Samwise there’s some good in this world, goddamn it… and it’s worth fighting for…with a smile when possible.

      Thank you again for your help on this.

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