Editor’s note: Lydia Strohl is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. More of his work can be found here. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the author. See more opinions on CNN.
When I first learned that October 22 marked Half-Earth Day, I thought it was because the date was six months before Earth Day. (True.) But it has a message of its own.
Half-Earth is the idea that for humans to survive, we must conserve Earth’s declining biodiversity by reserving half the planet for nature, stabilizing vast tracts of ocean, grassland, rainforest, and of desert to harbor the birds, insects and ecosystems that affect the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe. Not to mention the economies, cultures and hobbies that sustain us.
The Half-Earth project was inspired by legendary Harvard biologist EO Wilson, who died in 2021 at the age of 92. In “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, Wilson wrote: get out as quickly as possible from the feverish swamp of dogmatic religious beliefs and inept philosophical thinking in which we still wander. Unless humanity learns much more about global biodiversity and acts quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species that make up life on Earth.
It means us the people, which Wilson calls a “lucky accident of late Pleistocene primate evolution.”
Not a particularly happy accident, perhaps, for planet Earth. Since 1970, the world’s population has doubled to nearly 8 billion. And over those five decades, monitored wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69%, warns the recent Living Planet report, a World Wildlife Fund study of the abundance of species around the world (some species of vertebrates; others are difficult to track). Freshwater populations were the hardest hit, declining by 83% during this period. One million plant and animal species, out of the estimated 8 million, are in danger of extinction.
It’s time to change our habits, to using at steward earth resources. People cannot thrive at the expense of nature. Latin America has seen a huge 94% decline in species populations. Meanwhile, deforestation for crops and livestock, legal and illegal mining and logging, development and devastating wildfires have contributed to a 20% loss of the Amazon rainforest – an area the size of France. This affects not just the 350 indigenous communities and the countless species of plants, animals and insects that live there, but all of us, as the 400 billion trees that make up the Amazon rainforest produce about 6% of the oxygen of the earth.
What makes humans more comfortable on earth now threatens the planet: energy, food production, habitat growth and commercial development. These are all systems that Wilson believed needed to be redesigned. But just as the problem is ours, so is the solution.
To get people to action, Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, thinks it’s important to talk about what matters to them, citing health care, clean air and jobs. Morris spoke at a recent Half-Earth Day conference hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, bringing together government, community, corporate and conservation stakeholders like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon and supporters like the Bezos Earth Fund. “Governments aren’t going to move until people move,” Morris said.
The issues are thorny, however: even ambitious efforts can provoke Mother Nature. “The biggest threat to Virginia’s forests is solar energy,” Morris said, referring to clean energy projects that are supposed to eliminate thousands of acres of trees. “We can be smart where we put solar and wind power…in a way that doesn’t harm biodiversity,” Morris added.
The Half-Earth Project examines growth through the lens of nature, with tools that map the richness and scarcity of wildlife populations as well as human pressures and existing protections, in hopes of illuminating both preservation and development. I compose their online map to my community, close to the screaming orange urban mass of Washington, DC, but dotted with green conservation areas established by public and private authorities.
The EO Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory – located in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, once decimated by civil war and other human ills – provides a blueprint not only for rebuilding biodiversity, but also for training new biologists and conservationists. the environment. The Half-Earth Project also involves Indigenous communities – who have traditionally balanced human needs with nature – in their programs, bringing together past and present, to work together on a sustainable plan for our future.
While the first Earth Day was held in 1970 to celebrate conservation efforts, Half-Earth Day is more of a cautionary tale. Whatever your beliefs about climate change, that is clear. We lose the white tip sharks and the fierce harpies, the inspiration for “Fawkes” in the Harry Potter films. Gone is the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent whose habitat, food source and nesting sites have been eradicated by unprecedented storms and flooding. You may never see a pink dolphin, but the interplay of plant, animal and insect species sustains us.
To tackle a problem of this magnitude, we all need to – from those who sit in governments and boardrooms to our own kitchen tables – come together. Too often, the “solutions” are opposed to administrations with their own political agendas. “Meanwhile, we are struggling, horribly driven, with no particular goal in mind other than economic growth, unfettered consumption, good health, and personal happiness,” Wilson wrote. He placed his faith in nature, and so should we.
“We have to listen to what the birds are telling us. We’ve lost three billion birds in my lifetime,” says Elizabeth Grey, CEO of Audubon, who is in her 50s. “Birds are sentinels for healthy land and water – if the birds are in trouble, so are the people.”
The canary sings. Listen, before his voice calms down.