Book review of “Half Earth” by E.O. Wilson

We cannot abdicate our responsibility to act wisely, July 6, 2016
By John Matel
This review is from: Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Hardcover)

This book is beautifully written. It is erudite & detailed in describing the wonders of the natural world. You realize that you are in the presence of greatness when you read Wilson’s words. All these things cleverly hide the fact that Wilson is wrong when he goes after what he calls the “new conservationists.” He very effectively proves, and demonstrates with stunning examples, that nature is complex and that humans do not now and probably never can adequately understand the relationships within even simple ecosystems. He goes on ostensibly to advocate humility when presuming to manage nature. So far, so good. But his attack on the “new conservationism” is an extrapolation not supported by the evidence Wilson presents.

Wilson writes in such detail because he loves his subjects and wants to add interesting literary vignettes, even if they are often beside the point. But I don’t believe he is unaware of the of the rhetorical value. These vignettes show his deep knowledge. Wilson wants you to think something like, “This guy knows so much more than I do. He must be much smarter than I am and I should accept his conclusions.” All this detail produces an impressive high wall designed to keep you from seeing the logic hole at the base.

As the title implies, Wilson advocates that we give over around half the earth to nature. He heaps significant vitriol on those he labels “new conservationists,” scientists and naturalists who love nature but think that nature cannot be separated from human influence and so must be managed at least to some extent. The attack, however, is not on the ideas of the new conservationists but on a caricature. Wilson mentions some of the new conservationists by name. It would be useful for readers to look them up and get their point of view first hand. Among his most prominent targets is Peter Kareiva, from the Nature Conservancy, whom Wilson treats as an apostate for recognizing the need for humans to be involved in the management of nature in ways that benefit both nature and humanity. Wilson then goes on to advocate a very much human managed nature. He just calls it something else and would manage to make it unprofitable for human intervention and so unsustainable in the real world.

Wilson advocates protecting and restoring key ecosystems. This is great. But he is fixated on the world before humans or in some cases before modern humans. He wants to set the clock back. This cannot be done completely, but to the extent that it is possible it takes massive human intervention. We cannot erase the last ten thousand years. There exists no ecosystem on the planet unaffected by humans. Wilson acknowledges this, but then ignores it. Even if an ecosystem could be completely isolated from humans (which Wilson, paradoxically does NOT advocate. He would have humans as visitors and observers using technology) human influence could never be excluded.  It is carried in the seas and in the air itself. The genie is out of the bottle. All of earth’s systems are affect by human influence climate change. Most are affected by factors such as nitrate deposition. Invasive species have already gotten through the gates and usually cannot be extirpated (Wilson specifically and repeatedly rejects novel ecosystems.) In short, nobody can restore an ecosystem to what it was at the end of the last ice age or what it was in 1066 or 1607. But we CAN restore and create sustainable ecosystems. This is a noble and good task. Wilson is foolish to reject the good we can achieve in pursuit of what he considers perfect, but is impossible.

Among the ecosystems Wilson nominates for restoration and subsequent preservation is the longleaf pine biome of the American South. (This is something I very much appreciate. I am personally restoring longleaf to some of my land in Virginia.) Wilson completely misses the point that the longleaf ecosystem was, is and will be a human-created paradise. He understands and mentions the key role of fire in maintaining the pine savanna, but mendaciously refers to the fires are “lightning sparked.” Some fires were started by lighting, but Native Americans set most of them. If want to restore longleaf, we need humans to fight invasive species and set the woods on fire every few years. Nature left on its own will not produce longleaf savannas over the wide areas they once occupied. It is true that logging eliminated much of the ecosystem but lack of fire prevented it coming back. If we rely on nature today, we can forget about longleaf as known in the past.

Wilson’s commitment to improving the environment and his love of nature are evident and laudable. Reasonable people share his goals. His proposed solutions, however, are unlikely to achieve what he wants. Wilson seems offended that humans dominate the earth and we can understand his emotion. But humans DO dominate the planet and the choice is not whether or not to manage nature but whether to manage well or poorly.

We often use the term stewardship in relation to nature. Wilson uses the term in his book. Consider what it means to be a steward, what stewards do. They do not merely guard the walls and keep hands off what goes on inside. No, good stewards make thoughtful decisions today that will shape tomorrow. In natural systems, the best decisions are those that work with ecological processes, decisions based on knowledge, experience and continual learning. Observe – participate – reflect – observe … repeat. We can be good stewards only if we accept the idea that stewards have the responsibly to make decisions, not just fence off the property and let it go.

Read the book for the beauty of Wilson’s descriptions. Understand his legitimate passion. But do not accept his conclusions.

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