Getting to Half
On a cold, buckety boat ride early one morning near the top of North America, through a forest that looked endless and only kept on getting bigger, I got to thinking that maybe Henry David Thoreau was only half right when it came to his famous and still-ringing cry that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Yes, wildness is the answer, but people are missing. Given the state of the planet, if Thoreau were around today, I imagine he’d go the next step and say that “in the People of the Wild is the preservation of the World.” Because it is going to take a lot of people to preserve what’s still wild, to restore what was once wilder, and to remedy a great calamity in the world.
As a direct result of humanity’s destructive actions on the landscape, 1 million species of plants and animals are likely to go extinct, many within the next few decades. A 2019 global assessment, 1,500 pages long, compiled over three years by 145 scientists from fifty countries, makes clear that this mining and undermining of the natural world imperils a millionth-and-first species as well: us. We are “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” the lead scientist said, leaving only a “very limited” time to turn things around. This deepening emergency, the biodiversity or biocide crisis, was—in pre-COVID-19 days—sometimes referred to as the other environmental crisis, to distinguish it from global warming, the damage done to the air, the water, and the climate.
This book is about a way to stave off the mass extinction crisis by keeping life alive.
The idea is to protect far more natural land than any country or continent has in history. According to the World Bank, North America is less than 15 percent protected; the goal is 50 percent over the next thirty years (50 by ’50). This may sound unimaginable, preposterous, impossible—in a word, outlandish (literally). It took 150 years after setting up Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, to protect almost 15 percent of the continent, and the challenge now is to work at a pace at least twelve times faster.
Though this plan of action is wildly ambitious, I realized on that boat in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and elsewhere on other travels in North America, that it is not only doable but is already being done as individuals and groups take it up quietly, bit by bit, in larger and smaller pieces. These people are building on a century-long history of 50 by ’50 thinking and are adopting many different approaches—lots of heroes here, many of whom you will meet in these pages, and an upbeat spirit I’ve had the pleasure to encounter again and again. Here in North America there’s still room to spare, and 50 by ’50 can move ahead without crowding or displacing or confining anybody because human activities (cities, suburbs, farms, mines, and all the rest) so far account for less than 40 percent of the continent.
At heart it comes down to how to share the earth with other species, and how much of the landscape not to change.
According to a calculation by E. O. Wilson, America’s foremost biologist, protecting 15 percent of the land only guarantees the survival of a quarter of the species with which we now share the earth. But push that figure up to 50 percent of land and sea, and up to nine-tenths of species will survive. How many species are there? Estimates vary tremendously, from 8.7 million species big enough for us to see, and up to 2 billion or even 1 trillion when you include microspecies, the tiny things we can’t see, bacteria and fungi—and far more still if viruses are also counted.
Warning: 50 by ’50 is by necessity a bittersweet project. It’s a situation where “happily ever after” has to have an asterisk after it. Because of habitat devastation and global warming, some species will be lost no matter what. But the sooner progress can be made, the less regret there will be to carry forward.
There’s another layer to 50 by ’50, something happening inside people, not just around them. Only about 570 people have had a chance to leave the earth and look back at it, either from the moon or the International Space Station or an orbiting spaceship. Some of them, like NASA astronaut Ron Garan, who spent six months on the ISS, have talked about the experience as life-changing. In “Overview,” a video posted on Vimeo that’s had more than 8 million views, Garan says, “When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also at the same time looks extremely fragile.”
Another NASA astronaut in the video, Jeff Hoffman, who’s logged 1,211 hours in space and is now an MIT professor, says, “You go outside on a clear day and it’s the big blue sky, and it’s like it goes on forever,” and yet from space, “it’s this thin line that’s just barely hugging the surface of the planet.” Garan calls it “really sobering” to see how paper-thin this living layer of the planet—the biosphere—is, realizing it’s the only thing “that protects every living thing on earth from death, basically.” In 1969 Michael Collins was on Apollo 11, the first spacecraft to land on the moon. Fifty years later Collins spoke to The New York Times about his view of the earth: “I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” Frank White, an American writer on space exploration, calls this new understanding “the Overview Effect.” This book is also about opening up to the Overview Effect while still down below.
It isn’t so much that we have an affinity for the rest of life, though we do. It’s that when danger threatens, it threatens all alike. Here, in the biosphere, a place that has sheltered life for 3.5 billion years, every species shares the same precarious circumstances. More than seven hundred years ago, the Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote, “Because of necessity, man acquires organs. So, necessitous one, increase your need.” In the twenty-first century, need will keep us on our toes at every moment.
In many ways, the mass extinction crisis and the climate crisis are inseparable in the Boreal Forest, since its trees are at once bird rich and carbon rich. Billions of songbirds and shorebirds, some from as far away as South America, come there every spring to nest. The forest and its soil store (“sequestration” is the technical word) billions of tons of carbon that if released into the air would accelerate the warming of the earth. Which is why the Boreal has two nicknames: “North America’s bird nursery” and “the Fort Knox of carbon.” The North American Boreal Forest, mostly in Canada, partly in Alaska, is the largest and most intact wildness left in the world. On my boat ride in the Boreal I was merely bumping through a gigantic sliver of its breath-catching immensity.
How big is it exactly? Details don’t really do it justice when you’re in the middle of it way up north, where everything seems bigger anyway, more ancient and undiminished, a place where you’re always face-to-face with overarching ecological, hydrological, biological, and atmospheric patterns. But here are a few details: at about 3,700 miles long, the Boreal is a thousand miles longer than the distance from New York to Los Angeles, and north to south (top to bottom) it’s up to a thousand miles thick, and altogether it takes up almost as much space as three-quarters of the Lower 48 states. Most essentially, this is a peopled wilderness, and has been for thousands of years, its health and abundance maintained, managed, and participated in by more than six hundred Indigenous communities.
I was with some of these people on the boat. Two of them happened to be not just Steves but Steve Ks. The first was a frequent visitor to the Boreal—Steven Kallick, an environmental and human rights lawyer from outside Chicago, who now lives in Seattle and is the director of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign. For twenty years he’s been helping build an unexpected—because, really, who would’ve guessed it?—bicontinental approach to land conservation that has Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories and across Canada cooperating with Aboriginal allies nine thousand miles away in the Australian outback. A century and a half after Yellowstone, people along this still practically invisible British Commonwealth axis are inventing a post-Thoreauvian, “plus-one” kind of national park, wildnesses that permanently embrace all their plants and animals—plus their human inhabitants. Who (it bears repeating) never left.
The idea here is that these Indigenous Protected Areas, or IPAs, can be set up more quickly than conventional national parks, and they’ll be staffed by Indigenous Guardians, paid for by the government, rangers-from-within who already have intimate knowledge of land they’ve grown up caring for, people who can see the forests and the trees and how they work together. Yellowstone was created by taking land away from Native Americans, so this is something else that sets IPAs apart. These parks will never be set up by stripping landscapes from the people who were there first and have looked after them since.
The other Steve K was Stephen Kakfwi, a national figure in Canada. He is a Dene (an Indigenous word meaning “the people”) from a village just south of the Arctic Circle and a former premier of the Northwest Territories, which is a little like being governor of a U.S. state. He spent sixteen years as a provincial cabinet member, and he’s a former president of the Dene Nation, an organization that’s been protecting the rights of the Dene people for fifty years. He’s also a folksinger and songwriter; a few days earlier he’d performed live on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio show, accompanying his North Country ballads on a harmonica and guitar. Kakfwi wears his long graying hair in a ponytail, and Kallick resembles a ginger Santa going gray.
The two Steve Ks had come together to talk about what they referred to as the “big chance” for safeguarding the Boreal—an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the launching of IPAs immediately and over the next ten years throughout the last forest left with more undisturbed areas than any of the other great world forests. Siberia, the Amazon, the Boreal—the Big Three, as they are sometimes known—are all about the same size. But in Siberia 60 percent is cut over, and so is more than 20 percent of the Amazon, where the rate of deforestation is spiking. The Boreal is nearly 85 percent intact, and the ecosystems of this little-known faraway place continue to do indispensable work on the planet’s behalf.
In 2017, toward the end of his life, Stephen Hawking predicted that the earth would become uninhabitable within the next one hundred years, forcing humanity to find a new home. But at this point there’s no other option for anywhere else to live: of the more than four thousand planets we’ve found orbiting other suns in the Milky Way, only about twenty are suitable for earth’s life-forms, and the closest is more than four years away, traveling at the speed of light. To quote climate activists, there is no Planet B. There were 7.8 billion people on Planet A as of 2020, and the population probably won’t start shrinking until 2100, when it will peak at about 11 billion, but the bulk of that growth will arrive between now and midcentury. There’s got to be room for the newcomers, too.
Some people think we’ve already protected the land worth protecting, and anyway there’s no need to protect more, since human ingenuity will invent a way out of any crisis. Others find the idea pointless and in vain since we’re an inherently destructive species. But in the midst of these doubts, protecting land and sea to save species is gaining unprecedented attention. In 2021, the 196 countries that make up the Convention on Biological Diversity will set a global goal of safeguarding 30 percent of the continents and oceans by 2030. Indigenous people can play a central role in managing another 20 percent, according to a 2019 report, “A Global Deal for Nature.” One North American conservation group calls itself Nature Needs Half. E. O. Wilson helped set up the Half-Earth Project. (“Half Earth” is a phrase I came up with while talking to Ed, and he used it as the title for one of his books on the subject.)
So often we turn to the language of war when talking about the environment—the fight to save this, the battle to save that. Even the most prominent Half Earth proponents do this, as I found when I met up with Wilson several years ago in Florida. In the Florida Panhandle, Wilson and I sat on the deep porch of a guest cottage, a house that had half gallons of butter pecan ice cream in the freezer, a Wilson favorite. It was one of those Overview Effect moments, as Wilson’s mind ranged far afield, fortified by butter pecan, a conversation that inspired my trip to the Boreal. He talked about taking conservation to the next level—something he thought wouldn’t happen without a fight, which he relished. “Battles are where the fun is,” he told me, “and where the most rapid advances are made.”
Wilson has seen his share of battles. The author of more than thirty books, he is known as the father of sociobiology and hailed as the champion of biodiversity. His now widely accepted theory of island biogeography explains why even large national parks lose species if they’re cut off from surrounding landscapes that could let new animals wander in. (Biogeography is the study of what lives where.)
Wilson grew up in and around Mobile, Alabama, and though he’s been at Harvard for more than sixty years, he still refers to himself as a southern boy who came north to earn a living. He is courtly, twinkly, soft-spoken, has a shock of unruly white hair, and is slightly stooped from bending over to look at small things all his life—he’s the world’s leading authority on ants. By the time I met with him, Wilson had earned more than 150 awards and honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Now his most urgent task has become a quest to refute skeptics who think there isn’t enough left of the natural world to save. “It’s been in my mind for years,” Wilson said, “that people haven’t been thinking big enough—even conservationists.”
On the porch, looking out on a lush longleaf pine forest, we took an eons-long view, going back through the 544 million years since hard-shelled animals first appeared. During this time there’s been a gradual increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity probably coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe sixty thousand years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished. Wilson himself says a “biological holocaust,” a sixth extinction, is still possible, and also still preventable, depending on the choices we make now and in the next few decades. “Half Earth is the goal,” he told me, “but it’s how we get there, whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang on to.”
Copyright © 2021 by Tony Hiss. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.