Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life

Wilson, Edward

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

  • Date of entry: Aug-15-2016
  • Last revised: Aug-15-2016


This short but complex book assesses the many, current risks to all life on earth and considers some avenues for repair that may provide hope for the future. E. O. Wilson, a distinguished scientist, describes how all life on earth is inter-related. With a long view to the past and a wide view of the present—from microscopic creatures to humans—Wilson praises our planet’s biodiversity and warns of the dangers that may cause it to collapse; these dangers are human-related. Humans are an apex predator, smarter than all other creatures, but we are also too numerous, using too many resources, and causing various pollutions, including global warming. The health of the world and the health of all its creatures—humans included— are, for better or worse, interlinked forever.   
A Prologue warns that we are playing an “end-game” with the earth. To avoid a point of no return from mass extinctions, Wilson proposes a bold plan of setting aside one-half of the earth in reserve in order to stabilize the survival of humans.  

Part I, “The Problem,” describes the damage to our planet, on a par with the Yucatan asteroid 65 millions years ago, the so-called Fifth Extinction. We live in a narrow biosphere threatened by dying species, invasive species, collapse of interdependency, pollution of air, land, and water, loss of the commons, overhunting, human population growth, and outright habitat destruction (including the many impacts of climate change). He states, “the Sixth Extinction is under way” and “human activity is its driving force” (p. 55).   

Average time for recovery from each of the five previous extinctions is 10 million years. 

Self-centered humans do not understand the vast complexity of nature, including the many species not yet studied. He imagines far-distant geologists observing, “What a terrible time it was for people, and for the rest of life” (p. 9).  

Part II, “The Real Living World,” criticizes some conservationists who see nature in service to humans. Wilson says we are not owners of nature but stewards. He describes the abundant life of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a typical seashore as well as the extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Wilson contacted “eighteen of the world’s senior naturalists,” asking for suggestions for the “best reserves” to shelter “plants, animals, and microorganisms” (p. 135). Fifteen pages lovingly describe their recommendations of 33 places around the world. He concludes that “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can still be saved!” (p. 136).  

Part III, “The Solution” states, “The only solution to the Sixth Extinction is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater” (p. 167). Wilson reviews crises of water and food, and he warns against “self-inflicted disaster” that could wipe out most species by the end of this century. He provides two examples of restoration projects, the long-leaf pine lands in Florida and Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. He believes the population bulge to ten billion people will be temporary.            

Wilson rejects geo-engineering of the oceans or the atmosphere as well as a proposed use of a passing asteroid. He argues that synthetic biology has promise for improving our brains for moral reasoning and ecological understanding. We need altruism (all working for all) and biophilia (deep love of nature).


This book is important and powerful in many ways. It spells out the enormous risks to the planet and the dangerous synergy of the various causes, most of them human-related. Unchecked, these causes will reach “a point of no return.”

Wilson, a wide-ranging thinker, combines scientific knowledge, ethical wisdom, and affective appreciation for nature in all its beauty and complexity. The book places humans in the context of nature: we are embedded within it and not its master. 

Although Wilson is a specialist in ants, he argues against reductive subject matter and techniques with tight focus and work methods that avoid wider concepts and methods. Scientists should take a wide view of nature in space and time.  

There are three solutions suggested.  First, we should follow the precautionary principle and not take ill-considered risks; this makes sense. Second, synthetic biology may help the human brain improve; this is highly speculative. Third, the half-earth reserve could save our biodiversity. This is an attractive and instructive concept but difficult to  imagine in reality, given the limits of governments, competition of countries, leaders, armies and terrorists, also business interests and poachers.
In Appendix I, Wilson suggests that the World Heritage Foundation (UNESCO) may be a suitable manager of the Half-Earth solution; he cites examples of cooperation and cultural change to help the environment.   

This rich book praises the many wonders of nature. Wilson has a huge range of knowledge of creatures around the world, on or below land, in fresh and salt water, even in the air above. Further, his purview goes back in time, noting that many species have gone extinct before, but some have evolved (and/or given room) to new species. The current rate of extinction is, however, many times larger, and the total reserves of DNA are dwindling.  
Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy with their floods in New Orleans, New York, and New Jersey, the spread of Zika and other viruses, the rise of oceans, and increasingly hot temperatures in the U.S. and globally--all these suggest that trouble is here now and will surely increase in the future.  Can humans take preventive action?

The book is a pleasure to read because of its majestic style, clarity in presenting complex topics, and authoritative knowledge. There are also bits of personal memoir, humor, even some satire.
There are 22 elegant illustrations facing the frontispiece and each of the chapters. These show shells, bats, birds, snakes, sea creatures, insects, plants, fungi, birds, and mammals from around the world, some now extinct. From the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, these celebrate the forms and elegance of their subjects.   Well designed, the book is pleasurable to hold in the hand and read, even though the information and analyses are daunting. 

Primary Source

Liveright Publishing Corporation


W. W. Norton & Company

Place Published

New York



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