E. O. Wilson, the 92-year-old Harvard naturalist hailed by many as the world’s modern-day Darwin, said in a recent Reuters interview regarding the start of renewed U.N. climate talks that he believes there is still time for humankind to do what is necessary to avert environmental disaster.
But, said Wilson, that hope depends on doing two important things: preventing catastrophic climate change, and saving biodiversity, or the variety of plant and animal species that populate the planet.
According to numerous studies, species are going extinct at a rate not seen in 10 million years, with approximately one million on the brink. To limit the loss, the United Nations has urged countries to commit to conserving 30% of their land and water - almost double the area currently under some form of protection - by 2030.
The so-called “30 by 30” target is in part inspired by Wilson’s Half-Earth Project. First unveiled in 2016, the Half-Earth plan calls for protecting half the planet’s land and sea so there are enough diverse and well-connected ecosystems to reverse the course of species extinction.
“The point,” said Wilson, “is that human nature has not changed enough. Our strongest propensities of a social nature tend to disfavor the lives of most other species.”
Humanity continues to fill its energy needs by burning materials - coal and oil - left behind by ancient organisms, which increases the destruction of other life forms.
The Group of 20 rich countries, at a meeting preliminary to the 200-nation climate talks, appear to remain divided over phasing out coal and committing themselves to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperature levels.
The G20 nations account for some 80% of global emissions, but big polluters such as China and India have also, thus far, dug in their heels regarding change. India claims that “it’s how much carbon you are going to put in the atmosphere before reaching net zero that is more important” than reducing CO2 emissions to zero by mid-century.
The U.S., Britain and the European Union have agreed to the target date of 2050 to reach net zero, by which point they would only emit an amount of greenhouse gases that can be absorbed by forests, crops, soils and technical devices.
But the problems we face are not confined to energy usage alone. Given the relentless increase of the human population, millions of acres of wild land are annually converted to the production of food to feed people. We humans are literally eating up the lives of thousands of other life forms, as well as destroying the habitat that protects and sustains them.
And, as has been well documented over the past half century, we continue to spew toxic residues into the air, land and water as we go about our busy efforts to create more and more consumer goods and, in the process, make ever-increasing amounts of money.
One of the more ironic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the temporary lowering of pollution levels due to the reduction of human economic activities. This, coupled with restricted travel due to the closing of borders, has actually resulted in a measurably cleaner environment.
While such changes may soon be reversed, Wilson is optimistic that we’ll set aside more space than we have in the past to save the rest of Earth’s threatened life forms.
“It will be one of humanity’s proudest achievements,” he says.
But, he warns, “If we fail to do it, and a large portion of the biological diversity of the world is allowed to be exterminated, for all of the generations to come that carelessness will be regarded as one of humanity’s greatest failures.”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.