Half-Earth: Can we protect half of our planet?

Standing alone on the stage of the Carolina Theater with only his guitar, singer Paul Simon slowly strums “America,” his lyrics underscoring the night’s messages of searching, longing and hope within the scientific community and the country as a whole. As the audience stands in applause, Simon reappears on stage, preparing to sing an unexpected encore to the night’s events.

As he begins his final song, “The Sounds of Silence,” stunningly vibrant images of animals, birds, fish and insects flash across a giant screen behind him. The photographs, images from National Geographic’s Photo Ark project, emphasize the main message of the evening: There is an urgent need to protect the biodiversity of our planet. Slowly increasing in frequency and speed, the images of the world’s species vanish as quickly as they appear, the sequence coming to a close as Simon’s song ends.

As part of “Biodiversity Days,” a two-day event organized by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, the Nicholas School of the Environment and other partners,  I attended a lecture at the Carolina Theater featuring a talk by E.O. Wilson himself, world-renowned ecologist, conservationist, and good friend of Paul Simon. Wilson, whose lifelong achievements include a U.S. National Medal of Science, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (ecology’s “Nobel Prize”), gave a lecture about his most recent book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life.

Half-Earth explores Wilson’s idea that in order to to prevent a mass-extinction of the world’s species, half of the planet must be protected. His theory, which encompasses both terrestrial land and the world’s oceans, stems from his research on island biogeography that has shown a correlation between island size and the number of species it can sustain (you may remember this chart from an ecology class).

If “Half-Earth” protection is achieved, Wilson estimates that 85 percent of the world’s species would be saved from extinction.

But currently, only 15 percent of the world’s land area and 3 percent of the world’s oceans are currently protected. Is increasing these numbers to 50 percent a realistic goal?

E.O. Wilson thinks so, but admits that it won’t be easy. He emphasized the importance of continued (and urgent) exploration of ecosystems in order to set baselines for degradation, recognizing the need to push back against the idea that ecology is an outdated or “dying” field. He spoke to the need for innovative science education that capitalizes on children’s innate desire to explore and discover, and reiterated the fact that most people, when introduced with the idea of protecting biodiversity, are in support.

Panelists at the event, who included John Seager, Thomas Lovejoy, and Louie Psihoyos (Academy Award winning director of The Cove), answered the audience’s questions on tangible ways to help protect our planet. Prominent suggestions included eating a plant-based diet and contacting your representatives about environmental issues.

Surrounded by my Nicholas School classmates and members of the Durham community, E.O. Wilson’s words, Paul Simon’s lyrics, and the images from Photo Ark will stay with me for a long time. Biodiversity is crucial for the health of our planet and humankind, and innovative strategies must be urgently used to protect it.

 

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