The Earth is about 3.8 billion years old, and has experienced five great extinctions of plants and animals. The last took place about 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
In the words of biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, the asteroid impact “rang the planet like a bell,” causing volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, acid rain and a tsunami that raced across the globe. Soot in the atmosphere blocked sunlight and brought on a prolonged cold. Seventy percent of the Earth’s species disappeared forever, including the last of the dinosaurs.
Wilson is among many scientists who believe that Earth is now undergoing a sixth great extinction, with countless species declining or already gone. But this time humans are to blame.
In his newest book “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” the Pulitzer Prize winner and former Harvard University professor argues the only way to stop a sixth great extinction – and save humanity at the same time - is by preserving half of the planet for nature. This includes both oceans and lands.
“Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker,” writes Wilson. “Our population is too large for safety and comfort. Fresh water is growing short, the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish and fungi.”
Wilson builds a case that man’s relentless consumption of land and resources is destroying habitats and depleting the Earth’s biodiversity. There are more than 2 million known plant and animal species on Earth, and more than 6 million others thought to exist but not yet identified.
It’s projected that if we remain on the same course, 70 percent of Earth’s animals and plants will disappear in about 300 years. Because the web of life is interconnected, the loss of so many of these species could lead to the collapse of all but a few.
Wilson applauds the global conservation movement but believes conservation efforts must be raised to a new level: “The only solution to a ‘Sixth Extinction’ is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater.”
Is this feasible? Does humanity have the will, discipline and ability to set aside that much land and ocean in undisturbed reserves?
Wilson sees great hope in humanity’s ability to shrink our “ecological footprint” through advances in technology. Trends like teleconferencing rather than commuting, growing food in indoor vertical gardens under LED lights, online medical consultations, e-books replacing paper publications, online shopping and trade, and armchair travel through remote webcams all slow humanity’s spread and allow more room on Earth for nature.
He also believes that the world’s population will level off at 9.6 to 12.3 billion by the end of the century, and then drop as families increasingly choose to have fewer children. “In every country where women have gained some degree of social and financial independence, their average fertility has dropped by a corresponding amount through individual personal choice,” he observed.
It’s not enough to preserve land for human purposes like recreation and agriculture. Conservation efforts must include biodiversity as a goal. It’s critical to preserve wildlands and marine environments for the express purpose of protecting the diversity of life. Wilson also advocates restoration of damaged lands back into habitats for wildlife.
Through this combination of preservation, restoration and declaring large areas of ocean off-limits to fishing, Wilson said, it’s possible for Earth’s diversity of species to recover.
Here in New Jersey, we’re working on doing our part! About a third of New Jersey’s land is preserved, another third is developed and the remaining third is up for grabs. Our state has a permanent - though limited - source of land preservation funding, and many preserved lands provide habitat for rare plants and animals. But much more is needed and it’s critical that this state we’re in continues to preserve our own biodiversity, which is incredible given our state's small size.
Individuals can help too. We can elect officials this November who care about climate change, energy efficiency and saving biodiversity. We can contact our Congressional representatives and ask them to support increased funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. We can donate to conservation groups that protect land and biodiversity. And we can fill our yards with native plants that help native insects, birds and wildlife.
Let’s hope that bold actions like preserving half of the Earth’s biodiversity take hold and inspire all of us to take action.
To learn more about Half Earth, go to Wilson’s website at https://eowilsonfoundation.org/half-earth-our-planet-s-fight-for-life/.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at email@example.com.
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