Course:CONS200/2021/The Half Earth Project: Goal, Benefits and Criticisms

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The Half-Earth project was proposed in 2016 by E. O. Wilson, calling to protect half of Earth’s land and sea in order to manage enough habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and protect biodiversity[1]. Though its main goal is to preserve wilderness through protected and managed areas[2], there remains notable criticism which makes this project a controversial one. Under the Half-Earth project, there are insurmountable social and economic impacts largely disregarded if not exacerbated [3] [4]. The project itself considers very little for the disproportionate effects on minoritized communities[5], and stands in stark opposition to social progressive movements [2]. For instance, poverty reduction initiatives can be resource intensive, requiring increases in resource consumption. Yet, under Half-Earth, it would logically contradict if not lambast such efforts[4] as being exploitative of Earth’s dwindling and scarce resources.

History of Concept and Project

Wilson's Half-Earth proposal builds on other scholarly work and non-governmental organizations (NGO) visions. Some noteworthy scholars that have researched the relationship between habitat and maintenance of biodiversity or argued how much of earth to dedicate to natural ecosystems, such as Reed F. Noss, John Terborgh, Leona K. Svancara, and William H. Funk[6]. In summary, their work suggested that 25-75% of every region would need strict protection in order to maintain biodiversity, which has lead to organizations such as the Half-Earth Project and Nature Needs Half to conclude 50% of the earth should be conserved. The reason that biodiversity is important, and is therefore a major focus of Half-Earth and the scientific community, is because it has a large influence on biotic interactions whose flows of energy and matter ultimately create ecosystems[7]. Half-Earth shares a similar goal to the Nature Needs Half initiative, which predates Half-Earth[6]. The Half-Earth Project itself was launched by The E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation shortly after Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life was published in order to meet Wilson's ambition[8]. While Paula Ehrlich serves as CEO and President of the foundation, Wilson still plays a guiding role within the foundation as the lead scientist[8].

E. O. Wilson's Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life; The Problem of the Sixth Mass Extinction and How to Fix it

The framework for the Half-Earth Project stems from Edward O. Wilson's book Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life. In summary, what Wilson sees as a major threat facing both the planet and humans is the current rate of extinction of species worldwide[9]. Additionally, Wilson sees the pace at which contemporary conservation is occurring as too slow to ultimately protect a large proportion of species on the planet. The current rate of extinction is largely attributed to humans and is a result of habitat loss, degradation, overharvesting, invasive species, pollution, and climate change[10][6]. Since habitat loss plays a large role in the loss of biodiversity, Wilson mainly focuses on conserving land critical to biodiversity and restoring natural wildlife corridors. Where this should be implemented is rather ambiguous in Half-Earth. However, the Half-Earth organization has begun identifying and mapping ecological "hotspots" (areas with high species diversity and/or richness) with the intent of conveying this information to the public and policy makers to improve biodiversity protection worldwide.

What ultimately plays a large role in the success of Half-Earth Project's success according to Wilson is the pace at which humans can reduce our ecological footprint and at the same time increase our economic intensiveness. This is not by exploiting more, which Wilson dubs the extensive, but being more efficient (for example, higher quality and more efficient equipment, such as washing machines) [9]. With the current rate of technological development, Wilson argues that growth in the human population can be balanced by improvements in biology, nanotechnology, and robotics before our population stabilizes sometime in the twenty-second century. Furthermore, he claims that economies tend to naturally trend towards "greener" trade due to market forces[9].

E. O. Wilson, lead scientist of the Half-Earth Project, and author of Half-Earth. Image by Sage Ross, 2007.

While conservation efforts worldwide have given evidence of restoring and stabilizing threatened species, Wilson argues that the current rate of protection is not enough. In order to bring stability and security to species worldwide, he suggest that the extinction rate of species must be brought back to natural, prehuman levels. In order to achieve this, Wilson proposed Half-Earth; protect half of the planet to achieve security and stability for 85% of the species on earth. Focusing on "diversity hotspots", Wilson argues that more than 85% of species can be preserved.

The Goals and Objectives of Half-Earth

Wilderness Preservation

The Half-Earth project's main goal is to protect approximately half of the Earth's land and sea[1]. The wilderness preservation that this project aims for will primarily be achieved through protected areas. According to a study published recently in Science, protected areas such as national parks, wilderness areas, community conserved areas, and nature reserves are all experiencing declines in their ability to protect nature because of the growth of human activities within them[1]. Protected areas such as these are able to preserve biodiversity as long as they are well-managed. The problem the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation recognizes is that 33% of these protected lands are under “intense human pressure”, thus highly stressing the need for strict protection of these areas with no human involvement as one of their main goals[1]. Currently, only 15% of the globe's land and 8% of our globe's oceans are protected areas[11], and Half-Earth wants to increase these percentages. The creation of these protected area networks will in turn help to reduce biodiversity loss and provide significant contributions to global conservation efforts. Setting aside half of the earth's land and sea will reduce human impact and anthropocentric influences that could have negative impacts on these areas. The minimal disturbance within a network of protected areas wherever possible, especially to maintain the ecological integrity of ecosystems, habitat protection and migration corridors, would serve to increase the overall diversity represented by the network[2]. This solution for protecting half the planet does not necessarily mean dividing the planet into hemispheric halves or any other large pieces of the size of continents, but rather setting aside the largest possible reserves for nature and the species that inhabit them, with little to no human involvement[9]. This proposal of protecting half of the Earth was under discussion in 2019, and was potentially a goal of 50% by the year 2050 declared by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations body responsible for global agreements on protected areas[12].

Conservation Management

Wilson notes in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, that the key to saving one half of the planet is focusing on humanity's ecological footprint. He argues that the ecological footprint will evolve to claim less space as the free market system and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology evolves to manufacture and advertise products that will cost less, with minimum amount of energy and resources. Thus the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation also focuses on management practices such as energy-efficient production that will yield the most product with less per-capita material and energy, thereby reducing the size of humanity's ecological footprint[9].

Another conservation mechanism is the increased education of species and their interactions with their environments. By driving research to better understand interactions between species and their respective ecosystems, the Half-Earth project is providing conservation management leadership by mapping the species of our planet and identifying where we have the best opportunity to protect the most species[13]. By mapping out our planet’s biodiversity in fine detail with relation to human activities, the Half-Earth Biodiversity Foundation is able to pinpoint the best places to conserve the maximum number of species[14]. Through better management practices developing in this current climate, future generations will be better equipped to care for the land and preserve its biodiversity. The Half-Earth project approaches its conservation management style in contrast to that of the socio-economic approach. Unlike this approach where humans are seen as part of the landscape, Half-Earth's goal is to separate humans from half the land and sea.

Mapping Ecological Hotspots Through GIS

Considering the desired scale of the Half-Earth project, the foundation is currently developing a list of ideal areas to conserve. By analyzing aggregates of species over a given area, as well as existing conserved areas and areas of human encroachment, Half-Earth wishes to inform citizens and decision makers alike in order to efficiently conserve biodiversity as much as possible. Consequently, the majority of current remedial actions that the Half-Earth project is taking is mostly in the mapping of various species around the globe. The E. O Wilson Foundation partnered with software company Esri, a company specializing in ArcGIS technology, to map species distribution with a 1 kilometre resolution within 5 years (starting in 2019)[15]. To date, there are two interactive map found on the Half-Earth Project's website, one of which shows data of biodiversity through either the lens of richness or rarity throughout the globe, while the other map provides "priority places for biodiversity"[16].

The Benefits of Half-Earth

The Half-Earth project aims to protect half of the Earth's land and sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet[1]. While the Half-Earth Project is considered to be quite an ambitious project, it does provide several benefits to the ecosystems and our environment. By protecting 50% of Earth’s natural habitat, it could lead to the protection of up to 85% or more of Earth’s species from extinctions[6]. This means that at least one half of life on Earth will be in the “safe zone”[6]. Setting aside half of the Earth's land and sea for conservation with minimal human disturbances will also help to increase the overall species diversity on the planet. By maintaining the ecological integrity of the ecosystems and protecting the habitats of many different species, endangered and vulnerable species can gradually recover and thrive in the wilderness and regain a foothold in the ecosystem without any disturbances from the outside world[2]. A number of scientists also believe that the Half-Earth Project could work together with the Paris Climate Accord to reduce global warming (Ellis, 2020)[17]. By protecting habitats and the carbon they hold (Ellis, 2020), the Half Earth Project could be a solution to the significant global warming problem we are facing today[17]. The research done by the Half-Earth Project also helps to guide researchers by identifying the most rewarding places for species discovery in the future[13]. By mapping the distribution of species across the globe, the Half-Earth map provides researchers with the locations of all the ecological hotspots on Earth[14], which can be referenced to for the discovery of new species in the future. Overall, the Half-Earth project helps to promote the acceleration of biodiversity discovery and provides humans with a chance to learn more about “the little things that run the world” (E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, 2017)[13].

Criticisms of Half-Earth

To the proposal’s credit, there are various salutary effects of the Half-Earth project, but there are also insurmountable social and economic impacts that are not thoroughly examined or are overlooked [4].

A major critique of the Half-Earth project has its premise on the project’s contradiction with social justice. The proposal advocates the “wilderness myth”[18] in its belief that there was once a wilderness or nature that constituted as a “pristine sanctuary”[18] while several authors have argued the contrary and the idea of there being something called “wilderness” being a false concoction[18] [19] [20]. According to scholars, in its extreme form, the Half-Earth proposal could act as a form of “conservation fortress”[5], which may consequently end up displacing communities from their ancestral lands and deny them access to vital resources to which they may rely on or have relied upon in a symbiotic fashion for generations[3]. The most notable impact has been on Indigenous communities, where they are commonly annexed and removed from their lands.

There are currently over 1 billion people who reside in areas designated as protected areas pursuant to the Half-Earth proposal[21]. Given the foregoing, the deleterious effects disproportionately disadvantage minoritized communities[21]. In fact, it has been argued that such disadvantageous patterns have already been exhibited in developing countries where states generally allocate protected areas or rights to extraction in ways that in some shape or form that will inevitably benefit the state[22]. Particularly in areas with resources considered to be highly valuable, we tend to see the disenfranchisement of local communities or forced and arbitrary coercion by the state to seize control over people and resources[22]. In Kenya, the erection of national parks and wildlife reserves and resources by the state has witnessed the minoritization of traditional users of lands in Kenya. For example, the coerced transformation of community lifestyles coupled with meagre compensation that has largely been insufficient for such alterations in lifestyles has not been an uncommon phenomenon[22]. Similarly, fortress conservation has been reported to lead to the minoritized bearing the brunt of the negative consequences of conservation with respect to economic costs[23]. As various forms of activities that could have been considered to be traditional monetary resources, such as “grazing, cultivation, hunting, and extraction of timber, fuelwood, medicinal plants, and other resources”[23] are strictly prohibited or heavily regulated inside protected area boundaries, it can result in heavy opportunity costs for those living in areas designated as protected areas[23].

Another deeply problematic aspect of the project has been its designation of half of the Earth in a sort of dispassionate form by way of labeling all human-beings as sharing equal blame and responsibility for biodiversity crises[24]. However, this way of thinking commonly disregards historical, geographical, and geopolitical contexts and realities. Likewise, it tends to disregard and discount class divisions, conflicts, colonialism, or historical injustices[24]. For instance, some have claimed that it would be an erroneous conflation of Standing Rock Sioux (an Indigenous tribe fighting to protect their lands and resources) with Nestle, Shell, H&M, or any other groups similar in extractive and pollutive nature as entities worthy of sharing equal blame for our climate crisis[4]. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking commonly erase a history in which particular groups have lived symbiotically with nature or were stewards of their lands.

Lastly, a more critical question to answer has been whether or not protected areas in general are as efficacious as their proponents may propose? Under Indigenous-managed lands, it has been recorded having greater biodiversity than in protected areas[25]. As well, land and forests under the management and protection of Indigenous groups have even outperformed areas under the protection of the International Union for Conservation of Nature[26]. Likewise, a large proportion of wildlife in Kenya and Namibia, 65-80% and over 90%, respectively, are located in areas outside the confines of formal places officially designated as protected areas[23]. Most importantly, designated protected areas have not been able to reduce human pressure on natural resources, which has been the core tenet of conservation efforts[27]. Although, the aforementioned does not suggest that protected areas have no benefits.There has been evidence, though sparse, that protected areas “can be and often do contribute to the persistence of biodiversity”[27]. Available data has shown that while protected areas are losing forest coverage, relative to areas outside of protected areas, the loss has been less[27]. The critiques by scholars of the conservation fortress method tends to serve as impetus and calls to and for the re-evaluation of the relationship local and Indigenous communities have with nature, and the value of their knowledge and leadership that could be incorporated in bolstering conservation strategies as opposed to their exclusion.

While environmental initiatives like the Half-Earth are laudable in that they seek to address pressing environmental dilemmas on a grand scale, environmentalism should not be devoid of social justice considerations or consideration for deleterious effects that could result from such initiatives. Social justice has been found to correlate with positive environmental outcomes[28]. Therefore, to only pursue environmental objectives without thought for social justice can actually stymie environmental protection and lead to growing socioeconomic disparities.


The Half-Earth project has its foundation in principles that are key elements to a branch in the field of conservation. Protection of wilderness and promotion of biodiversity through protected and managed areas that places stringent limits on resource usage and extraction are not novel ideas of Half-Earth. Though, what differentiates Half-Earth from others are its more ambitious pursuits of conservation. Paying homage to research that have suggested the need for more drastic measures, coupled with the organization’s leadership’s belief that modern conservation has not grown at sufficient pace with ecological threats, there needs to be bolder and more progressive conservation mechanisms. As E.O. Wilson postulates, a "human effort commensurate with the problem" is necessary[29]. Thus, the Half-Earth project was born, advocating for the conservation of 50% of the earth by way of establishing protected areas covering half of the Earth where the aforementioned areas are sans humans. Identifying, rehabilitating and protecting areas with high biodiversity value en masse are important aspects of conservation and environmentalism. Ecologically, Half-Earth has the potential to stop the sixth-extinction while maintaining a large array of species that are alive today. Not only does the project ostensibly safeguard species biodiversity, but it has been recognized as an olive branch for humans by way of combating looming and present environmental catastrophes. Furthermore, by acting as a compliment to current environmental initiatives, Half-Earth could help dampen the effects of climate change. Scientifically, Half-Earth could identify areas of interest that should be explored further to better understand life on Earth and it could ensure the continued survival of species.

While the goal of Half-Earth may be commendable, there are critics who point out that the project has not thoroughly examined the potential drawbacks of its goals. For example, if Half-Earth was implemented, it would likely have serious socioeconomic repercussions. Minorities, such as Indigenous communities, would likely be disproportionately effected, and there is a great potential that Half-Earth could discount or erase land management traditions that have historically been symbiotic with the local ecosystems. Furthermore, considering that there is an increasing notion that protected areas may not be the best method for conserving life on Earth, the trade-off in both ecological and economic terms may not be worth it. Not to mention that separating "wilderness" from humanity might have serious consequences for how humans perceive nature over the long run.


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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Mun-Ying Mardell, Jack Liu, Jeffrey Ma, Bennett Wardman. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.
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