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A Wholesome Plan to Protect Half the Earth

Conservation Biologist Dena Spatz reflects on the Biodiversity Days Conference and the “Half-Earth” project sparked by scientist E.O. Wilson.

By: Dena Spatz

During the first week of March, 2017, I joined hundreds of people at the “E.O. Wilson Foundation’s Biodiversity Days Conference“. The theme for the event was “Half-Earth”, a call to action to save the natural world. The event consisted of two days of lectures, keynote speakers, round table discussions, and films addressing why, where, and how the Earth can be protected to save biodiversity. Among them were scientists, filmmakers, journalists, teachers, philanthropists, economists, and even superstars, like Paul Simon, who played a live version of The Sound of Silence juxtaposed with a backdrop of some of our world’s most distinctive and invaluable species.

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Paul Simon playing at the Biodiversity Days Conference. Credit: Christopher Sims/E.O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

The idea of Half-Earth was first published in the spring of 2016 and subsequently launched at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress by E.O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University, recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and the “father” of sociobiology and island biogeography. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life is Wilson’s 32nd book and his ultimate manifesto. In the midst of a mass extinction crisis, Wilson draws from his theory of island biogeography to predict how much habitat we would need to protect to safeguard biodiversity. With this insight, he calls for the commitment of protecting half the planet’s surface area to conserve the majority of our world’s species.

island conservation chart

In Sierra Magazine, Wilson says:

The declining world of biodiversity cannot be saved by the piecemeal operations in current use. It will certainly be mostly lost if conservation continues to be treated as a luxury item in national budgets.

Wilson drives home the urgency of the matter, that we need to face our global biodiversity crisis immediately. “Later is now officially over,” stated journalist Tom Friedman, who presented on the nexus between biodiversity loss, climate change, and the human refugee crisis.

Yet, in a breath of optimism, Wilson believes there is still time if we act now to slow and perhaps even end the extinction crisis by enacting the Half-Earth initiative. Moreover, Wilson believes that people need a psychological victory in our overwhelmingly dark political and social world:

We stay afraid if the enemy is still at the gate, if bankruptcy is still possible, if more cancer tests may yet prove positive. It is our nature to choose large goals that, while difficult, are potentially game changing and universal in benefit. To strive against odds on behalf of all of life would be humanity at its most noble.

The three modes of action spelled out by the Half-Earth program are:

  1. Research – species discovery, mapping biodiversity, identifying priority areas for protection.
  2. Engagement – outreach, education, technology
  3. Leadership – knowledge dissemination to global leaders and governments

To reach the first goal, the E.O. Wilson Foundation reached out to Island Conservation. Islands represent an obvious conservation opportunity—they contain more unique biodiversity per square mile compared to continental areas, and a disproportionate number of these species are also threatened with extinction. With strong global partnerships, we’ve collaborated on a global knowledge product and decision support tool, the Threatened Island Biodiversity Database, a dataset of threatened island species at risk form invasive species.

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This tool highlights the islands where biodiversity can be protected and we can identify the conservation options that go along with those islands. For example, about 40% of islands with globally threatened seabirds have a threatening introduced species (such as rats or feral cats), yet these damaging invasives can be removed using current conservation tools to avoid imminent seabird extinctions. By also establishing protected areas on many of these islands (only 20% have established legal protections), we can ensure the long-term benefit of conservation actions, which would also help the world march towards E.O. Wilson’s protection goals.

What’s more, the Threatened Island Biodiversity Database hosts data on human habitation and island land-use, which can be used to identify where local communities may also be at risk from invasive species through the loss of important ecosystem services, such as in food or economic security, and where conservation actions will play a critical role for people as well as for safeguarding biodiversity (for example, on Floreana Island in the Galápagos).


Floreana Mockingbird. Credit: Bill Weir

I was delighted to have the opportunity to represent Island Conservation at this motivating event. I met Ed Wilson himself, who praised the organization for having turned a theory about ecological island communities into a means of protecting island biodiversity.

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Dena Spatz, E.O. Wilson, Royden Saah, and Paula Ehrlich.

I also met many people from across the United States who are already directing their life’s work to meeting the half-earth goal. Jeff Sachs, economist, author, director of The Earth Institute, and special adviser to the United Nations, spoke to how we can lead and engage the global community to make sustainable development choices to protect biodiversity and human livelihoods, together. Ignacio Jimanez of the Tompkins Foundation is working with governments in South America to protect massive amounts of land area in Argentina and Chile.

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Jeff Sachs and E.O. Wilson. Photo: Chris Sims / E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

It was a positive event, full of ideas and hope, despite the harsh reality of an unfolding mass extinction event.

I was fortunate to be face-to-face with a diverse crowd united by a single goal: to protect and conserve biological diversity for future generations, and to represent Island Conservation, an important contributor in the race against extinction.

island conservation preventing extinctions biodiversity days half earth

Attendees of the Biodiversity Days Conference. Credit: E.O Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

Featured photo: Juvenile Red-footed Booby on Lehua Island, Hawaii. Credit: Patty Baiao/Island Conservation

About Dena Spatz

Dena holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and anthropology and earned her MA and PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

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