Esteemed evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson believes the only way we can avoid a catastrophic mass extinction is to set aside half of the planet in permanently protected areas for the 10 million other species who live on Earth. Wilson calls the concept "Half Earth" — and he says its not as outlandish as it might appear.

Photo: Jason Wallace

Back in 2002, E. O. Wilson argued that a bottleneck of overconsumption and poverty could lead to the extinction of half of all species on Earth. It's a theme that he reprises in his new book, The Meaning of Existence, but this time he has a solution.

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It's called the half-Earth concept, and it's an idea Wilson shares with a number of other ecologists. It would involve giving vastly more surface area of the Earth to the rest of the plant and animal kingdom. He says we're taking up far too much of the planet and systematically eliminating a large part of the remaining species.

National Geographic recently interviewed Wilson, who had this to say about the prospect:

Now we come to the solution, which I'm developing fully in a book that will come out toward the end of the year. I'm not trying to sell the book. I just wanted to say that, yes, this has matured to the point where it can be presented systematically. Simply put, half to us, half to the other eight million species. Of course you'll say, Oh, but that's impossible! We're still increasing in numbers. We're breeding and multiplying—that's human nature, and we're not going to stop it.

According to United Nations estimates, the population will peak at about ten billion by the end of the century and then begin to come down. There are also reasons to argue that the digital age, and the spearpoints of industry and the economy, indicate that the amount of space needed by each human is going to shrink a great deal. This will free up territory for the other species.

The way it could be done is to take the remaining wildernesses of the world, on both land and sea, and set those aside as inviolate, while we go on with our chaotic and unpredictable, destructive future. Safeguard the rest of life until we settle down.

The big task is to settle down before we wreck the planet. There are large enough sections of wilderness or near wilderness, and there are procedures for protecting them that can work. This is especially true of the sea. Deep, blue-water reserves, along with the coastal shore waters, can easily be divided into inviolate areas. Marine ecologists believe that endangered species would then multiply back rather quickly. This is practicable. And I think we should at least start seriously considering it as an alternative.

Interesting, right? But wow, what a massive political, social, technological, and logistical challenge this would be.

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Regrettably, Wilson is wrong when he cites United Nations projections about stabilizing populations. He's using old data. The latest research suggests that the world's population will continue to expand well into the 22nd century, and that even natural disasters or war won't be enough to stop it.

But he's right when he says that our collective ecological footprint is set to decrease over the coming decades. Once it's down to manageable levels, humans won't require much living space. We seem to like collecting ourselves in large cities, anyway. One of the main challenges as I see it, however, is reducing the ecological footprints of emerging nations. Disseminating these technologies to all the world's people will be a monumental challenge.

Further, as a resource-crazed civilization — whether it be trees or oil — we'd have to resist the temptation of grabbing whatever we want from Wilson's preserved areas. Petro states like Canada and Russia won't be too happy to see huge swaths of their territory set aside for nature.

And what about those people who live in these areas? Would they be forced to relocate?

But that's not to say these are intractable problems. They're political problems, and an issue of collective will.

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What's for certain, however, is that it's a far better solution than the one proposed by environmentalist James Lovelock who suggests we use the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production to store in tropical forests and other habitats "in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers." He thinks we can keep people away from sensitive areas by creating a bunch of radioactive Chernobyls around the planet.

Read the entire interview at National Geographic.