Printed: 2020-07-09

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Split the Earth: 50% for Humans, 50% for Protected Biodiversity Zones

Alex Lightman

Ethical Technology

June 21, 2015

The Sixth Mass Extinction is upon us.

Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich has been studying extinction for decades; he published Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of Disappearing Species in 1981. Since that time Ehrlich has seen numbers that indicate the rate of extinction - of vertebrates, including mammals - is increasing.

The “normal” rate of extinction is now estimated to be 200% of what was previously calculated. In the current period of mass extinction - the first one since dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago - the rate is 15 to 114 times above the ‘new normal’, which was already severe enough. 

“When the Last Tree Is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realize That You Cannot Eat Money.” [1]

Humanity gets billions of dollar worth of free or nearly free assistance from dozens of species, including honey bees and other pollinators, as well as birds that eat mosquitos and other insects that already outnumber humans by orders of magnitude and are kept in check as part of a more or less stable ecology. You would think we’d want to keep them around. China is already spending money pollinating flowers by hand in regions too polluted for bees, and it adds to costs.

What can be done to reduce the hyper-accelerated rate of extinction?

If we agree that we have to reduce the rate of extinction for humans to survive, then extreme measures are called for. To engage the majority of all humans on earth in this goal, the plan has to be simple, fair, and SMART (specific, measurable, realistic, and timely).

We learn as children that if we are going to split a piece of cake with someone the reasonable thing to do is split it in half. One person determines where to draw the dividing line, and the other determines which piece they want.

One modest proposal to reduce extinction is to examine where humans live, and where the biggest areas of contiguous wilderness that support complex life are, particularly rainforests, wetlands and coral reefs.

Give half of the planet’s land to humans, and turn the other half into protected biodiversity extinction deceleration zones.

Famed Harvard Professor E. O. Wilson (author of books about ants and other important living creatures, including Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge) is an expert observer of the many links in the chain of life. Wilson supports this simple, bold plan to give half the earth’s surface to the 10 million+ other species as a natural preserve without human presence, and constrain humans to living on the other half. Wilson has gone on record in Smithsonian Magazine with his support for what he calls “Half Earth.”

I would add to the core idea a few points.

Just as we conduct a census each decade in the US to more nearly apportion members of Congress to districts relative to population, we should also do a detailed global census of species to determine if the rate of extinction is increasing or decreasing. If the rate of species collapse continues to rise, then another 2% percent of earth should be added to the natural preserve, as well as half of the oceans, which would be off limits to fishermen, toxic waste dumpers and others, allowing nature a chance to survive the extinction event.

An obvious objection is, “Where will the people go?” 

It might be hard to believe, but humans could easily fit into half the earth with vast spaces still left over. In fact, the entire human race could fit in New Zealand, which has about 3.5 million people, and still have NZ’s population density be less than Manhattan (which still has Central Park and other greenspaces).

Species loss will only decelerate if areas given to non-human species are protected. An episode of the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously” had actor Harrison Ford travel to Indonesia, where he saw national park land being logged and burned. Ford confronted the responsible minister and criticized the minister on camera for not doing his job. The minister threatened to have Ford deported, but the damage to Indonesia’s reputation was done, and the government (appeared to) give more protection.

There is a benefit to designating half the planet’s area off-limit to humans. People are moving to cities more and more, and population density is increasing as a result. It was only very recently that over 50%, of humans were living in cities – 2007, according to a UN study published to coincide with World Poverty Day. Zoning limited areas has the benefit of making the zoned areas more valuable, and cities have advantages in allowing for savings of time, money and living by allowing greater sharing of resources, especially in the age of Uber, Air BnB, and other apps that let people have just-in-time loans of capital equipment.

How do you get people to move?

We were all at one point in or around Tanzania, so it’s obvious that we move to where there is food, warmth, and greater survival opportunity. We get people to move by crafting a vast array of incentives and disincentives, and we create new and novel national parks. 

A form of government used in part in past republics and empires is “Timocracy” - government that encourages and rewards gifts made by the wealthy for the benefit of the whole city. In the Roman empire, wealthy men who desired more status would pay for bathhouses and libraries and roads that could be used by the public. We could create parks by having wealthy people and corporations pay for the land and donate it.

What’s the alternative? Going extinct. There is a saying that the prospect of being hanged in the morning tends to focus the mind. Humanity is indeed going to be hanged in the future, unless we focus our minds on a solution.

Today in the US it’s Father’s Day, a day when many reflect on why they had or did not have children, and what sort of world they want their children and their children’s children, to inherit. This article is the start of a necessary dialogue, presenting one possible answer.

[1] this quote is usually attributed to Alanis Obomsawin, a Native American in the Abenaki tribe

Alex Lightman is a graduate of MIT and attended graduate school at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Brave New Unwired World (John Wiley, 2002), the first book on 4G, and Reconciliation: 78 Reasons to End the US Embargo of Cuba (Social Universe, 2010). He was the recipient, on behalf of 4G, of the inaugural Economist magazine Reader's Award, for "innovation most likely to radically change the world, 2011 to 2020" in Oct. 2010.


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