"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Rewilding and Preserving the World


Rewilding and Preserving the World
Setting aside half the Earth for ‘rewilding’: the ethical dimension





A much-anticipated book in conservation and natural science circles is EO Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which is due early next year. It builds on his proposal to set aside half the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity.

The famous biologist and naturalist would do this by establishing huge biodiversity parks to protect, restore and connect habitats at a continental scale. Local people would be integrated into these parks as environmental educators, managers and rangers Рa model drawn from existing large-scale conservation projects such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica.

The backdrop for this discussion is that we are in the sixth great extinction event in earth’s history. More species are being lost today than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs. There is no mystery as to why this is happening: it is a direct result of human depredations, habitat destruction, overpopulation, resource depletion, urban sprawl and climate change.

Wilson is one of the world’s premier natural scientists – an expert on ants, the father of island biogeography, apostle of the notion that humans share a bond with other species (biophilia) and a herald about the danger posed by extinction. On these and other matters he is also an eloquent writer, having written numerous books on biodiversity, science, and society. So when Wilson started to talk about half-Earth several years ago, people started to listen.

As a scholar of ethics and public policy with an interest in animals and the environment, I have been following the discussion of half-Earth for some time. I like the idea and think it is feasible. Yet it suffers from a major blind spot: a human-centric view on the value of life. Wilson’s entry into this debate, and his seeming evolution on matters of ethics, is an invitation to explore how people ought to live with each other, other animals and the natural world, particularly if vast tracts are set aside for wildlife.


The ethics of Wilson’s volte-face


I heard Wilson speak for the first time in Washington, DC in the early 2000s. At that talk, Wilson was resigned to the inevitable loss of much of the world’s biodiversity. So he advocated a global biodiversity survey that would sample and store the world’s biotic heritage. In this way, we might still benefit from biodiversity’s genetic information in terms of biomedical research, and perhaps, someday, revive an extinct species or two.

Not a bad idea in and of itself. Still, it was a drearily fatalistic speech, and one entirely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility to the world of nonhuman animals and nature.

What is striking about Wilson’s argument for half-Earth is not the apparent about-face from cataloging biodiversity to restoring it. It is the moral dimension he attaches to it. In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.




The half-Earth proposal prompts people to consider the role of humans in nature. jene/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


To my ear, this sounds great, but I am not exactly sure how far it goes. In the past, Wilson’s discussions of conservation ethics appear to me clearly anthropocentric. They espouse the notion that we are exceptional creatures at the apex of evolution, the sole species that has intrinsic value in and of ourselves, and thus we are to be privileged above all other species.

In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature’s only value is what it can do for people – extrinsic value.

For example, in his 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, Wilson argues for “the necessity of a robust and richly textured anthropocentric ethics apart from the issues of rights [for other animals or ecosystems] – one based on the hereditary needs of our own species. In addition to the well-documented utilitarian potential of wild species, the diversity of life has immense aesthetic and spiritual value.”

The passage indicates Wilson’s long-held view that biodiversity is important because of what it does for humanity, including the resources, beauty and spirituality people find in nature. It sidesteps questions of whether animals and the rest of nature have intrinsic value apart from human use.

His evolving position, as reflected in the half-Earth proposal, seems much more in tune with what ethicist call non-anthropocentrism – that humanity is simply one marvelous but no more special outcome of evolution; that other beings, species and/or ecosystems also have intrinsic value; and that there is no reason to automatically privilege us over the rest of life.

Consider this recent statement by Wilson:

What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

The non-anthropocentric view does not deny that biodiversity and nature provide material, aesthetic and spiritual “resources.” Rather, it holds there is something more – that the community of life has value independent of the resources it provides humanity. Non-anthropocentric ethics requires, therefore, a more caring approach to people’s impact on the planet. Whether Wilson is really leaving anthropocentrism behind, time will tell. But for my part, I at least welcome his opening up possibilities to discuss less prejudicial views of animals and the rest of nature.


The 50% solution



It is interesting to note that half-Earth is not a new idea. In North America, the half-Earth concept first arose in the 1990s as a discussion about wilderness in the deep ecology movement. Various nonprofits that arose out of that movement continued to develop the idea, in particular the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the Wild Foundation.

These organizations use a mix of conservation science, education and public policy initiatives to promote protecting and restoring continental-scale habitats and corridors, all with an eye to preserving the native flora and fauna of North America. One example is ongoing work to connect the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystems along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.


Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife. British Columbia Ministry of Transportation, CC BY-NC-ND


When I was a graduate student, the term half-Earth had not yet been used, but the idea was in the air. My classmates and I referred to it as the “50% solution.” We chose this term because of the work of Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider’s 1994 book, Savings Nature’s Legacy. Amongst other things, the book documents that, depending on the species and ecosystems in question, approximately 30% to 70% of the original habitats of the Earth would be necessary to sustain our planet’s biodiversity. So splitting the difference, we discussed the 50% solution to describe this need.

This leads directly into my third point. The engagement of Wilson and others with the idea of half-Earth and rewilding presupposes but does not fully articulate the need for an urban vision, one where cities are ecological, sustainable and resilient. Indeed, Wilson has yet to spell out what we do with the people and infrastructure that are not devoted to maintaining and teaching about his proposed biodiversity parks. This is not a criticism, but an urgent question for ongoing and creative thinking.

Humans are urbanizing like never before. Today, the majority of people live in cities, and by the end of the 21st century, over 90% of people will live in a metropolitan area. If we are to meet the compelling needs of human beings, we have to remake cities into sustainable and resilient “humanitats” that produce a good life.

Such a good life is not to be measured in simple gross domestic product or consumption, but rather in well-being – freedom, true equality, housing, health, education, recreation, meaningful work, community, sustainable energy, urban farming, green infrastructure, open space in the form of parks and refuges, contact with companion and wild animals, and a culture that values and respects the natural world.

To do all this in the context of saving half the Earth for its own sake is a tall order. Yet it is a challenge that we are up to if we have the will and ethical vision to value and coexist in a more-than-human world.


What does it mean to preserve nature in the Age of Humans?

Can we take responsibility for an increasingly human-driven planet? (Photo by Mark Klett) Witness to Sunrise, Muley Point, Utah., CC BY-NC-ND




Is the Earth now spinning through the “Age of Humans?” More than a few scientists think so. They’ve suggested, in fact, that we modify the name of the current geological epoch (the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago) to the “Anthropocene.” It’s a term first put into wide circulation by Nobel-Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in an article published in Nature in 2002. And it’s stirring up a good deal of debate, not only among geologists.

The idea is that we needed a new planetary marker to account for the scale of human changes to the Earth: extensive land transformation, mass extinctions, control of the nitrogen cycle, large-scale water diversion, and especially change of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases. Although naming geological epochs isn’t usually a controversial act, the Anthropocene proposal is radical because it means that what had been an environmental fixture against which people acted, the geological record, is now just another expression of the human presence.

It seems to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for nature preservationists, heirs to the American tradition led by writers, scientists and activists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. That’s because some have argued the traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.

Given this situation, we felt the time was ripe to explore the impact of the Anthropocene on the idea and practice of nature preservation. Our plan was to create a salon, a kind of literary summit. But we wanted to cut to the chase: What does it mean to “save American nature” in the age of humans?

We invited a distinguished group of environmental writers – scientists, philosophers, historians, journalists, agency administrators and activists – to give it their best shot. The essays appear in the new collection, After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans.

Getting the chronology right, it turns out, matters less than we might think. The historian J R McNeill recounts the difficulty in fixing a clear start date for the Anthropocene. (Should it coincide with the late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions? The rise of agriculture? The birth of the industrial era in the 19th century? The mid-20th century uptick in carbon emissions?) Wherever we peg it, McNeill argues, the future of nature preservation in America will increasingly be shaped by environmental traditions more congruent with notions of a human-driven world.


Is humanity now ‘too big for nature?’ (Photo by Mark Klett) Trails of Weekend Explorers, near Hanksville, CC BY-NC-ND


It’s a view shared by ecologist Erle Ellis. We’ve simply “outgrown” nature, Ellis argues, and so we have to become more comfortable within the “used and crowded planet” we’ve made. Andrew Revkin, author of the Dot Earth environmental blog for the New York Times, sounds a similar theme, arguing that the whole idea of “saving” a nature viewed outside the human presence is an anachronism. What we need instead, he suggests, is to focus on restoring a bipartisan politics able to cope with the challenges of living in and managing a human-driven world.

But all this talk of a more human-driven world and a species that is now “too big for nature” is dismissed by wilderness activist Dave Foreman, who spies a dark future awaiting us if we continue on the current path. Foreman condemns the vision of the “Anthropoceniacs” who he argues are promoting nothing less than the technological takeover of life on the planet. We need to remind ourselves, he writes, “that we are not gods.”

The need for humility courses throughout After Preservation. But it’s joined by an equally strong plea for pragmatism and more intelligent control. As science journalist Emma Marris writes, the desire to restrain ourselves in nature may ironically prove self-defeating if it means we can’t intervene to prevent present and future species extinctions. The biologist Harry Greene echoes this view with his manifesto to “rewild” the Anthropocene by actively introducing cheetahs, elephants, camels and lions to North America as proxies for the long-lost megafauna of the Pleistocene. It’s a rebooting of the wilderness idea – or maybe a wilderness 2.0 – for the technological age.

Regardless of how the Anthropocene debate plays out, environmental science and policy experts Norm Christensen and Jack Ward Thomas remind everyone how hard it is to implement whatever we want on the ground without unexpected consequences. Thomas, a former chief of the US Forest Service, describes how the unpredictability of ecosystems can result in cases in which the preservationist agenda becomes complicated as ecosystems change in surprising ways (for instance, when an unplanned growth in the barred owl population starts to displace the protected northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest).


The Anthropocene has become an environmentalist Rorshach. (Photo by Mark Klett) Computer Monitor Washed Down Stream by Flood Waters, Salt River, CC BY-NC-ND


Much of the discussion of the Anthropocene must hinge on values. But many of our authors conclude that it also needs grounding in a deeper and more nuanced understanding of history. As historians Donald Worster and Curt Meine point out, even if purist notions of the wilderness may no longer be realistic in the Anthropocene, it would be a grave mistake to jettison our environmental traditions and the commitment to protecting as much wildness as we can.

Even so, many suggest that nature conservation will have to evolve in order to reflect a more diverse constituency, an urban population not well served by the older preservationist values and images. Or, as ecologist Michelle Marvier and The Nature Conservancy’s Hazel Wong sum it up, “Move over, Grizzly Adams.”

The debate wasn’t settled at the end of After Preservation but we didn’t expect it to be. The argument has deep roots, as the writer and climate activist Bill McKibben reminds us in his coda to the book. And in one way or another, pragmatists and preservationists have been at odds since the birth of the American conservation movement in the late 19th century. The Anthropocene debate is only the most recent replaying of this enduring struggle.

What way forward? We think John McPhee probably got it about right nearly forty years ago in his memorable portrait of modern Alaska, Coming into the Country:

Only an easygoing extremist would preserve every bit of country. And extremists alone would exploit it all. Everyone else has to think the matter through – choose a point of tolerance, however much the point might tend to one side.

Our hope is that After Preservation will help us choose that point of tolerance as we puzzle through the environmental ethos of the Anthropocene. We’ve little choice: it’s going to be a challenge confronting the meaning and work of nature preservation for some time to come.
 

93 Percent of the Great Barrier Reef Is Practically Dead

Climate change is destroying Earth’s largest coral ecosystem

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

 




The Great Barrier Reef — the largest living structure on Earth — is dying as a result of El Nino and climate change.

This week, scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies completed an extensive survey of the iconic reef and found that 93 percent has been impacted by the most severe coral bleaching event on record. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before,” Terry Hughes, convenor of the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, said in a statement. “In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once.”

Coral bleaching is a phenomenon in which stressed corals expel algae and turn white. If not given time to recover, bleached corals can perish.


The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, and extends more than 1,400 miles. It consists of some 3,000 individual reefs and is home to more than 100 islands.  

Of the 911 reefs surveyed, only 68 — 7 percent — escaped bleaching, while between 60 and 100 percent of corals are severely bleached on 316 reefs, according to Hughes. 

In an interview with National Geographic, Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch program called the situation “extremely depressing.”

“Having such a large area of the [Great Barrier Reef] affected this severely by bleaching, especially in the northernmost region, where the corals are least affected by local human impact, is very troubling,” he said.

ARC’s Andrew Baird said in a release that north of Port Douglas, roughly half of bleached corals have died, and at some individual reefs the mortality rate is “likely to exceed 90 (percent).”

While the forecast is bleak, scientists say communities can help by reducing local threats, including pollution, sedimentation and unsustainable fishing practices. 

“To solve the long-term, global problem, however, we need to better understand how to reduce the unnatural carbon dioxide levels that are the major driver of the warming,” according to Jennifer Koss of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.






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