Improving The Lives Of The Poor And Disadvantaged With Nature

LUISA RIVERA / YALE E360

Thanks to Carl Safina for this opinion:

Protecting Earth: If ‘Nature Needs Half,’ What Do People Need?

The campaign to preserve half the Earth’s surface is being criticized for failing to take account of global inequality and human needs. But such protection is essential not just for nature, but also for creating a world that can improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged.

Must nature and civilization be opposing interests? Is nature conservation anti-people? What must be preserved to preserve what needs preserving? Is there a single path that can reverse the three crises of apocalypse: the extinction crisis, the toxics crisis, and the climate crisis? Sixteen ecologists, including me, think the answer to that last question is yes. We explain why in a recent ideas-driven paper. Our overall position is the title: “Protecting Half the Planet and Transforming Human Systems are Complementary Goals.”

The premise of the paper, published last month in Frontiers in Conservation Science, is that greatly expanded protections of wild things and wild places and major downsizing of humanity’s footprint are crucial to stabilize climate and stanch species losses (now estimated at a rate around 1,000 times historic norms).

The paper takes its title mainly from E. O. Wilson’s idea (and book of the same title), Half-Earth. Wilson argues that the continuity of complex life depends on protecting about half our planet’s surface from the likes of us — industrialized people. (Presently, around 15 percent of the Earth’s land surface and 5 percent of the ocean surface have various levels of protective designations, ranging from no-take protection to sustainable use.) Of course, protection can seem misanthropic. And so the idea has drawn many critics. The new paper seeks to answer the critics and advance the idea.

The paper explicitly propounds that increasingly used phrase, “Nature Needs Half.” Critics of this paper and its related literature believe it is more crucial to first ask what people need, how much of the world must be set aside for human endeavors and to fix human inequities.

And this gets me to the part of the paper that I’ve come to view as problematic. It’s about semantics. The phrase “nature needs half” derived as sort of a pop-marketing slogan from Wilson’s concept of “Half-Earth.” But “nature needs half” strongly implies a nature-versus-humans dichotomy. “Nature” itself is a problematic term, positioning humans as apart and opposed to nature, and implying that this dichotomy is factual. Plus, our culture has centuries of familiarity with the concept, “Man against nature.” This is the paradigm humanity has pursued across much of the world, especially the Westernized world of today’s globalized economy. So talking about the needs of “nature” seems a perpetuation of the dualistic thinking that got us these ecological crises. “Nature needs half” seems to pit the concept of conserving Life against what humans need. It seems an engraved invitation to criticism, helping polarize lovers of “nature” and people focused on social justice…

Read the whole essay here.

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