Colonial Ecologies of the Half Earth

April 6, 2022

The movement to conserve half of the Earth’s land and waters is gaining momentum. What kind of world would result if it succeeds?

In the abandoned mine lands of south-east Ohio, where I grew up, extractive capitalism has permanently altered the land and polluted its ecosystems. The region is in the foothills of Appalachia, where coal mines proliferated before World War I. Following the economic downturn after the war, Ohio’s coal production declined, and abandoned mines multiplied in turn. By the 1940s, most underground mines in the area had been deserted.

In those lands now honeycombed by abandoned mines, the remnants of subsidence holes (spots where the land above a mine collapses because the mine workings can no longer support it), mine entrances and infrastructure shaped the hills into something distinctly strange. Gob (a type of coal refuse) pocks the land. From the abandoned mines and the gob itself, acid mine drainage (AMD) seeps into the area’s streams.

AMD forms when pyrite, a mineral prevalent in the remnant coal in Ohio’s abandoned mines, is exposed to rain and air. The subsequent reaction produces the acidic, toxic seepage. The polluting flow that ensues is constant and so long-term as to be practically permanent. In Europe, for instance, AMD still occurs due to mines dug by ancient Romans before 476 BCE. The result in ecological terms is long-term disaster for the stream dwellers bombarded by AMD: localized extirpations that, even after efforts to restore stream chemistry, take years to be undone. Some streams are so impaired they cannot support aquatic life at all.

An acid mine-impaired stream in southeast Ohio. Photo credit: Austin Miles.

From Eaarth to Half Earth

The mushrooming and slow-motion catastrophes like AMD are the atoms that compose the Sixth Extinction—the ongoing mass extinction event caused by capitalist social arrangements. Current species extinction rates are hundreds to thousands of times faster than the “normal” rate characterizing the last tens of millions of years. A quarter of all species face extinction, some within decades.

This phenomenon has triggered end-times talk, or at least talk of the complete obliteration of nature. For instance, the liberal environmentalist Bill McKibben first declared a post-natural world in 1989 with his book, The End of Nature. He took another, more ambitious swing in 2010 with Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (page 2): “We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth”.

Jedediah Purdy, on the other hand, wrote in Dissent that “the idea of ‘nature’ went out with the 20th century. Part of the reason is physical: It keeps getting harder to distinguish the natural world from everything else”.

Others, in the face of this massive loss, remain hopeful. One solution responding to the Sixth Extinction, the Half Earth, has been particularly successful, recently gaining traction among billionaires and other powerful-types. The Half Earth has origins in the ecologists Eugene and H.T. Odum’s 1972 paper, “Natural areas as necessary components of man’s total environment,” in which they conclude that half the environment globally should be conserved in a “natural” state.

The Half Earth lingered on the fringes of the mainstream environmental movement, receiving occasional attention but lacking real influence, until the prominent sociobiologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson popularized the idea with his 2016 book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.

Since that book’s publication, nonprofits and governments have mobilized efforts to manufacture a Half Earth. In 2018 the Wyss Foundation pledged $1 billion towards this goal, forming the Wyss Campaign for Nature and also partnering with National Geographic to form another Campaign for Nature. Nature Needs Half, an initiative launched in 2009 by the WILD Foundation, first launched its website in 2018, and its steering committee met for the first time to plan a global strategy in 2017.

In 2020, Trudeau committed Canada to protecting 30% of its land and waters by 2030, in an extension of sorts of Canada Target 1the first of Canada’s Biodiversity Goals and Targets, which aimed for preservation of 17% of Canadian land and 10% of Canadian ocean by 2020. In January last year, Biden pledged via executive order to preserving 30% of US land and waters by 2030. The US Department of the Interior (DOI) subsequently released a report on how to achieve this goal last May. More recently, Jeff Bezos’ Earth Fund committed $261 million for advancement of the 30×30 initiatives in December last year.

E. O. Wilson, the popularizer of the Half Earth, passed away in December 2021. Source:Wikimedia Commons.

Half Earth as “Edenic Recovery”

As a vision of restoring a lost nature, Half Earth resonates with what philosopher and historian Carolyn Merchant calls “Edenic Recovery”—a narrative of the redemption of the Earth. In her article, “Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative,” Merchant elaborates on the characteristics of Edenic Recovery and how that narrative drove European colonization of what is now known as the Americas. She writes: “the concept of recovery, as it emerged in the 17th century, not only meant a recovery from the Fall but also entailed restoration of health, reclamation of land, and recovery of property. The recovery plot is the long slow process of returning humans to the Garden of Eden through labor in the earth.”

For Half-Earthers, Eden is pristine nature, unspoiled by humans, and this labor comes in the form of environmental conservation bolstered by nonprofit foundations like those mentioned above. There are four integral components of the Edenic Recovery narrative that are mirrored in the Half Earth: the separation of nature and humans into distinct realms; the necessity of capitalism; the supremacy of bourgeois western science; and the subordination of other ways of knowing to settler nations. The coalescing of these elements produced the world as it is now. The rearticulation of these elements in a new contemporary millenarian movement threatens to reproduce this world with a green veneer—presuming that green veneer is even achievable.

Separate Spheres

Capitalism has created a world in which, for many, the mutual exclusivity of human flourishing and nature is intuitive. Edenic Recovery narratives contest this, illustrating a mode of living in which flourishing comes from labor in the Earth. Yet this labor maintains a separation between humans and their surround, in which Man molds an inert substrate into His civilizations. In the Half Earth, humanity molds an inert nature, both ubiquitous and alien, into global civilization’s sustainability.

Many suggest that conservation in the Half Earth would involve not just enclosures like national parks or wildlife refuges, but also changing people’s relationships to the places where they live to make their communities more nature-friendly. According to Gary Tabor, president of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, “The biggest misconception about Half Earth is that there is going to be a bizarre construction where people live on one side and nature lives on the other.” The Half Earth isn’t necessarily about enclosures like national parks, but nonetheless maintains the separation between humans and nature.

This is a movement with a vision that contravenes the tales of an extinguished nature. Instead of the polluted, apocalyptic Eaarth whose nature has been destroyed by an encroaching humanity characteristic of McKibben’s and Purdy’s narratives, the Half Earth provides hope for a future in the form of a healing touch between nature and humans.

According to Half-Earthers, the rift between humans and nature is relational rather than spatial. “We” are always already connected to nature. The Campaign for Nature, for instance, characterizes nature as “our life support system” and touts the various services it provides humanity like freshwater provision and food production. But “our” connection to this life support system is not currently a harmonious one.

This dynamic demands a change in behavior. Nature Needs Half writes that one of their values is the importance of care for environmental sustainability: “As long as people inhabit the world, Earth’s health begins with an ethic of care and respect for nature. Humanity’s future depends on coming into a right and proper relationship with the natural world.” The nature of this right and proper relationship is hinted at in this invocation of “Humanity.”

Repeatedly, “humanity” is cast as an undifferentiated whole out-of-balance with its surround, never mind that some, like indigenous nations, have already achieved a “right and proper relationship.” The figure of the universal human lurks just out of sight in the Half Earth, erasing human difference, portending the replication of exploitative capitalist relations with nature in the mold of environmental sustainability. As always, labor in the Earth produces assets and value. Labor producing a sustainable, green Earth is no different. Humanity, after all, no doubt always prefer its land parceled out into property and producing a steady stream of revenue.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was declared extinct in 2021. Source:Wikimedia Commons.

Capital and Science in the Half Earth

The Half Earth finds its reason for being in this compulsion to alchemize value from the land. Repeatedly, environmental conservation is justified in terms of the dollar value it can produce through the outdoor recreation economy, or ecosystem services. Notably, the Campaign for Nature claims on their “Why 30%” page that the value of all ecosystem services is $125 trillion.

As in Merchant’s critique of Edenic Recovery narratives in the 19th and 20th centuries, for the Half Earth, capital is essential. For Half-Earthers, a key maneuver towards valuing and later conserving nature involves the alchemizing of arcane ecological processes into valuable commodities.

Science is another key node in Edenic Recovery. “Mechanistic science supplies the instrumental knowledge for reinventing the garden on earth,” Merchant writes in her article on Edenic Recovery. The Half Earth could not landscape a new Eden without its docent.

Nature Needs Half, for instance, justifies their call for conserving half of the Earth with citations of white papers, reports, and academic articles authored by scientists. The Campaign for Nature, on the other hand, advocates for “a science-driven, ambitious new deal for nature” and provides a page detailing the “science behind 30%,” referring to its goal to conserve 30% of the Earth.

To ensure that the 30% of Earth they propose conserving is the “right 30%,” they claim they’ll focus on “areas that experts have already identified as critical” and provide lists of academic articles from prestigious journals on various conservation-related topics that assume the purportedly objective, value-neutral form typical of professional academic science. Evidently, “science” only refers to the kinds of knowledge produced by technocrats.

The Subordination of Indigenous Knowledge

Nonetheless, other knowledge systems are also incorporated—ostensibly. Nature Needs Half professes a reliance on both “contemporary and traditional science” and boasts of its indigenous leadership. Canada Target 1 commits to “evidence-based decision making, grounded in science and traditional knowledge” and has an Indigenous Circle of Experts.

Yet they also repeatedly equate indigenous peoples with “local communities,” rendering them as informants for science rather than knowledge bearers on equal footing, while also incorporating them into settler states as apolitical groups rather than sovereign nations.

The US DOI report, for instance, lists using “Science as a Guide” as a key principle and writes that indigenous ways of knowing would complement this science. On political action towards planning and enacting the Half Earth, the Campaign for Nature writes that “Nations, in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities, will need to determine what conservation efforts are best suited to their land- and seascapes, and wildlife.”

Indigenous peoples are repeatedly written into subservience to “nations” and “world leaders,” as if they did not have nations and governments of their own—which they do. They are treated as unsovereign and amorphous “local communities” or “populations”, governable but not governing. Indigenous peoples only appear to have power over conservation efforts insofar as they are willing to cooperate with settler governments and settler science.

There is a better way to work with indigenous peoples on matters of extinction. Indigenous studies scholar Beth Rose Middleton contends that this better way involves, among other things, “culturally specific approaches reframing analyses in keeping with indigenous knowledge systems” and “recognition and prioritization of indigenous self-determination, as expressed through indigenous governance.” Half-Earther initiatives do neither of these things.

The Half Earth is therefore a movement birthed and managed by a western scientific technocracy akin to ecomodernism. It envisions vast swathes of inert land and bodies managed by rational actors for the good of the whole of Humanity. In the Half Earth, labor in the Earth is molded by the minds of bourgeois experts.

E.O. Wilson’s book Half Earth identifies the Redwood forests of California as one of the world’s hotspots of biodiversity deserving of protection. Source:Wikimedia Commons.

Envisioning a Half Earth Future

Half Earth is a movement that promises a future packaged within the conditions that brought about a catastrophic present. As in the 18th and 19th centuries, Eden will be accomplished via the conjoined twins of capitalism and Western bourgeois science. What kind of world will result from this?

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The end goal of Half Earth, as articulated by a draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, authored by the Convention on Biological Diversity, is summarized succinctly as “living in harmony with nature.” The draft claims that this can be achieved by, among other things, reforming “economic sectors towards sustainable practices” and ensuring that “people everywhere take measurable steps towards sustainable consumption and lifestyles.” These targets entail a greening of neoliberal capitalism such that a universal humanity averts a conjectured catastrophe-to-come.

The Half Earth movement envisions an impossible return to an uncontaminated Earth. Nature Needs Half, for instance, writes that they strive to fulfill four conditions in their conservation planning, one of which is characterized as “natural abundance,” in which “Plant and animal populations are in balance, functioning in ancient and primary systems that thrive without human interference.” The tropes of natural abundance, balance, sacred origins, and timelessness survive in the Half Earth. This is a vision touting a primitive Earth “we” can return to—Eaarth is mutable, survivable, wholly reversable.

Such a return to a pristine Earth is neither possible nor desirable. Here, hysteresis—a concept from restoration ecology— suggests the impossibility of the restoration of nature via the same mechanisms that produced ecological catastrophe. Yet, that’s exactly what the Half Earth is attempting. Even if the world that the Half Earth achieves were environmentally sustainable, it could not possibly be livable, or just.

What is the trajectory that could make Eaarth livable? As Prakash Kashwan wrote, a more radical alternative to the Half Earth would be to “wage a fight to ensure that our governments do not facilitate wasteful plunder of natural resources.” It may involve, for starters, emphasizing the relationships between humans and their more-than-human kith, rather than insisting on an alien nature and extracting dollar value from it. It may involve accommodating multiple ways of knowing and understanding the world, and undoing the structural forces that insist on remaking the entire Earth in the image of a white bourgeois world.


Featured image: The photo from which The Blue Marble was cropped. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Austin Miles

Austin Miles is an environmental scientist from south-east Ohio who studies the science and politics of environmental restoration. He has essays published in SPAM Zine, the New Farmers’ Almanac Vol. V, and the Columbus Free Press.

Tags: building resilient societies, connection with nature, half earth, indigenous knowledges