Wrong Roads

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing

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Proposals to remove all humans from half of the Earth ignore the root causes of the biodiversity crisis and undermine progressive struggles for social justice.

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Proposals to remove all humans from half of the Earth ignore the root causes of the biodiversity crisis and undermine progressive struggles for social justice.

Brian Napoletano teaches environmental geography at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and is a member of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores. He posts both academic and non-academic work on his website.

by Brian M. Napoletano

Today’s biodiversity crisis is far more serious than past mass extinctions. It is unfolding far more rapidly, is mostly caused by a few members of one species, and is accompanied by other profound changes to the Earth system, from novel ecosystems and organisms to anthropogenic climate change. Conservation has achieved some local successes, but globally it has not even slowed the increasing pressure on biodiversity.

Conservationists have always been divided between ecocentric “preservationists” who advocate protecting nature for its own sake, and anthropocentric “utilitarians” who favor conserving biodiversity for its benefits to humans. The advent of the Anthropocene has intensified this debate, with utilitarians arguing that wilderness no longer exists (if ever it did), and preservationists arguing that the scale of global changes caused by humans makes wilderness preservation and rewilding more important than ever. Wilderness preservation and biodiversity conservation are not synonymous, but advocates of the former usually claim that it is also the most efficient and effective way to achieve the latter.

Not surprisingly, this polarized debate excludes or distorts many alternative positions, most importantly that of ecological Marxists and others who consider human welfare the primary objective, but oppose equating it with capital accumulation, and are still concerned about the fate of nature in its own right. The recent intense and polemical debate over proposals to place half the Earth’s surface in protected areas shows how this important alternative position is routinely distorted or sidelined.

The idea of setting half of some area aside for nature is not new, and builds on general concepts of island biogeography, species-area relationships, dispersion, etc. Preservationists drawing on deep ecology, such as The Wildlands Project, have advocated setting aside half of North America for wilderness since at least 1992. More recently, a group called Nature Needs Half (NNH) has been arguing that humans should withdraw from half of the entire Earth by 2050. Major conservation groups such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have backed the proposal. In 2017, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson popularized this proposal in his book, Half-Earth, which has received extensive media coverage and support from conservationists.

Social scientists with firsthand knowledge of preservation areas caution that this half-Earth proposal will likely do more harm than good by exacerbating conflicts while leaving the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss untouched. In response, a group of preservationists affiliated with or sympathetic to NNH — including well-known populationists like Philip Cafaro, Eileen Crist, and Reed Noss, with Helen Kopnina as their most vociferous spokesperson — claim that their project makes “due consideration for the rights and interests of the world’s poor and indigenous peoples,” but argue that the real issue is a “battle of worldviews between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism.”

In their view, all critical social scientists who object to the half-Earth proposal are guilty of “human speciesm,” and are guided by a “neo-Marxist worldview … supporting ‘mastery over nature’.” In addition to revealing the ignorance of some conservationists about Marxism and social science, such obviously false ecological red-baiting undermines the serious debate and “deep consideration” that Jonathan Baillie and Ya-Ping Zhang argue is due to a proposal that “will determine the fate of millions of species and the health and well-being of future generations.”

Beyond vitriolic rhetoric, the NNH argument rests on three dubious premises that are usually asserted rather than argued:

(1) All humans share equal responsibility for the biodiversity crisis;

(2) The rights of nature circumscribe the needs of humans;

(3) The half-Earth proposal is the only way to resolve the crisis, and therefore is morally imperative.

The first premise entails a race-free, gender-free, class-free species identity in which all humans are assigned equal responsibility for “transgressing the rights of nature”, regardless of historical and geographical reality. Analysis of actual class divisions and conflicts is rejected, because “continuous accent on internal strife and differences between human populations, serves to disable the idea of collective blame for destruction of nature.” Calls for an actual classless society, however, are “naïve at best, and more likely dangerous, as illustrated by the lessons of the Russian revolution,” because class conflicts and divisions are hard-coded into human DNA and inevitable in “the world of competition for limited resources,” so “the solution of overthrowing the elites is not available.”

By this reasoning, the Standing Rock Sioux and Exxon share equal blame for the biodiversity crisis, and dispossessing the former in the name of wilderness preservation is no more objectionable (morally or legally) than doing so to the latter.

Indeed, Kopnina vehemently rejects special consideration for indigenous or other victims of European colonialism’s brutal legacy as “political correctness motivated by post-colonial guilt” because neither indigenous communities nor “more recent settlers” can “claim preeminence over other species in areas they migrate to.”

This disdain for anti-colonial struggle lays the groundwork for Noss’s assertion that “the native ecosystem and the collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans” because humanity  is “both more adaptable and more destructive than any other.”

The counterpart to this misanthropic approach is the argument that nature has intrinsic value, a normative “objective good” that “was here long before us and will outlive us.” NNH  advocates use this claim to trump objections to the harms wilderness preservation may cause to humans. But the conception of nature having inherent value, be it of the mystical sort offered by advocates of NNH or one that recognizes humans as the valuers, is necessarily mediated through social  institutions and relations. These include the natural sciences that define categories such as species and extinction,  and the environmental sciences where the biodiversity crisis and its underlying drivers are studied.

As critics of Wilson’s sociobiology have repeatedly emphasized, assuming that the natural sciences provide an unbiased and perfect lens on reality is truly “naïve at best, and more likely dangerous.” The metaphors used in the natural sciences to understand nature are rooted in social-political concepts. Thus, capital’s bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all) is seen as a result of  “human nature” rather than as a product of historically-evolved social relations.

This naïve positivism also leads NNH’s advocates to claim that “all species have a right to continued existence” as an absolute moral principle, even though all evolutionary history says otherwise, and despite deep disagreements among scientists about what exactly constitutes a species and what the concept describes in nature. Moreover, this ethical framing imposes a moral obligation on humans as just one species among many that depends precisely on the fact that humans are not just like any other species, but have an unmatched  capacity for reasoning, suffering, and empathy that suggests human needs may legitimately take precedence over those of other organisms.

Conversely, recognizing humans as the exceptional case of nature becoming conscious of itself provides a way out of the artificial anthropocentric vs. eco-centric dichotomy. It suggests that humans can consciously impute non-instrumental value to the rest of nature, so that concern for other organisms expresses our shared humanity, rather than a divine mandate imposed from outside by the priests of deep ecology.

The third NNH premise is only valid if the half-Earth proposal can actually resolve the biodiversity crisis, by addressing underlying drivers as well as the immediate issues. Advocates of NNH claim that placing half the planet in protected areas does this by forcing capital to adjust to using half the material and energy resources formerly at its disposal. More importantly in their view, it will impel immediate stabilization and reduction of human population.

While there is a legitimate case for preservation areas as part of a conservation strategy, the idea that they can undo capital’s inherent need for growth is beyond naïve. Only voluntary ignorance of capitalism’s fundamental dynamics could lead one to believe that capital’s growth imperative is just a cultural phenomenon, that capital can somehow be convinced to contract without offering violent resistance or descending into a profound crisis.

In cases where implementing preservation areas entails dispossessing local communities, the stated objectives are further undermined, in the short-term by displacing communities that could otherwise contribute to conservation, and in the long-term by exacerbating alienation from the land and nature, intensifying the rift between humanity’s social metabolism and the universal metabolism of nature.

The “market biocentrism” that Wilson proposes and NNH’s defenders advocate is even more contradictory and self-defeating.  Market competition under monopoly capitalism clearly does not lead to more efficient material and energy use, because much of both is wasted on the marketing effort, and because the growth imperative counteracts efficiency gains by increasing production (the Jevons paradox). Moreover, regulating markets “to protect biodiversity (e.g. via an allocated monetary value for biodiversity” directly contradicts the principle of intrinsic value by subjecting biodiversity to the anthropocentric system of instrumental valuation par excellence.

The claim that population growth is the ultimate cause of biodiversity loss, and the corollary that focusing on population reduction must be a mandatory strategy, has been so thoroughly refuted that it hardly bears further discussion. (See Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, and several articles here).

This populationist argument is used to justify the position that nothing can or should be done to challenge the existing capitalist order. It also misrepresents radical critiques by suggesting that they view inequality as the ultimate driver of biodiversity loss, rather than inequality rooted in the antagonistic class structure of capitalist society. NNH’s proponents ally with dark currents of nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment and argue that poverty reduction in the South and immigration to the North will make things worse. Even more perversely, they argue that population control in the South is an appropriate way to make up for failures to reduce excessive consumption by corporations and the wealthiest consumers in the North.

The half-Earth project involves unavoidable opposition between conservation and virtually any progressive social struggle. It gives reactionary opponents of such struggles another weapon in the ongoing class war, while also feeding their efforts to foment popular opposition to conservation. The failure of NNH’s advocates to see the logical connection to progressive struggle is amply demonstrated in their failure to recognize that the same capitalist system responsible for the instrumental valuation of nature also reduces the lives of the exploited classes to the same crude standard. Progressive social struggle is part of nature’s (in the broader sense including humans) fight against instrumentalism.

Recognizing this intrinsic relationship, which is obscured by the anthropocentric vs. ecocentric dichotomy, points towards a co-revolutionary struggle against a system that subordinates all life to capital accumulation.

Of course, that struggle does not automatically guarantee that biodiversity will be protected, but it is necessary if society is to begin seeking alternative forms of valuation.

Rejecting any alternative to capitalism only ensures that oppression, suffering, and injustice for most of the planet’s human and non-human inhabitants will continue. The truly relevant dichotomy here is the one posed by Rosa Luxemburg more than a century ago, between worsening barbarism under capitalism, or the possibility of liberation through socialism.




  • I am just going to make a quick simple comment. I fully agree with the author of the article. Half Earth is not going to solve any problems. The problems lie in capitalist market economy. For example, when Shell Energy starts to drill mangrove ecosystems in Niger Delta, the Ogoni people are not the one who is contributing ecological and social damages, it is the Shell Energy. Same applies to British Petrol (BP), McDonalds, and hundreds of other transnational corporations.

    The majority of the people on earth have nothing to do with ecological and social problems. It is probably less than 20% of the total human population who controls how business should be done and sadly their way of doing business (business as usual) is making sure capitalistic economic growth continues in the expense of ecological and social degradation. To me Half Earth project is fraud because it provoke capitalism via eco-tourism or other market instruments and neglect th struggles of 80% of the global population who have nothing to do with global green house gas emission or other ecological catastrophes.

    I want to thank Professor Brian M. Napoletano and Dr. Ian Angus and all other contributors for such brilliant piece of writings via this website.

  • I’m sorry you feel I’m misrepresenting your position, Stephen, but if you’re looking for a serious debate, you’ll need to give me something clearer than the vague assertion that we need to “activate I=PAT as an organising and management principle.”
    If by this you mean we need to focus on reducing “P,” then I refer you to the links that Ian gave. Moreover, I have a hard time swallowing the claim that building a movement to confront the institutional and economic forces we all know are behind the biodiversity crisis is a naïve ideological endeavor, but that the assertion that we can bypass all these messy social and political struggles by simply implementing some non-coercive but effective population-control program premised on the ideology of nature’s intrinsic value in a system as hostile to all but narrowly instrumental monetary valuation as it is to anything that limits its drive for endless growth is somehow hard-headed and pragmatic.
    I explicitly stated that there’s a legitimate case for including preservation areas in a conservation strategy. Obviously this entails establishing such areas now, under capitalism, albeit with the caveats that we recognize doing so as an inherently contradictory process, and that care be taken to avoid exacerbating dispossession and alienation from land and the rest of nature, as this would ultimately compound the crisis. In other words, you’re the only one who suggested that nothing should be done until “after some revolution that only exists in … virtual reality.”
    My main point was that our best chance of making progress on the biodiversity crisis here and now lies in bringing together conservation with progressive social struggles. If we want to actually resolve the crisis, however, we’ll need to simultaneously build such struggles into a co-revolutionary movement capable of transforming the global political and economic system that you seem to believe—contrary to all historical evidence—is unchanging and invincible.
    Clearly, this means building a broader red-green coalition around multiple ideologies. You’ll have to accept, though, that not everyone will share your vision of ecocentrism. Thus, you’re welcome to advance your own position and to clarify any arguments I may have misunderstood, but before you demand that everyone accept, or refrain from criticizing, your ecocentric ideology, I suggest you take a moment to reflect on just who is being sectarian and demanding ideological purity here.

  • Lastly it seems convenient that you keep referring to the population argument when I’m referring to I=PAT

    Obviously we could probably support 19 billion people if we all lived in a very low impact way but as usual, middle class ecosocialists like to talk the walk but have no intention of reducing their I=PAT anytime soon and would rather blame capitalists rather than form into low impact commumities or live in tiny houses. I guess the high impact living of acedemia is preferable to down to earth integrity.

    Hopefully the ridiculous notion that biodiversity preservation and conservation are two entirely different things will now melt in the air and it will be realised that it is not all about the dialectic (and the need to create oppositions (aka COMPETITION)) but is about MUTUALISM.

    Eg Ben above and his ridiculous notion that protected spaces are bourgeoisie. He quite obviously has absolutely no clue about ecology and our dependance on the natural world. Hence why,

    2) The rights of nature circumscribe the needs of humans;

    Since Without Nature, we are dead, hence its intrinsic value for its own sake. We need Nature, Nature does not need us.

    Until you can create artificial life support systems that mimic Nature, then the rights of Nature will always trump the rights of humans. To think otherwise is nihilism and the psychological condition of grandiosity.

    In this respect, ecocentrism and anthropocentism exist on a continuum, not as polar opposites. Ecocentrism is the reminder of the very deep truth that Nature is intrinsic to our survival. Without it we are dead, so we need to protect, preserve and conserve it if we want to survive which means paying attention to I=PAT.

  • I have to say to publish an article that actively seeks to denigrate deep ecology, ecocentrism and the half earth biodiversity strategy is pure nihilism. And for what, ideological purity and some Hegelian fantasy that we will all realise we are one simply because ecocentrism is not politically correct enough. It is like saying ecological processes and systems are not politically correct enough.

    We in the broader green movement need to start working together beyond ideological purism otherwise there will be no humanity, no biodiversity, no living world to protect.

    The kind of sectarianism advanced by this article is in my opinion pathetic which is why I responded TO THE ARTICLE in the first place. Get a fucking grip.

  • I honestly don’t know where to start with this crass misrepresentation of ecocentrism and the half earth strategy. Most of it seems to just revolve around the argument that is you are not Marxist or not a proponent of social ecology, then you are naive.

    However the real naivety is in this piece. How are you going to transform global economics in such a way as to reconfigure class based power dynamics and simultaneously avert an ecological breakdown and avert climate breakdown. It would appear to me that this piece is actually based on a deeper form of misanthropy whereby achieve nothing and let billions die in the process rather than apply I=PAT.

    It is my guess, that this piece has been written by a middle class progressive internationalist who would rather avoid the inconvenient fact that the middle classes contributes towards 41% of biospherical degradation, with the upper classes contributing 49% and the working classes 10%.

    Ultimately land not people is the foundation of life, biodiversity and human well-being despite the ideological beliefs of Marxists and it is land that needs to fairly shared in order to find a happy balance between the needs of the living world upon which we depend for our survival, human I=PAT and human well-being. Despoiling the Earth in order to fulfill Marxist desires for unlimited human population growth and the unlimited use of resources and energy in order to fulfill that politically correct utopianism is the ultimate example of naivety and one that plays straight into the hands of economic growth fanatics and the Corporates.

    If you are too scared to apply limits and in so doing activate I=PAT as an organising and management principle then virtual reality thinking will always trump natural reality thinking. I guess the benefit of the latter is that we all become extinct with a ‘clear conscience’.

  • Hi Ben … that phrase is a repetition of words that occur (and is linked) in an earlier quote from Kopnina, about 5 paragraphs previous.

  • Hi, I enjoyed reading this critique. My own view of the HE proposal has been that it requires belief in some inimical opposition between humans and nature. If you start from a prior assumption of human distinction and separation from the rest of life on Earth (which has a long tradition, particularly apparent in creationist religious narratives), it’s no surprise that you’d conclude that separation should be reinforced as a solution to current instability. The counter-narrative, that humans are evolved metabolically-entangled beings subject to all the laws of thermodynamics and ecology would see us modify our behaviours *in situ* to maintain the health and vitality of the biosystems which sustain us. The HE prescription seems perfectly calculated to create enormous game safaris where urban elites could go hunting in the name of “wildlife population management”. Strange that proponents of this ecological separation see themselves as taking an ‘ecocentric’ view. Ecology is about embedded relationship, not idealised isolation.

    Funny enough, I only started this comment because I noticed a missing link at the quote “naïve at best, and more likely dangerous.” –Paragraph 13. Could you let me know who this references? Cheers.

    • Hi Ben, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I didn’t go much into it here, but the separation you mention is a key part of the HE debate. Kopnina takes on this dualism in the same article that the “naïve at best” quote is from, and, as you say, the argument closely mirrors the religious narrative, with “agricultural and later industrial development” playing the role of the original sin that separated humans from nature. You could say this is a one-sided depiction of a real alienation of humans from nature, inasmuch as agriculture corresponds to the rise of class society, and the industrial revolution to a major qualitative shift in our alienated metabolism with the rest of nature. I agree that the materialist, metabolic narrative points to a much more constructive and viable solution, namely overcoming this alienated metabolism and pursuing a constructive co-evolution with the rest of nature.

      To be fair, I doubt that advocates of NNH would favor hunting, but you are undoubtedly correct that enjoyment of these reserves (e.g., through “eco-tourism”) would be largely restricted to urban elites, with the everyone else limited to virtual visits via webcams and microphones. Büscher et al. (the social scientists mentioned in the fifth paragraph) aptly call this a “recipe for a dystopian world, where the vast majority of humanity is prevented from experiencing the very biodiversity many of them will have been displaced to save.” Thus, alienation would be compounded, not transcended.