How much of our planet needs to be protected to conserve its biodiversity? In 2016 the renowned biologist, naturalist, and author E.O. Wilson proposed a big idea – he posited that half the planet is the amount of protected marine and land habitats required to save 80 percent of the world’s species. His book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016) is a compelling manifesto of the why, and even the where, of what we must conserve in order to reclaim our natural heritage. However, the how to accomplish this aspirational idea of reserving half the surface of the earth for nature has been more difficult to envision.
More recently, a global scientific consensus has emerged around a more specific formula – to conserve 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030. The Convention on Biological Diversity now champions what is known as the 30 by 30 initiative to protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change impacts. This goal, developed by the science-based conservation community, has been examined in peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and detailed reports.
On January 27, 2021, this idea received a big boost, when newly sworn in President Biden signed a sweeping Executive Order. In it, he harnesses the full power of the executive branch to frame an ambitious plan to tackle the climate emergency for the United States and the globe. Embedded within the order are three paragraphs calling for the nation to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. The new Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland was placed in charge of implementing this effort. This is a challenging undertaking, as the U.S. has only conserved around 26 percent of its coastal waters but only about 12 percent of its land in a largely natural state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
There has already been much discussion about how this bold conservation goal can be met. Fortunately, a recent book Rescuing the Planet: Protecting Half the Land to Heal the Earth (2021) by the Pulitzer prize winning author Tony Hiss offers encouraging examples of ways that this outsized dream might just come true. The book covers the science and the politics of landscape scale conservation, but most inspiring are the stories from landscapes across the nation and Canada. These showcase innovative regional efforts led by Indigenous People, community activists, land trusts, visionary leaders, and caring local citizens. The impact of their work is felt from the Boreal Forests in the north to New England and to the Southwest border with Mexico. What is most striking is how people centered these stories are. This reflects an emerging consensus that to preserve our planet, we must take a different approach than just setting aside huge swaths of protected swaths. We need to build conservation areas into all human developments. One conservationist memorably spoke about the need for “gerrymandering” nature preservation into all that we do and make it part of the living landscape
Can all this work add up to 30% or even 50%? Make no small plans.