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Getting what you give up

Getting what you give up

In a 12-round heavyweight professional boxing match, at the beginning of the twelfth round there is a bell and the referee motions the two fighters to the center of the ring to begin the final round of the contest. In the fight for life on the planet Earth, and according to a majority of noted scientists, we are in the twelfth round. And Pulitzer-winning biologist E. O. Wilson is the referee. 

For most of his life Wilson has been the scientific “voice in the wilderness,” feeding us important information about hazards to the well-being of the planet and sending us warnings for how we humans are destroying ecosystem balance and how we may be impeding our own health, including “low blows.” 

In a book that I’m going to call required reading for everyone within the sound of my voice, Wilson discusses the premise that a huge variety of life forms on Earth still remain largely unknown to science and that the species discovered and studied well enough to assess, notably the vertebrae animals and flowering plants, are declining in number at an accelerating rate — due almost entirely to human activity. In response to this premise, Wilson very succinctly states: 

“The global conservation movement has temporarily mitigated but hardly stopped the ongoing extinction of species. The rate of loss is instead accelerating. If biodiversity is to be returned to the baseline level of extinction that existed before the spread of humanity, and thus saved for future generations, the conservation effort must be raised to a new level. The only solution to the “Sixth Extinction” is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater. This expansion is favored by unplanned consequences of ongoing human population growth and movement and evolution of the economy now driven by the digital revolution. But it also requires a fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relation to the living environment.” 

The hook line phrase in the above paragraph is “increase the area of inviolable natural reserves (i.e., wilderness designated land reserves) to half the surface of the Earth,” hence echoing the book’s title. Half of our planet saved as wilderness or wildlands seems an awful lot given the shrinking size of the planet due to global markets, global population statistics and the internet and social media, but after reading Wilson’s compilation of facts and figures and prescient logic, one can only agree with his compassionate analysis and fears for the future of all species, including humans. 

His omniscient observations and study of species extinction hit hard and very close to home as he cites our own Great Smoky Mountains National Park as his primary referent example. “It is instructive to proceed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the best-studied American reserves, and to reflect briefly on the breakdown of the numbers of known species in each group of organisms. The actual number of recorded species in the Park, especially when all suspected but still unrecorded transient species and microorganisms are added, has been estimated to lie between 60,000 and 80,000,” says Wilson. Very impressive numbers, these are, and those of us living in these Western North Carolina mountains are so lucky to be living in such a diverse neighborhood. Yet, we should be humbled by such numbers, or as Wilson goes on to say: 

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“The wildlands (such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and the bulk of Earth’s biodiversity protected within them are another world from the one humanity is throwing together pell-mell. What do we receive from them? The stabilization of the global environment they provide and their very existence are the gifts they give to us. We are their stewards, not their owners. These wildlands of the world are not art museums. They are not gardens to be arranged and tended for our delectation. They are not recreation centers or harborers of natural resources or sanatoriums or undeveloped sites of business opportunities.”

Going further abroad, and contrary to national news sources, Wilson cites places such as the Middle East and that region’s problems of biodiversity sustainability. “In the Middle East, it is becoming clear that hatred and instability are not due so much to religious differences and the memories of historical injustice as they are to overpopulation and the severe shortage of arable lands and water.” As the saying goes “the devil is in the details,” and Wilson’s layman-friendly book is full of scientific evidence to support his predictions as well as his solutions to this very real and urgent global crisis we all seem to be ignoring, at our own peril. 

Wilson is not alone with his convincing data and his dire predictions. Many esteemed scientists, economists, social scientists, artists and politicians worldwide agree with Wilson’s findings and predictions that we are, indeed, in the 12th round of this environmental prize fight. And the prize? It is the very Earth itself and our continued existence upon it. 

For more information about our region’s wilderness areas and potential prospects for further designated wilderness areas, contact the Southern Appalachian region’s representative of the Wilderness Society, Brent Martin, whose office is located in Sylva. 474 W. Main St., Sylva, N.C., 28779, 828.587.9453; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Thomas Crowe is a regular writer and contributor to Smoky Mountain News. His book of essays and articles on the environment in the Southern Appalachians titled The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist is available through City Lights Bookstore in Sylva or at He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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