Editor’s note: Tompkins will speak at this week’s HubWeek Fall Festival in the Seaport. For more on HubWeek, click here.
Anyone paying attention to world events could hardly help but feel despair about increasing climate chaos and social inequality, plummeting wildlife populations and political strife.
But in my role as the UN Patron of Protected Areas and as president of Tompkins Conservation, I’ve seen firsthand a reason for hope: Committed people working together can help nature heal — can help “rewild” degraded places, restore the conditions that support abundant wildlife, and foster beauty. The results are wildly beneficial to nature and people.
As millions of young and older people around the planet clamor for urgent, systemic action to combat the climate crisis, one key tool is to protect more — lots more — wild habitat on land and in the oceans.
The twin crises of climate chaos and biodiversity loss are inextricably linked; habitat destruction results in both. Rising levels of greenhouse gas pollution must be slowed not only by moving quickly to a renewable energy economy, but also by changing land-use practices that emit carbon into the atmosphere.
Conversion or degradation of natural habitat remains a large source of greenhouse gas pollution. This isn’t a just problem of burning forests in the Amazon or deforestation for palm oil plantations in Asia. It’s as close to home as public lands logging on Massachusetts state lands and sprawling development that chews up the land into smaller and more domesticated remnants across New England.
If we are going to solve the climate problem, we must address the problem of wildlands destruction. And that is something humans know how to do. For more than a century, conservationists have been permanently protecting parks, nature reserves, marine ecosystems, and wilderness areas where wildlife is secure and natural processes operate freely.
By whatever designation, “forever-wild” environments offer a multitude of benefits to people — clean air and water, beauty that feeds the human spirit, and vibrant economies linked to recreation and quality of life. Wildlands also help mitigate climate chaos.
Recent scientific research has shown that wilderness areas cut the rate of extinction in half compared to unprotected habitats, and how older, wilder forests generally store more carbon in their soil and vegetation than younger forests managed for timber products. Less and lower-impact logging equals more climate change resilience.
Protecting more parks and wilderness areas is a cost effective, scalable tool that complements efforts to produce food and lumber in ways less damaging to the climate and more friendly to wildlife.
The magnitude of the challenges facing life on Earth should prompt us to act boldly to conserve big, interconnected systems of protected lands and waters that ultimately wrap at least half the globe.
This “Half-Earth” vision for conservation promoted by biologist E.O. Wilson is an aspirational goal to allow all life to flourish. As an interim target, leading conservationists are calling for governments across the planet to embrace “30 by 30” — 30 percent of Earth’s land and waters to be protected by 2030.
Such a vision is scientifically and ethically sound. The job ahead is to make it politically possible, through citizen advocacy and action. There are myriad opportunities for individual landowners, land trusts, public land management agencies, as well as governments at all levels to take part. An agenda for global conservation can only be achieved incrementally, place by place, as people join together to save the landscapes they love.
I’ve spent the last quarter century working with governments, citizens, and biologists to chart a course toward a future where local economic vitality is a consequence of wildlands conservation. In Argentina and Chile, Tompkins Conservation has, in collaboration with partners, helped protect more than 14 million acres, created 11 national parks and two marine No-Take zones of 100,000 square kilometers. Public-private collaboration works, from the community to national levels, and will prove crucial in implementing natural climate solutions across the globe.
In short, the future needs to be more wild if we are to have durable and resilient human communities thriving alongside our neighbors and relatives in the community of life.
A beautiful future for all depends on it.