Nature-lovers (which should include all of us on planet Earth, but strangely does not) breathed a sigh of relief today as we read the news from Nagoya, Japan. After two weeks of negotiations, the nearly 200 nations assembled in Nagoya, Japan, decided set aside more of the Earth’s surface as natural preserve. The decision hardly guarantees safe passage for the world’s threatened species through the perilous 21st century; their safe-zones have been limited to 17% of the planet’s land area, and 10% of its seas. Presumably, this means that humanity has essentially decided to use 83% of all land and 90% of the sea for agro-industrial purposes. All that human use will continue to have rather enormous impacts both on the systems on which those nature preserves depend — stable climate, balanced nutrient cycles, non-acidic seas, etc. — as well as on life inside the preserves themselves. Persistent toxins and renegade human-hacked DNA do not stop at signs that say, “Nature Preserve.”
Still, it is a real victory, since the starting point had been 1% of the sea and 10% of the land preserved all things non-human. Hope is in the air, as the world careens toward another round of climate talks in Mexico. If agreement was possible on biological diversity (including agreements on how to share the Earth’s genetic heritage), perhaps something positive is possible now.
This decision was not a foregone conclusion. The Copenhagen Climate Summit had taught the world that even when heads of state come together after years of preparation, ultra-loud scientific alarm bells, and very high economic stakes on the table (all those factors were present in Nagoya as well, though with many fewer heads of state), they can still effectively decide not to save the planet — at least not just yet.
Of course, much of the implementation of the agreement will depend on voluntary action. Nations will have to actually do what they have now agreed to do. A host of economic actors ranging from large corporations who harvest logs to individual fishermen hunting down the last glass eels will all have to play by the newly agreed rules. Pessimists — and when we are talking about biodiversity, it is very hard not to be one — will find ample reason to continue worrying that we are doomed to continue witnessing the greatest species die-off since the end of the dinosaurs.
But the die-hard optimists — and when talking about saving life on Earth as we know, it is hard not to choose the path of vision and hard work we call optimism — will see this glass as 17% full instead of 83% empty. The world chose, by consensus, to dramatically raise the bar on what was an acceptable minimum set-aside for all the creatures and plants on Earth who are not us, or agriculturally managed to feed us. We can be grateful for that, and hopeful that it is a positive (albeit modest) indicator of increasing human wisdom in our new role as planetary managers.