Nearly every day’s news cycle seems to bring another harbinger of environmental doom: from soaring global temperatures, to new statistics showing vast declines in wildlife populations along with constant stories of coral bleaching, chemical spills, and accelerating climate disasters. Now scientists have zoomed out to examine the world’s endangered landscapes on a macro scale, revealing that human society is not only exterminating flora and fauna—it’s literally ripping up the ground beneath them. Just a small fraction of the world’s wilderness lands can be considered relatively free of human interference. And without dramatic policy measures, the remaining wild places will soon be paved, farmed, mined, and polluted into oblivion.
Using geospatial mapping data, a research team based at the University of Queensland has depicted the massive hemorrhaging of wilderness over time. Their new study, published ahead of a United Nations biodiversity summit, shows that the remaining vestiges of marine and land habitats relatively untouched by human intervention are facing extinction.
Over the past century, the estimated amount of land devoted worldwide to agriculture has quintupled from about 15 percent to 77 percent, excluding Antarctica. Just 13 percent of marine wilderness (with oceans covering most of the earth’s surface) remains relatively untrammeled by human activities. Basically, we have squeezed the remainder of nature into pockets of wild habitat that altogether make up less than a quarter of the earth’s land surface and one-eighth of the oceans. Moreover, wild places aren’t just scarce but also clustered in remote areas; the marine wilderness areas that remain “free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions.”
Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, researchers estimate that “an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India—a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres—was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressure.”
The integrity of wilderness is dissolving under the strain of extractive industries and agriculture, along with urban sprawl and the spread of waste and pollution. Globally, ocean levels are rapidly rising and swallowing sensitive coastal lands, because of thermal expansion on the water’s surface combined with intensifying glacier melt. The ferocious desertification of arid land is accelerating under the expansion of agricultural lands, along with intensive farming practices and the stripping of forests. Meanwhile, industrial production, which goes hand in hand with the destruction of sensitive ecosystems, is bound to aggravate the impact of climate change. Industrial logging and forest burning—such as the slash-and-burn agricultural system in Amazonian rainforest—contributes up to 40 percent of global carbon emissions.
When habitats are destroyed, animal life and the complex ecological webs they hold together are shredded. The loss of wild places helps to explain the drastic loss of wildlife we are also witnessing, which was underscored in another report released by the World Wildlife Fund. That report shows that wildlife populations have plummeted worldwide by about 60 percent over the past half-century, and the devastation cuts especially deep in some of the most critical hubs of biodiversity, South and Central America.
Climate change is a parallel crisis that reflects and aggravates habitat loss. According to UN researchers, the rate of global warming is by some projections, “some 10 to 50 times faster than the average natural rates of change [since] the last ice age.” But while climate change and habitat loss compound each other, preserving habitat helps mitigate the impacts of global warming. So conservation should go beyond protecting net acreage, and focus on keeping habitats intact, as recent studies showing that “fragmented landscapes,” strafed by industry or population sprawl, are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change. Preserving contiguous wilderness areas builds more resilient ecosystems; flourishing wild places serve as carbon sinks that can offset greenhouse-gas emissions.
According to James Allan, lead researcher on the mapping project, the destruction isn’t yet unstoppable if policy-makers embark on a coordinated, transnational conservation effort. This would ideally involve concrete limits to expanding transit infrastructure that interferes with wilderness, and curbs expansion of industrial fishing, farming, logging, and mining. Such an effort would require binding international accords on a scale comparable to other environmental treaties, such as the Paris Agreement. Another model might be the marine conservation zones, such as the Northeast Atlantic’s Regional Fisheries Management Organization, a regional joint-management program for ecosystems that straddles national boundaries.
So far, however, efforts aimed at fencing off wild places have been limited. Climate-change policy-making has been limited to broad, voluntary initiatives like UN-led biodiversity programs, or the market-based conservation scheme REDD+, which is essentially centered around paying industry to incorporate forest conservation into their operations. But plans based on financial inducement can at best be token voluntary measures, and at worst, can result in the further commodification of wilderness.
According to Allan, global conservation cannot remain the province of individual national governments, which will inevitably be guided by their own economic and political agendas:
In most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected, and there is nothing to hold nations, private industry, civil society or local communities to account for their long-term conservation. What is needed is the establishment of global targets within existing international frameworks—specifically, those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous climate change and achieving sustainable development.
But the task of conservation could actually be less global than it seems on the surface. Just five nations control the vast majority of the earth’s remaining wild areas. Unfortunately, of these five, Russia, Canada, Australia, the United States, and Brazil—all have historically led the world in the commercial exploitation of natural resources; three are headed by by right-wing regimes that are generally more focused on driving up energy and land exploitation rather than conservation. Russia (which alone holds over 15 million acres of marine and terrestrial wilderness) is a massively corrupt petrostate; the Trump administration and Brazil’s incoming Bolsonaro administration are particularly driven to dismantle domestic environmental protections, defy the global climate accord, and vastly expand corporate predation on wilderness.
As with the Paris climate accord, only a sustained, globally coordinated grassroots movement could pressure governments to act collaboratively to protect the wildlife commons. For centuries, social development has moved at odds with nature; the future of sustainable social development depends on whether communities and wild places either develop a way to mutually coexist, or mutually assure each other’s destruction.