This article is part of the Earth Month series of articles.

How WILD is Earth?

About only a century and a half ago, wilderness stretched across the planet. Since then, a world-changing event happened: The Industrial Revolution. It gave humans the ability to produce in scale, making products now accessible to the general population, not just the wealthy. With more people consuming means more demand for natural resources (lumber, water, minerals and so on). Increased affordability and improved quality of life meant population increase as well. So there you have a strong production-consumption flow.

A century ago, only 15% of terrestrial land was used for agriculture - growing crops and raising livestock. Today it is 77%. 10% of the Earth's wilderness has vanished in the past two decades alone. If this rate of degradation continues, all wilderness of the planet will be at risk in 50 years time.

Various studies have found that the remaining wilderness is essential to buffer climate change impacts. However, the pattern of land use is not yet changing. Currently, excluding Antarctica, Earth is left with 23% remaining wilderness. Similarly, only around 13% of the ocean area is considered unaffected by human activities. 

Land-use change contributes to the greenhouse effect. According to an IPCC report, around one-fifth of anthropogenic global greenhouse gas emissions are due to land-use change. It's now evident we have altered the natural environment significantly.

Vegetation cover has changed drastically over the last 200 years as well. Data from The History Database of Global Environment (HYDE) for land-use change is as follows:

Timescale 

Forests 

Cropland 

Grazing land

Wild grasses and shrubs

1700

52%

3%

6%

38%

1900

48%

8%

16%

27%

2018

38% (4 billion hectares)

15% (1.6 billion hectares)

31% (3.2 billion hectares)

14% (1.74 billion hectares)

 

Experts have summarized different calculations, which estimate that over the last 300 years, planet Earth has lost around 20% of forests and woodland while the cropland has increased. Approximately one-third of global land cover is devoted to agriculture now.

Clearly, the way we’ve been using natural land resources is not sustainable. It’s not an issue of not having enough resources, but how we manage them. This planet is fantastic and it can support so much life, including human life. We now know that humans are responsible for inflicting a lot of the damage and change the Earth is currently experiencing. We also know that we are intelligent enough to critically think, reflect and problem solve. We are able to take up our responsibility of respectfully and sustainably coexisting.

Looking back in history, like we tried to do in this article, it’s easy to acknowledge that demands drives supply, meaning that what we use is what will be taken from Earth. So maybe we can help by “needing” less. Take today to go around your house, look at random items, and exercise this thought: “Do I really need that?”. If you need less, you buy less, which reduces demand for that product and therefore the demand for the natural resources necessary to produce it.

For the things that you conclude “Yes, I actually need this.”, then think: “What could be a less wasteful way for me to get the benefits from that item?”. For example, exchanging disposable items (that you may use once or twice and then throw away) for reusable ones. Trust me, most times reusable items are much better than disposable ones. We just grew up used to disposable items because we never really took the time to think of it. But remember: if there is anyone on this planet that can critically evaluate actions, that’s us.

References:

  1. LAND USE CHANGES DURING THE PAST 300 YEARS by Kees Klein Goldewijk and Navin Ramankutty.
  2. https://ourworldindata.org/world-lost-one-third-forests
  3. https://rainforests.mongabay.com/borneo/
  4. https://earthdata.nasa.gov/learn/sensing-our-planet/a-rainforest-divided
  5. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/last-wilderness-areas-on-earth-disappearing-at-rapid-rate-study-1.3681944
  6. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07183-6
  7. https://www.inverse.com/article/50378-there-is-almost-no-wilderness-left-on-earth
  8. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0101654

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