Only 19% of Earth’s land is still ‘wild’

In Bali, Aboriginal people grow crops in the midst of a diverse tropical forest. EDUCATION IMAGES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Since the 1960s, conservationists have had a standard solution for saving biodiversity: Protect natural areas from human influence. But a new analysis of Earth’s land use going back 12,000 years suggests that even in the time of mammoths and giant sloths, just one-quarter of the planet was untouched by humans, compared with 19% today. Because some of those inhabited areas are now biodiversity hot spots, people probably helped sustain—and even increase—the diversity of other species for millennia, the authors write. The findings also suggest many traditional practices and Indigenous peoples play a key role in preserving biodiversity.

The paper “debunks an important myth” in conservation circles, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology aerospace engineer Danielle Wood, who studies technology and international development but was not involved with the new work. By offering a long-term look at humans’ impact on the planet, the study reveals that it’s not people per se that send biodiversity on a downward spiral, but it’s instead the overexploitation of resources, she explains. If their practices are sustainable, “humans don’t have to be removed,” to save the world’s species.

To find out how human habitation has impacted biodiversity, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from several universities refined a model for predicting past land use. The model starts with maps of current land use patterns—the locations of rangelands, agricultural lands, cities, and mines—and incorporates census data about past and present population sizes. It then works backward, adding archaeological data to predict land use at 60 points in time over the past 12,000 years. On the resulting maps, the researchers overlay current data about vertebrate biodiversity, threatened species, and protected areas, as well as government-recognized Indigenous areas

They found that humans had spread across almost three-quarters of Earth, excluding Antarctica, by 12,000 years ago, occupying great swaths of what conservationists now call “natural,” “intact,” or “wild” lands. Ten thousand years ago, the true extent of such untouched lands was 27%; now, it is 19%, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But even more provocatively, the team found statistical associations between current biodiversity hot spots and past land use suggesting that ancient people played a role in preserving, or even creating, these hot spots, including the Amazon and the Congo.

The results “illustrate the fallacy of the concept of ‘pristine’ nature untouched by human hands,” says Ruth DeFries, a sustainability scientist at Columbia University who was not involved with the study.

Yet they also show some recent dramatic changes. For example, land use remained fairly stable for much of the past 12,000 years, but began to shift radically from the 1800s through about 1950. Those changes include the familiar modern threats of intensive agriculture, urbanization, large-scale mining, and deforestation.

The findings come as no surprise to anthropologists and archaeologists, who know that humans have been managing natural landscapes for millennia—by burning forests and planting fields, for example. But the paper “adds to a growing cry by some rights groups and conservation organizations that Indigenous communities should be in control of biodiversity hot spots,” says Dana Lepofsky, an archaeologist and ethnoecologist at Simon Fraser University. Fiore Longo, head of the conservation campaign for the Indigenous rights group Survival International, agrees. “This paper confirms what we’ve been saying for years,” she says. “Wilderness is a colonial and racist myth with no basis in science,” that has often been used to justify the theft of Indigenous lands.

Anthropologists note that not every Indigenous group in history has sustained biodiversity. Ancient people likely helped drive to extinction megafauna like mammoths and flightless Pacific island birds, for example. But, “There is no question [that] Indigenous people have been much better stewards of nature than the rest of us,” says Eric Dinerstein, a conservation biologist at the Washington, D.C., sustainability nonprofit RESOLVE. “The single most important thing we can do is empower and finance Indigenous peoples to conserve their sovereign lands.”


 Elizabeth Pennisi

Credit –Science Mag.


  1. Sadly it seems that the term sustainable has been created to mean ‘without humans’, which in itself is a gross misunderstanding in this ideological eco-movement that sees humans as a threat to this planet. This isn’t of course accidental since it benefits these heartless aristocrats seeking to exert a total control over those who are left, if the onslaught goes to plan. Humans have been braiwashed, mostly by the tech to be quite frank, into believing that we are somehow separate from the planet, a kind of vermin that needs to be tagged, caged and surveilled, otherwise even our presence in the wilderness poses risk to the ecosystem. Yet any sane person knows that it is the elite owned corporations that have been and are causing this destruction via the ruthless exploitation of resources, an simply because, as we can currently observe, most humans aren’t capable of any deeper insight into anything, unless it is presented to them by some noodle on their lcd screen. I think we are up for a really bumpy ride and preserving seeds has never been more important.

    1. Dear Lu, absolutely, and some brilliant points you brought up, In my first book written 6 years ago, The Silent Ecocide, the environmental crisis is a crisis of human consciousness, outlines all of what you discuss here. The wrong kind of green, the media peddled environmental conservation as opposed to real conservation. Agenda 21/30 etc. Our relationship with nature, and alternative energy solutions. My last book in Feb 2021 focuses on our disconnection with nature through technocracy dominance and how the rise in depression is a result of our distancing from Earth, Nature, and the destruction of nature. Healing and self empowerment requires returning to nature. Please look through some of my previous articles such as Walk with Nature, and Surviving Depression in a Depressing World, an Ecological Perspective. I will post links to some of these articles below underneath my reply to your much needed comment. Thank you

      1. Dehumanise syndrome-When man ceases to be human….
        William Manson explains that in 1968, Erich Fromm prophesied “The year 2000, might be the beginning of a period in which man ceases to be human and becomes transformed into an unthinking and unfeeling machine”.

        -In the context of a prevailing dehuman syndrome, spontaneous human expression becomes pathologised: Being open in speech; being unashamed of one’s body; relating to nature; hugging, touching, feeling and making love with other people; refusing to serve in the army and kill; and becoming less dependent on machines are generally considered ‘disturbed behaviour’ by a society of robopaths”. Of course, behavioural modification is facilitated through ideological training, expanding law enforcement, and emotional anaesthesia (psychopharmacology).

        In my view, revitalisation of one’s desiccated human-ness first and foremost requires a renewed contact with the web of evolved life, with Walt Whitman’s ‘primal sanity of nature’. Transcending the blinkered, bourgeois-utilitarian (mechanistic-industrial) world-view, one can embark on a purification of consciousness, a purging of the detritus of cultural pollution (and a recovery of emotional innocence).

        Withdrawing from the world of urban commerce (and its mind-numbing “messages”), one severs the flow of media propaganda and ceaseless “information” (relating to the ubiquitous ‘buying and selling’). Compulsive ‘having’ is the pathology of deficient ‘being.’ Aesthetic simplicity means disconnecting from repulsive superfluity. Seeking sanctuary in wilderness surroundings, one rediscovers the gentler rhythms of low-cost rural living: walking instead of driving, and prevention of disease through a style of living consonant with ecological wisdom.’’.

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