Biodiversity

Predictions of the Death of Wilderness May Be a Bit Premature

Most people are moving to cities and peak farmland is in the offing

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WildernessDennisSaboDreamstime
Dennis Sabo/Dreamstime

"Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environmental Targets" was the restrained title of an article just published in the journal Current Biology. The researchers reported that by comparing relevant maps that they found that 10 percent of the world's remaining wildernesses have disappeared since the 1990s. Specifically, they claim:

We demonstrate alarming losses comprising one-tenth (3.3 million km2) of global wilderness areas over the last two decades, particularly in the Amazon (30%) and central Africa (14%). We assess increases in the protection of wilderness over the same time frame and show that these efforts are failing to keep pace with the rate ofwilderness loss, which is nearly double the rate of protection. Our findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the vital values of wilderness and the unprecedented threats they face and to underscore urgent large-scale, multifaceted actions needed to maintain them.

Since the researchers basically comparing changes in images and maps, they don't go into great detail about why wilderness areas are shrinking. However they do know what they want done:

There is a clear need to focus on halting current threatening activities that have been leading to the recent erosion of wilderness areas, including limiting road expansion; preventing industrial mining, forestry, and other large-scale agricultural operations; and enforcing existing legal frameworks considering that half of all tropical forest clearing between 2000 and 2012 was illegal.

And, of course, recognizing and enforcing the property rights of local people who live on the land. Nah, just kidding: Instead they want lots more government money.

It turns out that the researchers can take heart from several trends that strongly suggest a resurgence of wild nature as this century proceeds. I discuss those trends in my book The End of Doom. First, most people are moving to cities:

By 2010, the majority of people lived in cities for the first time in history. Demographers expect that 80 percent of people will live in urban areas by 2050 or so. Setting aside the demographic fact that people who live in cities have fewer children, what this trend means is that a lot fewer people will be living on the landscape in the future. Today, about half of the world's population of 7.2 billion people lives in rural areas. Assuming that world population grows to 9 billion by 2050 and that 80 percent do live in cities, that would mean that only 1.8 billion would be on the landscape, as compared to 3.6 billion today. If world population tops out at 8 billion, then only 1.6 billion people would live in the countryside—2 billion fewer people than live there now.

In addition, humanity is close to or has already achieved peak farmland:

Considering that agriculture is the most expansive and intensive way in which people transform natural landscapes, the really good news is that the amount of land globally devoted to food production may be falling as population growth slows and agricultural productivity increases. "We believe that projecting conservative values for population, affluence, consumers, and technology shows humanity peaking in the use of farmland," conclude Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, and his colleagues in their 2013 article "Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing." They add, "Global arable land and permanent crops spanned 1,371 million hectares in 1961 and 1,533 million hectares in 2009, and we project a return to 1,385 million hectares in 2060." As a result of these trends, humanity will likely restore at least 146 million hectares, an area two and a half times that of France or the size of ten Iowas, and possibly much more land. "Another 50 years from now, the Green Revolution may be recalled not only for the global diffusion of high-yield cultivation practices for many crops, but as the herald of peak farmland and the restoration of vast acreages of Nature," write the researchers. "Now we are confident that we stand on the peak of crop- land use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature."

Fewer people and increasing agricultural productivity means more land reverting to nature. Catastrophe likely averted.

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  1. Jack will be here soon to tell us how we’re all raping the mud momma,

  2. If we don’t do something soon, in another ten years Aleppo may be gone.

    1. What’s Aleppo?

      1. It’s the place where third-party presidential aspirations go to die.

        1. I thought that was the polling place.

  3. One glance at that map tells me the whole thing is complete bullshit.

      1. No they only account for “miles traveled” since 2008. So one can quickly guess that the number of miles traveled was reduced because of the great recession. Also, they make no calculation for vehicles idling on single lane roads which used to be double lane roads, or vehicles generally idling in traffic and long light wait-times which have seen a volumetric increase throughout the city.

  4. Of all the elements of progressivism, environmentalism sickens me the most. They are the smuggest, most morally condescending of them all.

    1. Well it is the religion of progressives, why wouldn’t it’s clergy be the most pious?

    2. According to, IIRC, Naomi Klein, environmentalism is the one cause that binds all other leftist causes together.

  5. Today, in Tim Egan watch

    A voter of conscience, in a normal year, could go for Johnson and feel O.K. about it. But this year, in a tight election, any vote by an independent or a Democrat for Johnson could burden that citizen with a lifetime of guilt for handing the world over to Trump. His presidency could “lead to the end of civilization,” as his own ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz has said.

    ——————-

    I asked Bill McKibben, who may one day win a Nobel Prize for his decades of alarm-sounding about life-altering changes to Earth, what a progressive drawn to a third-party candidate should do.

    “My thinking is that the point of elections is not to find a savior,” said McKibben, who was a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders. What matters is the movement toward change, he said. But this year is different. Trump “is bad in a unique (in American presidential history) way that scares me to the marrow.”

    And that’s the crucial point. Trump should scare anyone with a brain and a heart. Just this week, he showed again how far he would move the United States to the dark side, gushing about his soul mate Vladimir Putin, and dreaming of a plunder force under our flag, stealing oil from the Mideast. In years to come, every American voter will be held to account for what they did in 2016. There’s no free pass.

    1. Assholes on both sides make this same argument every election. They never want anyone voting third party and pretend that every election is too important or the most important ever.

    2. for handing the world over to Trump.

      Fuck you, progressives. You’re the ones that insist on “handing the world over” to the executive. You and you alone have pushed for that harder than any other group, bar none. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.

    3. In years to come, every American voter will be held to account for what they did in 2016. There’s no free pass.

      You’ll be held to account for cheering a guy with a pen and a phone. You, your fault. No one else’s.

    4. Calling bullshit on that savior comment. I can’t find a single Bernie supporter who didn’t see him as some sort of messiah. The cult of personality around Bernie was as strong as the one around Trump, easily

  6. Tim Egan: rational, logical, dispassionate analysis; fresh from the grownups’ table.

  7. This looks like more Journolist crap. The past week has seen a bevy of articles on the loss of wilderness in connection the 100th anniversary of the National Parks. Or maybe 20 different authors were simultaneously struck by the same story idea from the blue.

  8. Our findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the vital values of wilderness and the unprecedented threats they face…

    …from poor people trying to attain more comfortable lives for themselves and their families?

  9. I’m not clear on what the catastrophe is supposed to be if there is less land sitting around not being used.

    1. I picture Rhywun speaking with a thick Russian accent with a framed picture of Aristotle dominating here office.

      Be still my beating heart.


  10. I’m not clear on what the catastrophe is supposed to be if there is less land sitting around not being used.

    In ur wilderniss, stealin ur viewshedz!

  11. From what little i’ve seen of these claims of ‘shrinking wilderness, they’re a lot like America’s non-existent “infrastructure crisis“, which (despite 90%+ of all infrastructure being state & local issues) requires urgent Federal Intervention.

    The claim often amounts to land which has had its designations changed because of a single-road (for emergency access) being constructed, or some other sort of ‘access enabling feature’. (some cutting down of small areas for fire-breaks, or similar),…. and they’ll have you believe that otherwise-pristine areas have come entirely under the axe/bulldozer.

    Its a bit like the kerfuffle over the Federalization of the Katadin Woods area

    its not so much that the areas are BEING despoiled, or even used in any way beyond ‘recreation’; its that the mere ‘potential’ bothers people so that they’re insisting that anything wild become “federal” property. Often because they think Federalizing a park makes it a better tourist destination.

    I’m not sure that is (or should be) the case. I grew up spending time @ Mohonk Preserve – privately owned ‘wilderness’ area. I think its a great model for how many parks SHOULD be run.

    1. From what little i’ve seen of these claims of ‘shrinking wilderness, they’re a lot like America’s non-existent “infrastructure crisis”, which (despite 90%+ of all infrastructure being state & local issues) requires urgent Federal Intervention.

      Well, if the locals ignore maintenance and things start to fail, it becomes a state issue. If the state then ignores it and it gets worse, it becomes a Federal issue. Once the media picks it up, it becomes an urgent priority and has to be fixed? with Federal money. State and local don’t have to pay, so it’s a win for them.

      As more local and state governments pick up on that, everything becomes a national priority and we get the unitary government the left wants.

      1. Well, if the locals ignore maintenance and things start to fail, it becomes a state issue. If the state then ignores it and it gets worse, it becomes a Federal issue

        No. You need to read the linked story.

        1. California is indeed engaging in rent seeking:

          But the proof that even this is an overwhelmingly state and local problem is evident in another list maintained by the DOT.

          That list would be a rank ordering called “The Most Travelled Structurally Deficient Bridges, 2013?. These are the opposite of the covered bridges of Madison County, but even here there is a cautionary tale. It seems that of the 100 most heavily traveled bridges in the US by rank order, and which are in need of serious repair, 80% of them are in California!

          Moreover, they are overwhelmingly state highway and municipal road and street bridges located in Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire. Stated differently, Governor Moonbeam has not miraculously solved California endemic fiscal crisis; he’s just neglected the local infrastructure. There is no obvious reasons why taxpayers in Indiana or North Carolina needed to be fixing California’s bridges? so that it can continue to finance its outrageously costly public employee pension system.

  12. We may be nearing peak farmland — unless they keep pushing biofuels!

  13. Confirmation bias is confirmed in their acknowledgements:

    We especially thank ? among the vast array of conservation professionals who have helped us with this idea over the past 2 years.

    How could this study have turned out any other way?

  14. Dear Editors of and Reviewers for Current Biology,

    This…

    Our findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the vital values of wilderness and the unprecedented threats they face and to underscore urgent large-scale, multifaceted actions needed to maintain them.

    …is not science.

  15. But even if GMOs allow us to use less farmland, fuck those things, right? Obviously the scientists don’t buy into that, but their allies in bringing about these changes are usually the progressives, who currently hate GMOs, so the end result of their policies would be less farmland, and less productive farmland. Classic progs: here’s a problem we care about, but we reject the most obvious course of action

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