October 23, 2002
6:38 AM   Subscribe

The Wildlife Conservatory Society has just released a new map of the Human Footprint on Earth. With this map (pdf) you can see just how much wild space isn't left. For a closer look at each continent look here. So what do we do about it? Terraform the moon? Or maybe Mars? Or is our best bet for keeping Earth habitable simply to go electric?

And just to clarify, I'm talking about the impact of humanity on the earth's natural resources, not the supposed giants humans that walked with dinosaurs.
posted by Bones423 (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Analysis of the Human Footprint indicates that 83% of the land’s surface is directly influenced by human agency

I find this interesting, but what is the definition of human influence?
posted by jbelshaw at 6:45 AM on October 23, 2002

Sorry... Where does electricity come from again?

In some places there's water based electricity (tides/waterfalls), but in quite a few places it's based on non-renewable resources.

It's probably a step in the right direction, but it's definitely not a permanent solution.

I'm not worried about the earth. It's recovered from far worse disasters than us.
posted by ODiV at 7:28 AM on October 23, 2002

I don't know--we are a pretty big disaster.
Seriously though, I think you're right, the earth will probably find a way to fix itself, regardless of what happens to us.
Even renewable-resource electricity like waterfalls and windmills have environmental impacts. (See here, here, here.)
Much less destructive than burning coal all day, but still, there may not be such a thing as a completely 'clean' energy source.
posted by Fabulon7 at 8:07 AM on October 23, 2002

What a bunch of whiny assed tree hugging environmentalist bovine excrement! Don't any of them read (sorry, forgot dittoes can't read) listen to Rush? There's no such thing as humans damaging the earth! Get over it! Damned Gaia worshipping heathens!
posted by nofundy at 8:21 AM on October 23, 2002

Thanks, Bones. The Burdick Man was a nice touch, too! Personally, I'm beginning to take comfort in things like Hopi end-days prophecies. That might give the Earth a new start!
posted by Shane at 8:34 AM on October 23, 2002

Cool map. Its high level. There are some questions like why are there many black holes in North America but relativly few in Europe and Japan and China. But gives an idea which areas are still virgin. Everyone pile on Alaska!
posted by stbalbach at 8:39 AM on October 23, 2002

jbelshaw - that's the problem. "Human influence" on the natural world is very, very real and yet impossible to get a good empirical grip on. And so various political interests will (especially in the US) continue to deny, for as long as there's a profit in such denial, that humans are having any significant impact at all. Thus, the propaganda work Global Warming and other Eco-Myths

Contrast the claim that Global Warming is an "Eco-Myth" with the research summarized in these free online books from the US National Academy Press, by the National research Council ["The Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy's purposes of further knowledge and advising the federal government."]

One title: Nature and human society - the quest for a sustainable world

Other relevant titles: Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions (2001) and Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises (2002) Here is their catalog

At a major environmental conference last year (the 1st Omega Institute/Resurgence conference, 9/6-9 2001 - note the date) I chanced upon an unnanounced, semi private screening, before about 30 people, of a new piece of "State of the World" visualization software, the WorldWatcher Project being developed by one of the world's leading "Sustainability" experts, Hardin Tibbs. [Tibbs hoped that it would be the new "Killer App." - doesn't that term seem dated now!]Also present were the brilliant eco-techno-wonk and founder of the Rocky Montain Institute Amory Lovins, along with the visionary (self taught, now advisor to many governments around the world), Hazel Henderson (currently advocating the Tobin Tax) .

Environmentalists being what they are.....either terminally gloomy or just realistic.....the conversation soon devolved, and I was treated to Tibb's assesment (as one of the world's top "Sustainability" experts) of the State of the World: Two decades.......if we don't deal with this stuff in 2 decades, we're toast!. The "stuff" Tibbs meant included the human impact on planetary biological systems (Global warming and Global Climate Change included) as well as poverty, militarism, and so on.

It is worth noting that Tibbs, Lovins, and their ilk are people who are as far from being "Luddites" as one could imagine. Tibbs helped pioneer some of the most important closed-loop manufacturing concepts ( such as the process whereby the waste of one industrial process is used as an input by another manufacterer with a plant located next door.) and Lovins advocates the implementation of radical, high tech energy saving technologies. These are folks who BELIEVE in technology and free-market mecahnisms.

They also believe that if we don't agressively move to reduce the human impact on the planet, and to reduce instability in general.......we're toast.

There is much relevant research to back them up

By the way, since mention of BJORN LOMBORG is almost certain to pop up in this thread, here is E.O. Wilson on Lomborg's claims ( Wilson is one of the most prolific and famous, highly regarded scientists in the World) :

"My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval. The question is: How much load should be tolerated before a response is necessary? Lomborg is evidently over the threshold....Lomborg's estimate of extinction rates is at odds with the vast majority of respected scholarship on extinction."

E.O. Wilson on species extinction

Here are more detailed refurtations of Lomborg's claims, some from the leading experts in their fields (excerpted from Something is Rotten, from Grist Magazine:

Stephen Schneider on climate change (and Global warming)
Norma Meyers on species diversity
Lester Brown on population
Emily Mathews on forests
Allen Hammond on statistics
Devra Davis on human health
David N. Nemtzow on energy
posted by troutfishing at 8:48 AM on October 23, 2002 [1 favorite]

Excellent post, troutfishing! Thanks.
posted by rushmc at 9:18 AM on October 23, 2002

When did the division between man and the rest of nature take place? What is nature's preferred status? If Gaia exists- how can we do anything BUT her will?
posted by quercus at 9:27 AM on October 23, 2002

Well gee, would it help the environment any if the government seized less of it?
posted by kablam at 9:46 AM on October 23, 2002

quercus The idea of that division took hold sometime after the Renaissance. The Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, man vs. nature, and all that... "The Enlightenment temperament's high opinion of man rested on man's rational intellect and on his ability to exploit the laws of nature."1 This idea lies at the root of our culturally pervasive imperialism (academic, scientific, political, social, capitalist, etc. etc.). Humanism is extremely arrogant, in my opinion. We cannot subvert or exempt ourselves from the laws of nature, no matter how hard we might try.

It's like some kind of natural cosmic destiny.
posted by maniactown at 10:30 AM on October 23, 2002

"Hey, just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand!" -HJS
posted by furious-d at 10:33 AM on October 23, 2002

I agree maniactown-(note optimal environmental management is a different topic-I do not want any species to go extinct and support habitat conservation), however, this "human footprint" idea -and much of the current environmentalism- smacks of transmuted Judeo-Christian exile from the Garden of Eden and original sin, with Earth replacing Yahweh as the transgressed upon deity.
e.g. let's look at "Aspen's footprint" in North America, Populus tremuloides, the most widespread deciduous tree on the continent. I doubt few would feel its spread neds to be curtailed or long for an "aspen-free" zone, but from a foundational standpoint we are both simply organisms whose self interest requires spreading out. The proof that "Nature" itself prefers the aspen is lacking.
Of course, I myself prefer an aspen grove to a Wal-mart-but I admit this is based on my own aesthetic standards, and no doubt in the long run on my self interest in preservation of the human species. But that's as far as it goes. I'm totally sympathetic to the environmental movement-I just believe it would be better served by chunking the proto-religious element.
posted by quercus at 10:48 AM on October 23, 2002

Quercus - do you mean playing the "religious" aspect (or angle)? If so....there are lots of folks doing that now. I even have a little page of links on the subject. But googling "religious environmental movement" will pull up lots of stuff. Not too big yet in Southern Baptist circles though....
posted by troutfishing at 11:14 AM on October 23, 2002

No I mean cleansing the all too typical "man as a virus" thinking out of the environmental movement. Such thinking is more religious than scientific, and not a proper foundation for ideas which need majority support in any event.
posted by quercus at 12:00 PM on October 23, 2002

In 1999..

Earth would require a year and three months to renew the resources used by humanity in a single year. source
posted by stbalbach at 12:26 PM on October 23, 2002

troutfishing -- great post. If you have it handy could you repost the "Two decades..we're toast" link it didnt come through and Id like to read it. Thanks.
posted by stbalbach at 12:39 PM on October 23, 2002

StBalbach - Alas, alak! That wasn't a link, but an unofficial quote! - see, I found a way to make Mefi post text bold.

Unfortunately, Hardin Tibbs would probably deny up and down that he ever said that! His type needs to cultivate a "repectable" image (and he IS respectable!) to advance his cause with orthodoxy. I caught him letting it hang out a little.

I was considering writing up this episode as a short essay - it was very descriptive of the Env. community and came only three days before 9-11. All the coverage I read of that conference was fawning and sickly sweet.

I tend to believe Tibbs' prediction. I would note, for the record, that virtually the same prediction was made twenty years ago. But twenty years ago, it was very, very speculative. Now, unfortunately, such predictions are backed by (literally) billions of dollars worth of peer-reviewed research.

Quercus - But we ARE kind of like a virus, no? Or, to put it more accurately, the current human population explosion resembles any other "population overgrowth" in nature - a phenomenon charactoristic of fast breeding/fast metabolic rate species with an (initially) unlimited food source.

Unfortunately, the WHOLE EARTH is our food source, and our population won't crash until we have massively destabilized the climate and biosphere. Not that I'm suggesting that a crash is desirable. Far from it, it will (in the short term) make things far worse.

But I agree with you that the "humans as a virus" meme is really a VERY stupid theme for environmentalists to promote. I do think, however, that the environmental community gets accused of promoting this idea far more than it actually does so.
posted by troutfishing at 3:42 PM on October 23, 2002

StBalbach - Also, thanks for the "footprint" story. I like to have a cache of this sort of thing handy to usein bashing (or educating) "skeptics" ("Flat Earthers", that is) .
posted by troutfishing at 3:45 PM on October 23, 2002

until we have massively destabilized the climate and biosphere

See I view this as a corollary of the humans are a virus meme. So the climate and biosphere have a stable condition (preferred state) and we are destabilizing it.
So what is the most stable condition of the climate and biosphere? In which year, century, etc. in earth's history were the climate and biosphere maximally stabilized?

Again, from our limited species perspective I'm sure we need to address these problems, but from the biosphere's perspective-we may simply be carrying out a larger plan. If Gaia "wants" to increase the biomass on the vast expanse of Canadian and Siberian tundra, global warming has to occur and we may just be pawns in a chess game played by giants.
posted by quercus at 6:46 PM on October 23, 2002

troutfishing-- Mathis Wackernagel whos mentioned in the footprints story is a good friend of my brothers which is why I thought of it. Aparantly the idea of modeling the earth this way originates back to the 1950s we've become better at it.
posted by stbalbach at 7:53 PM on October 23, 2002

StBalbach - I wonder if your friends' brother first started attempting earth modelling during the first "IGY" - "International Geophysical Year"? An heroic thing to try, in retrospect! - Computers make a difference, and modelling's still hellishly hard. I told Tibb's that I thought his pitch for the Earth Watcher was overly optimistic for the chaotic nonlinearities. He agreed.

Quercus - but isn't this talk of the meta-plans of Gaia speculative? No, of course the earth doesn't have any specific "set point" in terms of climate and temperature.

But to answer your question, "In which year, century, etc. in earth's history were the climate and biosphere maximally stabilized?" - well, first of all. this must be qualified, as in stabilized for whom?" - well, for humans. OK. Then the answer is: we are destabilizing the climate relative to the Holocene era - the exact period, especially the last 8500 years, in which (known) human civilization developed.

And why is this important? Well, it has recently been discovered that the earth's climate is inherently unstable, and that sudden climate shifts happen quite often. It is now believed (by researchers at Wood's Hole, for example - Wood's Hole is the preeminent Oceanographic research Institution of the Planet) that we are creating conditons under which a sudden climate shift could occur.

About the biomass increase on the Siberian and Canadian tundra: OK, but boreal feebacks will, initially at least, curb biomass increase - Boreal forests will die off with rapid climate change and, in doing so, "exhale" a vats amount of carbon (thus speeding Global Warming).

If this is Gaia's plan, then Gaia is a very maladaptive system, for the rapid climate change which humans are facillitating will lead to (in the opinions of 7 out of 10 biologists: great stat, didn't toothpaste ads once use the "7 out of 10" ratio with regard to dentists advocating Colgate?) a massive "Die Off" in species equivalent to the six other known great extinction events in known Earth history. If that's Gaia's doing, well...mayube she's epileptic!

By the way, Reg Morrison, in "The Spirit in the Gene" has proposed a different, less comforting Gaian mechanism.....
posted by troutfishing at 9:08 PM on October 23, 2002

I'm sorry, but I keep finding it harder and harder to accept the notion that humans assembled have more than a marginal effect on their environment as a whole. Locally, they do. But unless there is a systematic effort to, let us say, wipe out the arable oceans around the continents, earth abides.
How dare I say this? Don't I realize how un-PC it sounds to suggest that humans don't really matter that much?

I *saw* Mt. St. Helens blow up, in short order putting years of pollution in the skies--really nasty stuff, too. I can well imagine the effect of a massive oceanic methane burst on the environment. Even solar flares could easily ruin our day. A hundred other environmental factors far greater than man, and yet the earth would adapt to them in a few years, for better or worse--for man.

Time to bow our heads with a little humbleness and say out loud, "We are not gods."
posted by kablam at 9:34 PM on October 23, 2002

Kablam - My comments are not about "PC" or "not PC", but about the fact - which has now hit the scientific mainstream - that humans are now exerting a geological scale force on the planet: on the scale of a volcano, but we erupt year after year after year........

So you don't believe that science, which has brought us the PC's we are using now to communicate, has anything meaningfull to tell us about the human effect on the planet?

I have news for you. It's an unquestioned fact that life exerts a geological scale influence on the Earth. Where do you think this oxygen we're breathing comes from? Oxygen is a highly reactive molecule. Without photosynthesizers, atmospheric oxygen levels on Earth would drop to zero.

That humans are exerting a planetary impact - in terms of Global climate, extinction rates, deforestation, and so on, is NO LONGER CONSIDERED SCIENTIFICALLY CONTENTIOUS.


The point is that th Earth's climate is (within a certain range - why the range limits? this question leads directly to Gaia) inherently unstable. And we are doing our damnest to push global climate towards one of those creepy "threshold" states which precede a sudden climate shift.

Read the National Research Council publication ("Sudden Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises") linked to above! This is NOT some random, passing "fad" in the scientific community. The report is based on a huge amount of peer-reviewed literature.

We are not "Gods" - but life on Earth has also has been exerting, for billions of years, a geological-scale force. We are just the latest phenomenon. - and probably a transitory one, especially if we keep up the denial.
posted by troutfishing at 6:01 AM on October 24, 2002

Sigh....I think I'll just go and make some butter sculptures....
posted by troutfishing at 6:30 AM on October 24, 2002

Sigh....I think I'll just go and make some butter sculptures....

I've been making mashed potato sculptures. Turns out they all look like this. Maybe something is calling me to give up my civilized human existence and go live simply there, although I should be nice enough to ask permission first. Um, Uluru's not radioactive yet, is it? ; )

...good comments, trout.
posted by Shane at 7:58 AM on October 24, 2002

Just give it up Troutfishing-if you're boy is right that we only have 20 years (19 since it's a 2001 statement)-our goose is cooked anyway.
Did you know that burning coal mine fires in China emit yearly as much greenhouse gases as every combustion engine in North America? And that's only China. Then you could add on the coal fires burning in India and even Pennsylvania (burning for 40 years I think).
So why doesn't attention focus on one readily accomplished (though not cheaply) pollution fix-dousing these fires-instead of global treaties? Beats me.
posted by quercus at 8:45 AM on October 24, 2002

I keep finding it harder and harder to accept the notion that humans assembled have more than a marginal effect on their environment as a whole.

fwiw, robotwisdom linked to this NASA study on land-use changes since 1700.

also btw jeremy rifkin gives a much-hyped hydrogen economy much-love :D only it's not getting much help from congress.
posted by kliuless at 1:09 PM on October 24, 2002

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