The Human Footprint Is Expanding Fast

The area exploited significantly by civilization grew from 77% of ice-free land in 1993 to 86% by 2009.

There’s good news and bad news in how human beings are exploiting the world’s resources. The bad news first. Between 1993 and 2009, the “human footprint” expanded significantly, putting many sensitive biodiverse areas at risk. The good news: This expansion was a good deal slower than growth of the world economy as a whole, suggesting that we’re beginning to use land more efficiently.


The calculation comes from new research led by researchers at James Cook University, in Australia. It finds that the area exploited significantly by civilization grew from 77% of ice-free land in 1993 to 86% by 2009. The study looks at total area used up by cities, agriculture, and other uses.

In the same period, the global population grew by 23%, and the international economy enlarged by 150%. “It is positive, but be aware that the amount of intact land and habitat that is free from human impacts is shrinking very rapidly,” says Bill Laurance, one of the researchers, in an email. “That’s probably one of the main reasons we’re becoming more efficient. We’re running out of unsettled arable land and we’re being forced to use the existing, already-settled land more efficiently.”

Previously intact areas that have now been settled include parts of Indonesia, the southern Amazon, the Brazilian Atlantic forests, West Africa, and Madagascar, Laurance says. The southern and northern tips of Africa, plus southern Asia and the Middle East are also “hot spots” for biodiversity under pressure, maps from the paper show.

“The intense pressures on places [with] very high concentrations of locally endemic species that have suffered severe habitat loss is the most worrying trend,” Laurance says. “That, plus the fact that almost anywhere where the land is suitable for farming or grazing is under serious pressure.”

See more from the maps here.

[Cover Photo: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA]


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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.