A study published in Current Biology says modern day practices will eliminate the world’s remaining wilderness in less than 85 years if nothing is done.
Wilderness, the undeveloped lands and forests of our world that have defied civilization’s attempts to tame them, are in danger of disappearing entirely. A new study published in Current Biology shows that attempts to protect remaining wilderness areas have done little to stabilize the effects of wilderness loss, which occurs at nearly double the rate of wilderness protection.
In less than two decades, the amount of wilderness lost measures 3.3 million kilometers, an area twice the size of Alaska and one-tenth of the world’s entire uncultivated land. The study blamed logging and timber companies, livestock grazing, corporate exploitation, industrial pollution, conventional agriculture, irresponsible land clearing, and other damaging practices that continue unabated despite the immense damage they cause to the planet. This unprecedented loss of wilderness puts life on the entire planet at risk and is much more of a threat than climate change.
Wilderness areas are refuges for important ecological and evolutionary processes that can function without human intervention, strongholds for endangered biodiversity, buffers for regulating local climates, world oxygen production, and the lifeline for many of the world’s indigenous communities. Losing wilderness represents what is arguably the largest threat to life on this planet as its ecological functions are essential to all life and its damage is usually considered to be irreversible.
The majority of the 3.3 million kilometers that have disappeared completely in the last 20 years were mostly rainforest. 30% of the total wilderness loss occurred in the Amazon rainforest with an additional 14% taking place in the rainforests of Central Africa. Rainforests, despite covering only 7% of the Earth’s surface, account for more than half of the world’s species diversity, including numerous endangered species.
As any ecologist will tell you, diversity is the cornerstone of a healthy and well-functioning ecosystem and its loss can put the entire ecosystem in danger of complete collapse. As a result of wilderness loss, more than 70,000 species are being lost every year. That’s 200 species gone extinct every day and 8 species lost every hour. Even though the study estimates all wilderness to be gone by 2100, we may face planetary ecosystem collapse well before then if nothing is done to end the exploitation and destruction of the few wild places that remain.
Though humans have altered the environment for millennia, the level of wilderness destruction since the Industrial Revolution is unprecedented in all of human history. The wilderness became “savage,” something to be conquered instead of something to be appreciated. The hubris of a few sought to dominate nature as well as those who sought to protect it. The wilderness is more than a place essential to ecosystem health and planetary biodiversity.
It is the wild essence found within everyone, the part of humanity that refuses to bow to authority’s heavy hand and demands of obedience to a system that will destroy us. Though it may be dormant in many, it is there all the same. The wilderness is inside every protestor who stands against the clearing of a forest, the construction of a pipeline, and the contamination of a river. It is also inside anyone who stands against injustice as well as those who seek to correct injustice.
We evolved in the wilderness and losing it means losing what it means to be human. The battle to save the wilderness is more than a battle to save the planet. It is also a battle to save the essence of who and what we are.