The areas that had been exploited the most heavily were those suitable for agriculture, with arid deserts and chilly boreal regions being least vulnerable.
Furthermore, the most biologically rich and imperiled areas of the planet -- the so-called “biodiversity hotspots” -- have suffered tremendously. Ninety-seven percent of their total area had been heavily altered by 2009.
These numbers are pretty scary. But there’s another, more optimistic way to look at them.
From 1993 to 2009, the global human footprint rose by just 9 percent. That’s a lot smaller than the growth of the human population -- which rose by 23 percent -- or the expansion of the global economy – which exploded by over 150 percent -- during the same period.
Hence, while human impacts are expanding in many areas and often becoming more intense where they previously occurred, at least -- thank God -- they are not growing at the same breakneck pace as the human population or the global economy.
If that were so, there would barely be a square centimeter of pristine land left on the planet.
An important caveat of the new study is that it looks only at human land uses. The impacts of human-induced climate change are not considered. If they were, it is likely that the entire planet would already be altered in some way.
Still, the study suggests that humans are becoming more efficient in our use of land. That’s surely good news.
There’s not a lot of land left unaffected by humans on Earth. A vital priority is to use the lands we’ve already exploited more efficiently.
For example, across large areas of the planet, farming is inefficient, producing just a fraction of the amount of food per hectare that would be possible with more modern farming methods, fertilizers, and high-yielding plant varieties.