We’ve Destroyed One-Tenth of the World’s Wilderness Since 1990

And we’re not getting it back.


The world’s wilderness areas are declining at “catastrophic” rates, according to a new study published today in Current Biology. Since 1990, we’ve lost about one-tenth of these large, mostly unpopulated landscapes—amounting to 3.3 million square kilometers, or twice the size of Alaska.

Current Biology

The lost wilderness areas, highlighted in red in the map above, were crucial for protecting endangered plants and animals, regulating local climates, and storing carbon, while some were home to indigenous communities, according to the researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia.

Since the wilderness is, by definition, relatively free from human disturbances, it’s often ignored by conservation efforts, but things like road expansion, industrial mining, forestry and large-scale agricultural operations have threatened it, the researchers note. South America and Africa have been the most affected, losing 30 percent and 14 percent of their wilderness areas, respectively, since 1990. 

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening,” James Watson, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was.”

Watson says we likely have one to two decades to turn things around: “If we don’t act soon, it will be all gone, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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