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We’ve long known the detriments human activity has on our planet. And even more alarming is that, despite our knowledge, that impact continues to grow. But finally, there’s something positive surfacing about this rate.

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Researchers have now found that though the impact of human activity on the planet is still, unfortunately, continuing to grow, it’s now doing so at a slower rate than our economic and population growth.

While humans continue to take over the planet at the expense of many species and the natural world at large, the upside is that the slowdown at least gives us reason for hope—suggesting we’re getting better at managing what we take from the environment.

“Seeing that our impacts have expanded at a rate that is slower than the rate of economic and population growth is encouraging,” explains lead researcher Oscar Venter from the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada. “It means we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources.”

The team behind the study is made up of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and eight universities from around the world. Together, they used satellite data and on-ground surveys to determine how, between 1993 and 2009, human activity altered natural habitats globally.

During that time, the researchers discovered that the global population grew 23 percent, and the global economy grew 153 percent. Yet, despite this growth, they found that the global human footprint only grew by 9 percent. And while this is, of course, still a concerning statistic, it’s at the very least less so than the population and economic ones. 

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The researchers attribute the increasing efficiency to the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) hypothesis, since it suggests that environmental pressures are at their worst when industrial societies are amidst the early stages of development, and then start to slow down in relation to financial growth as markets modernize. So, as countries become more industrialized, their human footprint begins to back off.

Nonetheless, humanity’s imprint on the planet is disturbing. “Our maps show that three quarters of the planet is now significantly altered and 97 percent of the most species-rich places on Earth have been seriously altered,” explains one of the team, James Watson from the University of Queensland in Australia. “There is little wonder there is a biodiversity crisis.”

To get an idea yourself, the researchers made their data accessible online via an interactive website that allows you to compare the human footprint in 1993 and then see how it changed by 2009. The website also lets you view where human activity is putting increasing or decreasing pressure on the environment.

The increasing human footprint reveals that habitats that were once null of any sign of human activity are becoming smaller in area, but more slowly than they once were.

To delve into the positivity of the study’s findings, it’s important to understand that responsible environmental practices are making headway around the world.

“Sustainable development is a widely espoused goal, and our data demonstrates clear messages of how the world can get there,” explains Venter. “Concentrate people in towns and cities so their housing and infrastructure needs are not spread across the wider landscape, and promote honest governments that are capable of managing environmental impacts.”

The researchers also concluded that the most improvement occurred in wealthy nations and areas with low corruption levels. Though, because rich countries consume more poor countries, they still have more ground to make up.

“In broad terms, industrial nations and those with lower corruption appear to be doing a better job of slowing the expansion of their human footprint than poorer countries with weak governance,” notes researcher Bill Laurance from James Cook University in Australia. “But the wealthy countries have a much higher per-capita footprint, so each person there is consuming a lot more than those in poorer nations.”

The researchers want the policy makers to use the maps and data to improve conservation efforts on the little untouched habitats we still have, while also ensuring the removal of existing pressures humans have put on the environment.

“Humans are the most voracious consumers planet Earth has ever seen. With our land-use, hunting and other exploitative activities, we are now directly impacting three quarters of Earth’s land surface,” explains Laurance. “The bottom line is that we need to slow rampant population growth, especially in Africa and parts of Asia, and demand that people in wealthy nations consume less.”


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