- The report, titled Nature Unbound, was put out by the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental think tank.
- Examining scholarly research and data, the report outlines declining human impacts on a number of natural resources.
- To get to the point where humanity’s total environmental impact starts declining, the report suggests some controversial strategies, such as intensifying agriculture though feedlot meat production and greater reliance on GMOs, fertilizers, and pesticides.
Areport released last month finds that some human impacts on the natural world are slowing, and others have even started to decline. The report’s authors cite this as evidence for a conservation theory that holds that the dispersal and advancement of technology and information can enable humans to reduce their reliance on natural resources, thereby preserving nature and ourselves.
The report, titled Nature Unbound, was put out by the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland, California. It outlines “a technological strategy that could create more space for nature and reduce habitat and biodiversity loss in the next two decades,” Linus Blomqvist, the director of conservation at Breakthrough, told Mongabay.
Examining scholarly research and data from the past several decades, Blomqvist and his coauthors see declining human impacts on a number of natural resources that result in biodiversity loss, including the harvesting of wild meat, fish, and wood; the transformation of wild land into farms; and pollution. Assessing these trends, Nature Unbound aims to “inform conservation for the 21st century … [and] what decoupling can do to protect wildlife and natural habitats.”
Decoupling, the concept that human survival, economic growth, and civilizational advancement can be detached from environmental damage, is central to this study. Accelerating decoupling can hasten the day that we reach “peak impact,” the report’s authors argue.
The report describes how, over the course of human history, “demand for food, water, energy, materials, and living space has increased manifold. The production of these goods and services has entailed widespread biodiversity loss through impacts ranging from wildlife harvesting to land-use change, water extraction, and pollution.”
As Jesse Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University in New York, explained to Mongabay: “For a long time, maybe thousands of years, use of natural resources — water, energy, land, materials — moved in tandem with the growth of the economy. So if we wanted the economy to grow, we used more forest, we used more water, we used more farmland and so forth.” Ausubel has long studied decoupling and the authors of Nature Unbound cite his research as a major inspiration for their report.
That’s starting to change, Ausubel said. “For example, crop production started to decouple from land [use] starting in around 1930 or 1940. So crop production has multiplied while land use has essentially stayed the same.”
Forest destruction is slowing, the report points out. According to a recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization that relies mainly on self-reported data, since 1990 net forest loss (forest loss offset by forest recovery and new plantations) has slowed by more than 50 percent. So has the transformation of wild spaces into farmland. Humans no longer hunt wild animals as much as they used to, easing pressure on land and sea animals. Even pollution is decreasing.
In general, the report’s authors conclude, some human impacts on the natural world are slowing, plateauing, or beginning to decline. And most have declined on a per capita basis.
“The per-capita farmland requirement (cropland and pasture) has declined by half in the last half-century,” the report states. “Global consumption of wood has plateaued, contributing to a slight decline in the area of production forest since 1990. While overharvesting of wild animals for meat has increased in the tropics, most developed countries have decoupled from this form of impact. The world has almost entirely decoupled from whaling. Total water consumption increased by 170% between 1950 and 1995, but per-capita water consumption peaked around 1980 and declined thereafter.”
With concerted effort from governments and non-governmental organizations, the report’s authors conclude, “continued and accelerated decoupling can allow human impacts on the environment to peak and decline this century.”
It’s a hopeful outlook. The report, along with a document written by some of its authors called “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” is an attempt to “define an environmental philosophy in a way that embraces the use of technology more than classical environmentalism does, and rejects apocalyptic narratives about the environment,” as Blomqvist put it.
However, there are concerns that if decoupling is happening on a global scale, the situation at a local level is much different. A 2014 study published in the journal Sustainability looked specifically at environmental decoupling in Malta, an island in the Mediterranean, and concluded: “If decoupling is indeed to be considered a measure of sustainability, then it needs to factor in environmental degradation at more than just the global scale.” Progress on a single indicator like carbon emissions, the study noted, “may disguise significant environmental degradation in other spheres” — like water pollution, for example.
In other places, such as Indonesia, rampant deforestation has destroyed ecosystems at a rate that has increased in recent years. Between 2000 and 2012 Indonesia lost more than 6 million hectares of primary forest, according to a former data scientist at Indonesia’s forestry ministry who claimed that UN and official government data underestimates the real rate of deforestation. The 840 thousand hectares lost in 2012 was the most of any country in the world, more even than Brazil, which has four times as much forest. As they deal with ongoing destruction, conservationists in Indonesia, which has the third-most tropical forest of any country in the world, are unlikely to be comforted by the fact that global deforestation rates have eased.
Moreover, as a major 2011 study on decoupling by the United Nations Environment Programme concluded, “resource and impact decoupling are already taking place, though at a rate that is insufficient to meet the needs of an equitable and sustainable society.” Though the study’s authors note a need for continued decoupling, they found that getting there “will require significant changes in government policies, corporate behavior, and consumption patterns by the public. These changes will not be easy … far greater efforts will be required in the coming years.”
The authors of Nature Unbound offer suggestions about how decoupling can be accelerated, and aim to inject a sense of hopefulness in the world of conservation. The report comes at an opportune time. Just in the past month, several studies have detailed humans’ alarmingly destructive impact on the natural world.
The amount of fish in the world’s oceans has fallen by half since 1970, researchers from the WWF and the Zoological Society of London announced last month, pushing sea life to the “brink of collapse.” The populations of some species like tuna and mackerel have dropped by 75 percent.
“This report suggests that billions of animals have been lost from the world’s oceans in my lifetime alone,” Ken Norris, the director of science at the ZSL, said in a statement when the report was released. “This is a terrible and dangerous legacy to leave to our grandchildren.”
Meanwhile, a team of 38 scientists announced in the journal Nature that almost half the number of trees that stood on earth before humans started cutting them down are now gone. And they estimate that humans chop down 15 billion more each year.
And yet, perhaps there is some cause for hope. As Nature Unbound notes, the slowdown in net forest loss occurred over a period in which the human population increased almost 40 percent.
The authors of Nature Unbound celebrate trends like that as evidence of how human society is de-linking economic and population growth from environmental destruction.
“Impacts in total have grown but they’re growing more slowly now,” Blomqvist told Mongabay. “If these declines in the per capita impacts can continue, that creates the possibility of total impacts actually peaking and declining.”
To get there, the report suggests some strategies that might make more traditional environmentalists shudder. Substituting feedlot meat production systems for grass-fed ones, for example, uses 45 percent less land and creates 40 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of beef produced, Nature Unbound notes, citing data from a study on farm systems in the journal Animals. Or consider aquaculture: farmed fish and other seafood takes pressure off wild stocks, the report notes. And it’s getting more efficient. Two decades ago it took one ton of wild fish biomass to produce one ton of farmed fish biomass; these days it only takes a little over half a ton, according to a 2009 study in the journal PNAS.
There are still environmental impacts involved in feedlot systems and aquaculture, the report cautions, such as the destruction of forests for farmland and of marine habitats for shrimp farming. And there are other negative impacts the report fails to mention, like the appalling conditions on some feedlot farms where miserable animals are force-fed grain — which is not the food their bodies evolved to digest — a controversial practice that some say results in poorer tasting meat.
But industrial farming and aquaculture are better than the wholesale slaughter of wildlife and destruction of habitat, the Breakthrough analysts conclude. “Especially in terms of reducing habitat loss, there’s massive evidence that even more industrial large-scale farming can be a big part of the solution,” Blomqvist told Mongabay.
Blomqvist endorsed other controversial conservation techniques. Genetically modified crops, he said, can boost agricultural efficiency and have the potential to feed millions of hungry people. But studies have shown that they can also lead to biodiversity loss and make it easier for pests to destroy vast fields of crops. In the developing world, he said governments should improve farmers’ access to fertilizer and pesticides. But the use of these can sometimes result in habitat destruction. Blomqvist also suggested that swapping out biomass, such as wood and charcoal, for more efficient sources of energy like natural gas or nuclear power could greatly improve both human and environmental health because gathering biomass is time consuming and burning it is inefficient, destructive to the natural environment, and generates unhealthy air pollution.
Preferring to take a big-picture and optimistic approach to conservation, Ausubel brushed aside concerns that global warming could put increased pressure on agriculture, destroy coastal habitats as sea levels rise, and lead to a host of other developments — like mass human migration or monoculture farming becoming threatened by pests — that might undermine humanity’s ability to feed itself and repair damage to the natural world.
“Global warming is kind of a chance card,” Ausubel said. “No one really knows what the weather in 2050 is going to be.”
But, he acknowledged, “Things can break down. Complex societies have collapsed. Any vision like this depends on the social fabric being intact.”
- Blomqvist L., Nordhaus T., Shellenberger M. (2015). Nature Unbound. The Breakthrough Institute, Oakland, California, USA.
- FAO (2015). Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015. Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations. Rome, Italy.
- WWF (2015).Living Blue Planet Report. Species, habitats and human well-being. Tanzer, J., Phua, C., Lawrence, A., Gonzales, A., Roxburgh, T. and P. Gamblin (Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.
- Crowther, T.W. et al. (2015). Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature 525: 201–205.
- Capper J.L. (2012). Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems. Animals 2(2): 127-143.
- Rosamond L. Naylor R.L. (2009). Feeding aquaculture in an era of finite resources. PNAS 106(36) 15103–15110,