Globally, Land Degrading Faster Than Expected

A fascinating yet terrifying new study [ark] finds that 24% of the Earth's land is degrading, some of it formerly quite productive. This is the first accurate satellite based quantification of land degradation [search]. Prior to this it was assumed to be limited to 15%. Land degradation — the decline in the quality of soil, water and vegetation — is of profound importance. Comparison with land use reveals that 19% of the degrading area is cropland and 43% forest, releasing at least a billion tons of carbon in 22 years at a cost of at least $50 billion. Old forest logging, biofuel plantations, urban sprawl, climate change, water diversion and countless other methodical diminishments of intact natural ecosystems are to blame. As goes the land (and sky and water and oceans and animals) will go humanity.
Blog entry with Rainforest Rescue


  1. Nothing I can think of can be more vital to a good enough future for the children than a global flow of ideas regarding the population dynamics of the human species on Earth. A virtual mountain of scientific knowledge supports the near-universal understanding that a finite planet with the size, composition and frangible ecology of Earth cannot be expected to much longer support an endlessly growing number of human beings worldwide, many too many of whom appear to be willfully choosing to increase in an unbridled way their conspicuous per-capita consumption and unnecessary overproduction of stuff.
    With the hope of promoting necessary discussion of the subject of global human population growth, I would like to share a recent email from one of our most respected colleagues, Dr. Gary Peters, a splendid contributor to the blogosphere.
    “Steve has mentioned the work below but I'm not sure how many of you have actually been able to look at it. It is solid and worth your time, especially if you have an interest in population growth and any variation on the idea of sustainability.
    P.S. For those who like such data, the world population now grows by close to 220,000 people per day.”
    end —
    If you will, please rigorously examine the presentation, World Food and Human Population Growth.
    Usual objections to the research of Russell Hopfenberg, Ph.D. and David Pimentel, Ph.D., have focused the human community's attention upon “Demographic Transition Theory.” Although this theory is descriptive in character, the demographic transition theory has been widely shared, consensually validated and erroneously deployed, by many too many demographers and economists in particular, as a tool for effectively predicting the end of population growth soon and the automatic stabilization of the human population on Earth in the middle of Century XXI.
    With remarkable clarity the research of human population dynamics by Hopfenberg and Pimentel shows us that, as a predictor of the increase or decrease of absolute global human population numbers, the theory of the demographic transition is fatally flawed and directly contradicted by more adequate scientific evidence.
    While the theory of the demographic transition does offer a useful historical view of recent patterns of human population growth, its value as a tool to forecast the increase or decrease the population numbers of the human species worldwide can now be seen, in the light of new research, as fundamentally defective.
    If the human family continues choosing to keep doing precisely what we are doing now as absolute global human population numbers skyrocket toward a projected 9+ billion people, can reason or common sense possibly support the idea that future outcomes regarding human population growth will be any different either from the results we are seeing now or the results which have been occurring throughout recorded history?
    Perhaps someone will kindly explain what you think will happen that would effectively lead to the stabilization of population numbers of the human species in the year 2050, given the fully anticipated young age distribution of the global human population at that time?
    At the midpoint of the twenty-first century, what do you suppose hundreds upon hundreds of millions of fertile young people, who are expected to be capable of reproducing, will be doing with their sexual drives and instincts other than what their ancestors did for thousands of years?
    Psychologists have often commented about such circumstances in this manner: doing the same things over and over again while fully expecting that a new succession of events will somehow magically occur is an example of extreme foolishness.

  2. Over the past 20 years, now 30, I've become increasingly distressed that people discuss numbers. Scholars concern themselves with carrying capacity and sustainability. The linear production of crops is compared with the algebraic progression of population but the fundamental problem is systems. Consider the agricultural system. Degradation of croplands is up, not 15% but 24%. Consider the transportation system. We have burned 1 trillion barrels, the easy half, of 2 trillion barrels of oil not all of which will ever be withdrawn. Consider the economic system. The top 1% of the world are accumulating via an infinite system, the capitalist system, based on finite resources. And all of us are engaged in infinite systems on a finite planet.

  3. If the Earth is finite and humankind is rapidly dissipating Earth's limited resource base as well as irreversibly degrading Earth's environment, where will the resources and ecosystem services come from to sustain a human population that is fully expected to grow to 9.1 billion people a mere 40 years from now?
    Consider that the Earth is not the cornucopia economists have told us it is. Economists are ideologues not scientists who have repetitiously stated what is clearly wrong about the way the world we inhabit works and done so many times. As a consequence, many too many people have ended up believing the specious ideas the economists have promoted so repetitively, dishonestly and duplicitously for the sake of their and their super-rich and powerful benefactors' selfish interests.

  4. The USDA-ARS have dozens of studies happening now to ferret out the reasons for Biochar's affinity with MYC fungi and microbes, but this synergy is solidly shown by the Japanese work, literally showing 1+1=4
    This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of pertinence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.
    Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from. We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.
    It's hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel.
    Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw; "Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes; "Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !". Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar., build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. As one microbiologist said on the Biochar list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat". By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.
    Thanks for your attentions,
    Erich J. Knight
    Shenandoah Gardens

  5. I totally agree that a discussion about land degradation must also go hand-in-hand with talking about population growth. I believe that the Malthusian Doctrine is correct in suggesting that the world's population grows at a geometric rate while the production of items we need for sustenance only grows at an arithmetic rate. To keep up with the booming population, food production has increased which in turn is deteriorating the quality of the earth. Nutrients in the soil keep getting depleted the longer the soil is used for growing crops. Plus, global warming changes the growing season for crops & depending on the crop, that fact could greatly affect the amount of food that is available to harvest. As we humans are so dependent on the land for our survival, you'd think we'd be more careful not to destroy it…

  6. When I look at the deforestation that occurs around the world, the urban sprawl into natural habitats and the continual lack of water in many countries this is all very alarming. When you look at all of these issues, and see the devastation that we are doing to our planet then something bad, really bad, is going to occur. You cannot keep depleting our resources and not expect negative fall-out. I work mainly on animal habitat issues, which involve pretty much everything (deforestation, urban sprawl, agriculture, etc) there is nothing that does not affect the animal habitats. What I believe people do not always see is the connection between our animals and humans. If you have high extinction rates because of deforestation or because of loss of land due to agriculture or urbanization, not only does this affect the animal tree of life, it affects our tree of life. As an Environmental Science student I have been able to get the proof, over and over, that we are ALL connected and when you break the cycle of life in any of our structures, you will eventually break the structure of man. We all have very strong views on our beliefs and that is great, but whether you believe or not believe in Global Warming/Climate Change is just a small piece of what we should be doing. We all have a responsibility to leave this planet in better shape than when we arrived. We are only here a short time and I believe that we all have a responsibility to be the best stewards we can while we are here. We should be fighting for those issues we believe in and we need to continually make smart choices for our future generations.

  7. Ebie
    Mukah Polytechnic
    Date: May 12, 2009
    I am a young lady who grew up in a long house shared by thirty other families, reside now in Sibu and currently study at Mukah Polytechnic.
    I used to enjoy my youth being able to wander free with friends my age and venture into the wilderness to enjoy the flora and fauna, natural habitat and observe deer roaming free.
    Fishing and being able to jump into the river was fun and carefree, we could swim and shower.
    Nowadays, as "development" encroach on the natural habitat of the crocodiles, humans removing more than their share of fishes and prawns, these crocodiles turn around and feed on humans due to scarcity of food from their former habitat.
    Flash floods are common nowadays or very low tides forcing crocodiles to migrate out to sea to seek for food. They moved out of their natural habitat and prey on the easiest prey -; humans.
    Explosives would be used to stun those fishes which deplete the fish stocks while silt and pollution contribute to the pollution of rivers, silt and mud from upstream activities fill rivers and over time, we no long find some of the rivers we used to enjoy as youth.
    Nowadays, what I observed is hill cleared but never re-planted in years probably due top soil damaged in disrepair and loggers only planned to rape the forests with little or no intentions to cultivate those land they've cleared.
    On those large tracts of land being cultivated, slash and burn is a norm and as youth, it was very unpleasant to grow up under those very unpleasant conditions.
    There are established policies to stop these slash and burn activities but they are still being burned openly, rampantly and who makes the efforts to stop these burning?
    We have been told that this is rural development? Development for "who"? Roads were damaged beyond repair and who is maintaining or supposed to maintain those roads?
    Development is planting oil palms which benefit a selected few while depriving a large majority of their land and livelihood.
    These oil palm estates covers large tracts of land which were converted from natural forests peat swamp forests, these activities are on-going to rape and destroy trees barely mature to sustain the natural habitat of flora, fauna and even protected animals whose habitat will be permanently destroyed after the conversion.
    Until recently were many places were without coverage for mobile-phones and applying for fixed line phone services practically takes forever.
    Before we gained entry into an institution of higher learning, having access to the Internet was a privilege and alien to us and data services are still inaccessible in some places.
    Many schools have been built far exceeding capacity necessary with few students so certain learning aids and quality teaching staff seem to be lacking.
    May 12, 2009
    Impact of oil palm cultivation
    By Grace Chua
    Palm oil plantations are responsible for deforestation and biodiversity loss in Malaysia and Indonesia. –PHOTO: REUTERS
    PALM oil plantations are responsible for deforestation and biodiversity loss in Malaysia and Indonesia, scientists say.
    But, they add, these can be managed to a limited extent.
    Together, Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 80 per cent of the world's palm oil, which has a variety of uses – for food, fuel, the cosmetics industry and others.
    Last year, Malaysia produced just under 22 million metric tonnes of palm oil, worth RM65 billion (S$27 billion), and Indonesia is fast catching up.
    And as demand for alternative fuels to cut carbon emissions rises, so does demand for palm oil, which can be used for biodiesel.
    But Singaporean scientist Koh Lian Pin said that between 1990 and 2005, 55 to 59 per cent, or 0.8 million to 1.1 million hectares, of Malaysia's new oil palm developments were cultivated on former forest lands – meaning that forests were being cut down for plantations.
    The same was true of Indonesia, with over half of new oil palm plantations in the same period coming from forests.
    Dr Koh, now a research fellow at Swiss technological institute ETH Zurich, presented his findings at a conference at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Tuesday.
    At the conference, organised by Yale University, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and NUS, industry players, scientists and NGOs, discussed the impact of oil palm cultivation.
    Dr Koh also surveyed the number of bird and butterfly species in oil palm estates, and noted that plantations generally held just a quarter of the species contained in primary forests.
    He recommended measures to safeguard biodiversity, such as expanding plantations only into non-forested areas, and protecting primary and secondary forest.
    Responding to Dr Koh's comments, Dr Kalyana Sundram of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council said the council had a RM20 million (S$8.3 million) grant to fund wildlife conservation projects.

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