An aerial view of a river snaking through agricultural fields highlighted with different colors to indicate different crop types.
STATE OF SÃO PAULO: The Tietê River snakes across this tessera mosaic of multicolored shapes near Ibitinga, Brazil. Fields of sugarcane, peanuts, and corn vary in their stages of development. © USGS

Perspectives

Human Nature—Visualized

How do we balance development and conservation on a finite planet?

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When we talk about protecting nature, many imagine a mist-shrouded old-growth forest or some other beautiful landscape untouched by human activities. But very little of the planet is truly "untouched"—95 percent of the Earth's surface outside of the polar regions has been modified by humans.

Whether it’s clearing land to grow crops and build cities, or fragmenting habitats with highways and railroads, human development has changed the surface of the planet in a variety of ways.

But lightly or moderately changed lands are still critical for nature and wildlife. If we’re to preserve the diversity of all habitats on Earth—and support the wildlife and human communities that depend on them—we have to protect and manage these areas, as well as pristine landscapes.

Balancing the protection of nature with growing human needs will require careful planning—and a more complete understanding of how we are changing the planet. The following maps show the current extent of land change on Earth, what future changes might look like, and what is driving these changes.

I. Our Impact on Nature: What on Earth is Left?

Humans have transformed the Earth. We’ve impacted the land surface with multiple forms of development, including urbanization, agriculture, energy, mining and infrastructure expansion. These maps show where 50 percent of the planet has been highly or moderately modified. They show that to truly save nature for its sake and our own, the moderately modified places—where humans have left a mark but some wild land still exists—are just as critical to conserve as the last remaining pristine areas.

 CURRENT STATE OF THE LAND ON PLANET EARTH

Infographic showing globes, with areas of land highlighted to show varying degrees of modification to the land.
Current State of Land on Earth Note: Data does not include Antarctica. © Nicolas Rapp/TNC
Pie chart graphic with three sections, highlighting 34% of global land being highly modified, 18% having low or no modification, and 48% of land being moderately modified.
© Nicolas Rapp/TNC

Saving pristine areas isn't enough

Conserving nature in these moderately-modified places, which make up half of the world’s natural systems and countries, presents a huge opportunity to secure a more sustainable future for people and the planet.    


 

II. Future Land Pressure: How to Make Space?

Global economic output is expected to double over the next two decades, and trillions of dollars will be invested in new energy, mining and infrastructure projects around the world. Can we balance this growth and meet human needs while still conserving the nature on which all life depends?

AREAS THREATENED BY FUTURE DEVELOPMENT

Infographic showing a map of the world, with areas highlighted to indicate modified land with high development potential.
Future Land Pressure: How to Make Space? ¹High development pressure lands are those mapped with high suitability for development expansion for a given sector. Note: Data does not include Antarctica. © Nicolas Rapp/TNC
Pie chart graphic with three sections, highlighting high development potential for 28% moderately modified lands & 5% of highly modified land, and 77% having minimal pressure
© Nicolas Rapp/TNC

Balancing human needs and conservation of nature

Landscape planning can help guide future development to avoid further loss and degradation of natural areas.


 

III. Planning for a Better Planet

We need to plan if we want a balance between nature and development. That means we need to understand what’s driving land change and where it's happening. While agriculture is expected to remain a major driver, future energy and infrastructure development could impact more lands than agriculture and urban growth combined.

Protecting nature can no longer fall to environmentalists alone. Better planning will require collaboration across all of society and in particular across major economic sectors and the government ministries that regulate them.

FUTURE PRESSURES FROM ENERGY AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Infographic showing globe, with areas highlighted to indicate high potential for future energy & infrastructure development
Planning for a Better Planet: Energy & Infrastructure ¹High development pressure lands are those mapped with high suitability for development expansion for a given sector. © Nicolas Rapp/TNC

Pressured Areas

In North America and South Asia, increasing energy needs will likely drive new development. This development, including much-needed renewables, must be sited wisely to avoid lands that naturally store carbon and provide wildlife habitat.


 

FUTURE PRESSURES FROM AGRICULTURE

Infographic showing globe, with areas highlighted to indicate high potential for future agriculture expansion.
Planning for a Better Planet: Agriculture ¹High development pressure lands are those mapped with high suitability for development expansion for a given sector. Note: Data does not include Antarctica. © Nicolas Rapp/TNC

Pressured Areas

In South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is expected to be a major driver of land-use change, especially for commodity crops like soy. But science, economics and conservation practice prove that it is feasible to increase global food production without converting more naturalhabitat into farmland. 

Download the Infographics

  • Three globes show different values of modified land.

    Human Nature—Visualized

    PDF

    Download all three infographics showing the current extent of land change on Earth, what future changes might look like, and what is driving these changes.

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Data supported by:
·Christina M. Kennedy, James R. Oakleaf, David M. Theobald, Sharon Baruch-Mordo and Joseph  Kiesecker, Managing the middle: A shift in conservation priorities based on the global human modification gradientGlobal Change Biology, 25, (2019).
·James R. Oakleaf, Christina M. Kennedy, Sharon Baruch-Mordo, James S. Gerber, Paul C. West,  Justin A. Johnson and Joseph Kiesecker, Mapping global development potential for renewable energy, fossil fuels, mining and agriculture sectorsSci Data 6, 101 (2019).
Explore Practitioner Tools here: Global Development Risk Assessment