Can a Human-influenced World Have Biodiversity?


By Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

Trying to determine what kinds of wildlife thrive in coffee plantations and what kinds of human management decisions tend to encourage biodiversity, we’ve learned that these plantations contain more than a hundred bird species, including a dozen extremely important local species whose habitat has been threatened by farming and development. We’re are also finding dozens of amphibian species, native frogs, that are very sensitive indicators of ecological health.

Image of two treefrogs
Frogs are good signs of an environment having a healthy ecology. (Image: Suede Chen/Shutterstock)

Half-forest, Half-farm

Where you find frogs, you have a healthy ecology. And many of which are critically threatened with extinction. So clearly, people can manufacture economically viable landscapes that serve many of the functions of native forest cover, and not all land-cover change is necessarily bad for biodiversity. This is sometimes referred to as win-win ecology or reconciliation ecology, which is a fancy term for having it both ways.

But we’ve also learned that these species could still be at risk. Many plantation owners are intensifying their production, which involves removing many tree species and increasing inputs of things like pesticides and other decisions, which are likely bad for local diversity. Now, why would these farmers want to do that?

Worker working on a plantation
The scarcity of plantation workers leads to farmers using higher-intensity means of production. (Image: Michel arnault/Shutterstock)

It’s too soon to tell, but one factor may be that there is a scarcity of workers. Workers who had long lived in and around these plantations are increasingly moving to the cities to seek better wages and living conditions. So plantation owners are replacing wage laborers with mechanization and higher-intensity production. 

If that’s true, it would be very ironic. Precisely the factors that have led to forest transitions and forest recovery elsewhere—urban migration, declining population growth—are actually encouraging growers to dismantle those very parts of their farming system that most resemble natural forests. It may be possible, then, to address and improve worker pay and living arrangements to keep the traditional system intact, but for now, this win-win system is sort of at risk.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Human-influenced Biodiversity

And the more general point remains true. It is possible to imagine human-created or anthropogenic (anthro, people; genic, genesis) land covers that mimic and reproduce the ecological functions of nature. And these kinds of outcomes need not be restricted to plantations. 

Many urban areas have become the sites for the return of wildlife and birds. Farms can play a key role in maintaining important wild species. A human-influenced world doesn’t necessarily have to be a barren one.

Two wind turbines in a forest. Concept of humans living along with nature
Land change can have positive effects if biodiversity isn’t lowered and humans live along with wildlife. (Image: Bene_A/Shutterstock)

So, when it comes to land cover change, the glass is half full and half empty. Without question, human beings have transformed and appropriated an overwhelming proportion of the Earth’s surface to the detriment of existing ecosystems and other species.

A Glass Half Full

The loss of forests stands out, really, as among the most dramatic of these changes, but it isn’t the only one. The driving forces behind these changes, including economic integration, infrastructural change, population settlement, don’t show any signs of abatement. So there are reasons for real and immediate concern. 

At the same time, there are signs that in many places we may have already arrived at a turning point on land-cover change, and that we’re already beginning a transition back to a historical land cover. For example, forest cover in the United States declined from around a billion acres after the 1600s, to reach a low of about 700 million acres, or about 30 percent forest cover, in the early 20th century before a turnaround began to occur. Forest cover in the U.S. is around 747 million acres today.

So, will we have forests in 40 years? Well, looking at current geographic research, the answer should be a cautious yes. So that should be good news. And, it is true that we have a lot to do and a lot to be excited about and a lot to be optimistic about. But, every day we are learning new ways in which we can share the land with other species, even as we put it to some kind of human use.

Though this might be good news, we’d have to temper it somewhat if we consider the growth in human population. After all, we may be able to share the planet if we are only seven or eight billion people. But what if our numbers become double or triple? That’s a fair question, and one has to review what we know about population growth to answer it.

Common Questions about a Human-influenced World and Biodiversity

Q: What is win-win ecology?

If a landscape is changed because of human influence it doesn’t have to necessarily be bad for biodiversity. So when people manufacture economically-viable landscapes which can contain biodiversity since they have many of the same functions of forest cover, it’s called reconciliation ecology, or win-win ecology, since the benefits go both ways.

Q: Why are many plantation owners intensifying their production?

One reason may be that there are fewer plantation workers around today. Many of such workers have moved to the city, leaving the farmers to use mechanical methods that have high-intensity production. Intensifying production means destroying tree species and using pesticides among other things that lead to less biodiversity.

Q: Is it possible to have anthropogenic land covers that have biodiversity?

Yes. Anthropogenic landscapes, meaning landscapes made by humanity, can be manufactured in a way that makes them capable of mimicking the natural environment. Even now, many species of wildlife live in urban areas and farms can be used to maintain important species and to maintain biodiversity in an increasingly human-influenced world.

Keep Reading
Earth’s Climate: Rapid and Dramatic Changes
Overpopulation and Birth Control Methods
The Differences Between Races and Intelligence