Why Humanity Needs to Shrink its Global Footprint
The natural world needs space too
We’ve embraced a way of life and an economic system that demands infinite growth: more money, more resources, more people, more everything. In the pursuit of that growth, our footprint has multiplied over decades and centuries as we’ve spread to accommodate our growing population and to give ourselves more space in sprawling suburbs.
Growth has come at a great cost to the natural world
According to a new UN report, our disregard for the planet has caused an 82 percent decline in the biomass of wild animals, natural ecosystems being cut in half, and a million animals to be placed at risk of extinction. Scientists have acknowledged that humanity’s actions are responsible for an ongoing sixth major extinction event — the previous one taking place 65 million years ago.
Humanity’s footprint has grown so large that three-quarters of all land on Earth has been altered by us: “turned into farm fields, covered by concrete, swallowed up by dam reservoirs.” A further two-thirds of the ocean have been affected by our shipping routes, fish farms, and other projects, while three-quarters of rivers and lakes are used for our crops and livestock. This is a massive transformation of the planet to serve our needs, while ignoring the lives and homes of the millions of other species that we share it with.
Why don’t we consider those other animals when we expand our cities, build new infrastructure, and raze forests for farms? Why don’t we think about the migratory patterns of birds, the wooded homes of moose, or the rivers where beavers live? Sadly, there’s a very obvious answer: they have no value to our capitalist economic system, thus they do not matter.
Nathan J. Robinson made this provocative argument in Current Affairs after the publication of the aforementioned UN report, calling wild animals members of the oppressed proletariat — the economic class whose survival is dependent on its ability to sell its labor for an income. But not only do wild animals not work for a wage, they don’t purchase anything, so to capitalism they’re worthless.
The only animals that avoid this fate are those with a “marketable skill.” Robinson draws attention to how dogs and cats have value as pets, and provide companionship (their form of labor) in exchange for food and shelter, while pigs, which are at least as intelligent as dogs, are not similarly appreciated and are instead fed into the industrial food system because we see value in their flesh. Robinson’s assessment ultimately leads to a damning, but accurate, conclusion:
Human civilization is, for the millions of other creatures with whom we share this big blue planet, a death machine. We build roads through their homes, and then any of them who try to cross will be smushed to death. We torture and kill billions of them in our food system. We are boiling their whole planet, and if we keep it up for another 50, 100, or 1000 years, how many of them will make it?
We’re not used to thinking about the broader impact of our actions — certainly not beyond the economic and occasionally social impacts — but as we shift to more sustainable societies, it’s imperative that we redefine our relationship with the natural world and recognize that all the species we share this planet with have a right to it as well.
What would that look like?
Developing a new relationship between human society and the natural world will require a significant reduction in humanity’s footprint; that means taking cities, the food system, resource extraction, and so many other systems into account.
The global population is already moving into cities. More than half of all people are urban, and that number will continue to grow in the coming years, but as our cities grow in number, they need to restrict their outward growth in favor of upward development. Our cities need to embrace density, but that doesn’t need to be a scary thing.
Approaching dense development properly will allow us to build walkable communities with strong, reliable networks of public transportation. That will allow residents to be healthier, happier, and will free them from the economic burden of having to own and maintain a personal automobile. But density can’t just be for rapidly growing cities; its also essential for cities that were built in the suburban image.
The UN biodiversity report should be a wake-up call that we’re mistreating and literally murdering the millions of other species with which we share this planet
Cities in North America that were designed for the car need to be partially redesigned to densify their cores and create denser hubs in the surrounding suburban areas to make it easier for people to connect to frequent transit with e-bikes, e-scooters, or autonomous shuttles if they’re able to safely navigate those situations. However, those in the more sprawling exurbs will inevitably need to be relocated closer to the center, and the most sprawling developments will need to be renatured.
Of course, our cities are also often surrounded by farmland that helps to feed urban residents. As the global population continues to grow, we’ll need to take a serious look at our food system to reduce food waste — which is particularly bad in Western countries — and reduce the amount of livestock consumed in favor of more efficient crops. The recent rise of plant-based meat alternatives could be very helpful in making this transition.
The UN biodiversity should be a wake-up call to humanity that we’re mistreating and literally murdering the millions of other species with which we share this planet, as we carelessly expand and trash more and more of the land’s surface. As we confront the climate crisis, the changes we make must take our relationship with the natural world into account, and actually give it the space to thrive.