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Putting People in the Map

This article was written by Chad Monfreda in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

The maps we make of the world say a lot about how we think of ourselves in it. Most world maps put people in one box and nature in another. However, many of the ideas we talk about at Worldchanging—personal planets, planetary gardening, colonizing Earth, ecosystem services, ecological handprints—challenge that kind of thinking. Fortunately, a new world map re-imagines people and the planet in a brilliantly compelling way that may help overcome the bad rap old-school environmentalism as gotten for pitting people against nature.

In an article titled 'Putting People in the Map' published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland and Navin Ramankutty at McGill University have come up with the idea of anthropogenic biomes, or anthromes for short. Anthromes are a play on biomes, the large-scale vegetation patterns ecologists use to map the planet. Open any introductory ecology textbook and you will see vivid colors mapping the planet’s tropical and boreal forests, tundra, shrubland and other biomes derived from climate, geography, and terrain. The problem with biomes, however, is that they hardly exist any more as large tracks of undisturbed landscape. Just look out from an airplane window or zoom in virtually anywhere with Google Earth and try to find pristine nature. It’s harder than you might think. The fact is we live on a human-dominated planet so thoroughly altered that scientists have dubbed the modern geological epoch the anthropocene. Nowadays, human and natural landscapes are intermixed, making biomes an ideal that no longer reflects reality on the ground.

Oh, striking images of the human footprint on the Earth do abound. We have covered many of them here, and I have even made some of them myself. Yet they tend to preserve the image of people in one place and nature in another. Some of these global maps like Conservation International’s wilderness areas tell us where nature still ekes out an existence in those places to remote or inhospitable to have yet been transformed. Others like maps of global agriculture, human-appropriated net primary productivity, or city lights at night mark out places where people have had the most impact but say nothing of the rest of the planet.

Anthromes, by contrast, combine human settlements and land-use with natural vegetation. Instead of the either/or maps between, say, tropical forests or human agriculture, anthromes map a continuum of 15 landscape classes ranging from dense settlements, through irrigated villages, remote croplands, residential rangelands, and, ultimately, to wildlands. (You can download a large image or view the map in Google Earth, Google Maps, or Virtual Earth here.)

The world seen through anthromes is quite different from earlier maps and makes existing measures of the human footprint seem quaint. Estimates that humans consume 25% of the Earth’s photosynthesis are striking enough. Seen through anthromes, however, 90% of the planet’s photosynthesis is on human-dominated lands. Not only that, but 25% of global tree cover does not occur in forests at all but in croplands—more than the 20% of tree cover found in remote forests. Likewise, nearly half of crop-covered areas are in villages and rangelands, and 8% of Earth’s ice-free land area is dense settlements and villages.

By re-writing where nature ends and humans begin, anthromes illustrate another visionary article released this past summer in the journal Science. Led by Peter Kareiva at the Nature Conservancy, “Domesticated Nature: Shaping Landscapes and Ecosystems for Human Welfare” argues that earlier civilizations domesticated individual plants and animals by selecting for those genetic traits they wanted and against those they did not. Today, domestication does not stop with species but rather extends to entire landscapes, biomes, and even entire continents. Just as earlier civilizations selected the traits of individual species, people are now doing the same for the biosphere writ large. But there’s a hitch: the worldwide decline in ecosystem services shows that the forces selecting for ecosystem change are failing to take into account a big part of the picture. There’s a need for pragmatic and political shifts in the ways we measure and talk about the biosphere.

In pragmatic terms, anthromes provide a tool to understand and manage domesticated nature. Managing nature apart from people is no longer a viable strategy when humanity’s ecological footprint exceeds what the world can sustain. At the same time, emerging fields like countryside biogeography point to the abundance of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes and groups like the Resilience Alliance make seemingly daily advancements in linking social and natural systems. Simply put, science and management needs to bring people into the picture to preserve any hope of sustainability.

Politically, ‘Putting People in the Map’ uproots the idea that nature exists apart from people and undermines conservation that ignores local people. Anthromes make clear that Earth management is not a mere exercise for technocrats and experts but instead is a political endeavor through and through. Rare is the ecosystem set apart from people; typical is the one integrated with peoples’ daily well-being. Recognizing the omnipresent co-existence of human and nature upsets the idea that conservation can with walls and park guards. No doubt this vision may be one that some may see has a threat to old guard environmentalism and forms of nature protection. Anticipating such a reproach, Ellis and Ramankutty see democratic governance as the best way forward in a world already full of people and their opinions.

What might anthromes have to say about the claim that our maps have much to say about how we see ourselves? At the very least, they are visual attestation to put an end to obscene refrain that humans are just too puny to impact something as grand as Earth. More idealistically, anthromes—and domesticated nature more generally—offer stewardship and flux over the impossible preservation of the status quo; and while admitting the dirt of politics, they also offer new grounds for political identity and responsibility. Indeed, they may be a remedy for dark fantasies of a humanless Earth, and ready the imagination for a world neither for nor without us, but with us.

A Global View of Peopled Nature is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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