habitat modification and destruction and the extinction of populations and species go hand in hand.

The extent to which humanity has already wreaked havoc on Earth’s environments is shown indirectly by a recent study of human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis (Vitousek et al., 1986). The food resource of the animals in all major ecosystems is the energy that green plants bind into organic molecules in the process of photosynthesis, minus the energy those plants use for their own life processes—growth, maintenance, and reproduction. In the jargon of ecologists, that quantity is known as the net primary production (NPP). Globally, this amounts to a production of about 225 billion metric tons of organic matter annually, nearly 60% of it on land.

Humanity is now using directly (e.g., by eating, feeding to livestock, using lumber and firewood) more than 3% of global NPP, and about 4% of that on land. This is a minimum estimate of human impact on terrestrial systems. Since Homo sapiens is one of (conservatively) 5 million species, this may seem an excessive share of the food resource. But considering that human beings are perhaps a million times the weight of the average animal (since the overwhelming majority of animals are small insects and mites) and need on the order of a million times the energy per individual, this share might not be too unreasonable.

Yet human beings can be thought of as co-opting NPP not only by direct use but also by indirect use. Thus if we chalk up to the human account not only the NPP directly consumed, but such other categories as the amount of biomass consumed in fires used to clear land, the parts of crop plants not consumed, the NPP of pastureland (converted from natural habitat) not consumed by livestock, and so on, the human share of terrestrial NPP climbs to a staggering 30%. And if we add to that the NPP foregone when people convert more productive natural systems to less productive ones (such as forest to farm or pasture, grassland to desert, marsh to parking lot), the total potential NPP on land is reduced by 13%, and the human share of the unreduced potential NPP reaches almost 40%. There is no way that the co-option by one species of almost two-fifths of Earth’s annual terrestrial food production could be considered reasonable, in the sense of maintaining the stability of life on this planet.

These estimates alone both explain the basic causes and consequences of habitat destruction and alteration, and give reason for great concern about future trends. Most demographers project that Homo sapiens will double its population within the next century or so. This implies a belief that our species can safely commandeer upwards of 80% of terrestrial NPP, a preposterous notion to ecologists who already see the deadly impacts of today’s level of human activities. Optimists who suppose that the human population can double its size again need to contemplate where the basic food resource will be obtained.

A standard fool’s answer to that question is that indefinite expansion of the human population will be supported by the immeasurable riches of the sea. Unhappily for that notion, the riches of the sea have been quite carefully measured



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement