and settlements, the cultivation of crops, the harvesting of plants for food, medicine, fiber, or fuel, or by setting fires to the landscape for hunting purposes, humans have always influenced the landscape around them¹. However, because we are currently reaching many of the natural limits of our planet due to human activities, we must come to terms with our impacts on the land and learn how to live in harmony with nature and to help restore it.
The following are many of the major causes of land degradation that have led to problems for our Earth. As you read on, consider what ways humanity can do things differently to reverse this land degradation.
- Unsustainable agricultural practices. At about 50% of the total land use, agriculture is one of the biggest uses of land on our planet². While modern agricultural practices present many problems for the land, they also represent one the greatest opportunities for improving our relationship with the land.
Unsustainable agricultural practices include:
- Failure to adopt soil conservation management practices, such as the use of vegetative buffer strips, contour farming, the use of cover crops, and no-till cropping systems.
- The overgrazing of livestock can lead to soil compaction, erosion (especially on steep slopes), and the destruction of fragile marginal lands.
- The cultivation of crops on fragile and marginal lands, such as on steep slopes and in arid landscapes. These activities can lead to erosion, a lack of vegetative cover, and an increase in desertification.
- Heavy tillage agriculture. Heavy tilling of the soil destroys its capacity to hold moisture, dramatically disrupts the soil ecology, increases the risk of erosion of topsoil and runoff into waterways, reduces its overall fertility, and reduces its capacity to store carbon.
- The use of agricultural chemicals often ends up in the surrounding soils, kills important soil microbes, and negatively impacts organisms such as pollinators and other insects that are necessary for healthy ecosystem balance.
- The creation of large amounts of waste from confined animal feeding operations that can become a pollutant to the land and nearby waterways when not properly managed.
- Pollution. Many forms of pollution can cause a lot of damage to the soil and to the land, including chemical spills and industrial pollution.
- Deforestation and the removal of natural vegetation. When areas are deforested or the natural vegetation is removed, it leaves the land vulnerable to a number of problems including erosion and runoff, desertification, habitat destruction, and reduced sequestration of carbon dioxide.
- Unsustainable land development. As humanity continues to develop land, there are fewer natural ecosystems that can play the crucial roles in regulating the Earth’s ecological cycles, such as the nitrogen, water, and carbon cycles. There is also much less natural habitat remaining for wildlife and plant species. This places our planet increasingly out of balance in its ability to remain a habitable place.
- The use of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry is one of the most polluting industries on Earth. Fossil fuels can cause damage to the land from extraction, to processing, transporting, and also at the point of use when we produce carbon emissions when we burn them. This pollution is one of the many reasons why we must switch to a fossil fuel-free economy globally as quickly as possible³.
- Landscaping. Humans love to have picture-perfect lawns and gardens. However, landscapes like lawns that consist of only one or two species of plants simply do not exist in nature. To maintain such a landscape, humans use large amounts of chemicals and fertilizers that can be very detrimental for the environment and for human health. Such landscapes also significantly reduce suitable habitat for native plants, pollinators, insects, and native wildlife that rely on more natural outdoor spaces.
- Mining. The extraction of resources though mining processes leads to many different waste products that can pollute the surrounding land and water. In some cases, the land where mining activities have occurred can remain completely barren after mining occurs³.
- Nuclear waste. The waste products of producing nuclear energy pose a large problem, as some nuclear waste has a very long half-life, even lasting tens of thousands of years or more. Such radioactive waste is often “disposed of” by being buried into the earth, and can negatively impact human and environmental health⁴.
- Waste. Humans beings produce a lot of trash, including many kinds of materials that cannot be recycled or biodegraded, and in some cases, are even toxic to human health and the environment. Plastics are especially a problem in our global environment, and are present nearly everywhere today, including in our ocean.
- Overharvesting of native vegetation and animal species. When animals or plants are overhunted or overharvested, it reduces the overall biodiversity of ecosystems, and can negatively impact the land, because those species can no longer play the important role that they used to in those ecosystems.