Interview With Africa Explorer J. Michael Fay

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They assigned a value for each kilometer which enabled them to rank those parts in each ecosystem most impacted by human activity and those which are least affected. They calculated how much the human footprint weighs on each square kilometer of the planet.

I superimposed the human footprint map on a separate map prepared by the World Wildlife Fund, the Wild World map, which shows the world's different eco-regions. I used a computer to calculate in each of Africa's ecosystems the location of the single square kilometer where the human footprint was lightest.

Our method was to fly from the nearest densely populated settlement to the square kilometer that indicated the least disturbed wilderness and to record the transition between them.

What was your overall impression?

We saw the intersection of two lines that have progressed for a long time: the finite availability of resources and the infinite ability of humans to consume.

The human footprint is now felt on every square inch of the planet and we are closing in on the last resources. We must be serious about how we are going to use what's left in a sustainable way.

Many well-meaning people don't mention that when they talk about Africa. Often they will talk about poverty-alleviation, implying that we should be enabling people to exploit more of their resource base. They should rather be talking about sustainable development so that we can all share resources responsibly.

It's in places where development has surpassed what the land can support that, not surprisingly, we find societies in collapse, the Darfurs and the Nigers of the world. If you look at the human footprint map you can predict where we are likely to see the next Niger—those bright red zones where the human footprint is heaviest.

Do you have a solution?

There's no silver bullet. But we can start trending toward a more sustainable solution. There is no one that can't come up with five ideas in five minutes about how to become a better user of resources. We have to bring it to that level.

In some parts of Africa we saw people who have ruined their land and are paying the price. In other regions we saw millions of people who have obviously thought about their land and have learned how to protect it.

What will you do next?

We will develop a new kind of map that assigns to every square kilometer of the planet a value for the ability of the land to sustain human life. It will look at rainfall, temperatures, soils, vegetation cover, and more. It will show places that have exceeded that ability and where we may expect the next humanitarian disasters.

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