Atlas for the End of the World 


On May 20, 1570, Abraham Ortelius—book collector and engraver from Antwerp—published the world’s first Atlas: the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World).[1] With his maps Ortelius laid bare a world of healthy ecoregions ripe for exploitation. Some 450 years later, at the opposite end of modernity to Ortelius, researchers at Penn Design are building the Atlas for the End of the World— an atlas about the end of Ortelius’ world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress.[2]

The Atlas shows the difference between the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity targets for achieving 17 percent global terrestrial area as protected habitat by 2020 and what is actually now protected. A new Penn IUR brief, Atlas For the End of the World: Mapping that Recognizes the Interdependence of People and Conservation, describes the measurement efforts to meet these targets by 1) mapping protected areas in the ecoregions within world’s biodiversity hotspots and calculating how much remains to meet targets, and 2) demonstrating the coming conflicts between projected city growth and biologically diverse habitat.

Biodiversity Hotspots

The Atlas focuses on the 398 ecoregions (out of 867 ecoregions total worldwide) that comprise the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. Shown in Figure 1, the so-called hotspots are generally agreed upon by the scientific and conservation communities as the most important biological places on earth. They are also places of exceptional linguistic diversity, suggesting perhaps that the fate of nature and the fate of culture are one and the same. They are also, in more than a few cases, bedeviled by poverty, violence, and corruption.

Figure 1. The world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots are shown in brown.

In 2014 (the most recent figures available), 15.4 percent of the world’s terrestrial area was protected: that’s 20.6 million square kilometers of land distributed across more than 209,000  sites in 235 different countries.[3] That leaves only an additional 1.6 per cent protected area to satisfy the Convention’s 2020 target. While this amount might seem small, 1.6 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is 2.3 million square kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 700,000 Central Parks—a Central Park stretching 70 times around the world.

Moreover, according to the Convention, that 1.6 percent cannot be just anywhere: the global protected estate must be representative and it must be connected.  To be representative, 17 percent of each of the world’s 867 ecoregions should be protected. The Atlas primarily audits this goal.

Connectivity is less readily quantifiable. Forming connectivity among all the fragments of protected areas requires weaving new ecological lines through what is typically hostile territory and, in doing so, calls land-use policy and practice into question on a vast scale. Figure 2 shows all the major initiatives to forge large-scale landscape connectivity in the world today. This sort of activity is unprecedented. For the first time in history humans are treating the world as a garden that we have to give back to, not just take from.

Figure 2.  Biodiversity hotspots are shown in tan. Green shows protected areas, existing corridors, and proposed connectivity conservation projects.

To understand how the Atlas measures and visualizes progress toward the Convention’s targets, consider one of the 35 hotspots—the Atlantic Forests, which lie along the coast of Brazil and stretch into Paraguay and Argentina. In this hotspot, only 8 percent is currently protected; it is just under half way to meeting the target. Figure 3 illustrates the progress toward the 17 percent target that the 15 ecoregions comprising the Atlantic Forests hotspot have made.

Figure 3. The Atlantic Forests map exemplifies hotspot mapping. The map shows the extent of the hotspot, neighboring hotspots, protected areas, urban and agricultural land uses, and roads and railroads.

Figure 3. The Atlantic Forests map exemplifies hotspot mapping. The map shows the extent of the hotspot, neighboring hotspots, protected areas, urban and agricultural land uses, and roads and railroads.

The Atlas illustrates similar calculations for each of the 398 ecoregions comprising the 35 hotspots, finding that 21 of 35 hotspots currently fall short of the 17 percent protected area target. More specifically, 201 of their 398 ecoregions fall short.

This simple mapping can show any community or nation or NGO exactly how much land they need to protect and—at least in terms of ecoregionalism—where they need to protect it if they wish to meet their obligations under the Convention.  Where exactly this land should be, and how it should actually function, is a question of great local complexity and a question of design, as is discussed further in the full brief Atlas For the End of the World: Mapping that Recognizes the Interdependence of People and Conservation.

Richard Weller is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow and Professor and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. This research was conducted in association with Clare Hoch and Chieh Huang.

[1] Binding, Paul. 2003. Imagined Corners: Exploring the World’s First Atlas. London: Headline Book Publishing.

NB; The first use of the term ‘Atlas’ in a book’s title was ‘Atlas, or Cosmographical Meditations upon the Creation of the Universe and the Universe as Created’. By Garardius Mercator. Wilford, J. N. 2000. The Mapmakers (Revised Edition). Vintage Books, New York. 104.

[2] On this, even the Catholic Church is now clear: “we have no such right says Pope Francis. Pope Francis, 2015. in Laudata Si: On Care for Our Common Home. Ignatius Press. 33

[3] Juffe-Bignoli, D., et al. 2014. Protected Planet Report 2014. UNEP-WCMC: Cambridge, UK. Last accessed June 1st, 2016.

Source: Atlas for the End of the World | PennIUR