Inspired by the first atlas — Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World) — researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design made an Atlas for the End of the World. Its bleak name announces its ecological cartography on climate change and biodiversity crises. Using infographics and maps, the Atlas visualizes the world’s urbanization and need for conservation in cities expanding in biodiverse “hotspots.”
Created by Penn professor Richard Weller in collaboration with recent landscape architecture graduates Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang, the Atlas for the End of the World was launched alongside this year’s Earth Day. The researchers recently shared the self-funded three-year research project on Scientific American, writing that “our new Atlas is not about the end of the world per se; it is about the end of Ortelius’s world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress.”
The subtitle of the Atlas is the “Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene.” Weller used the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 as a framework, in particular the CBD target of protecting 17% of the Earth’s land by 2020. In a 2016 post for the Penn Institute for Urban Research, Weller wrote that the 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.”
The Atlas features world maps on topics like the species distribution of threatened mammals, deforestation, population pressure, sea level rise, conservation spending, conflict and corruption, and environmental displacement. A “meat map” of livestock pasturelands highlights how this farming involves deforestation and expels major anthropogenic methane, while a “health of waters” map examines freshwater quality, the accumulation of garbage gyres in the ocean (patches of floating trash), and marine dead zones. A map of megastructures plots large-scale engineering works that interrupt the environment, such as canals, bridges, submarine cables, and walls. Notably, a planned area for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall is right through a wildlife refuge, where endangered ocelots still roam, and would strand its visitor’s center from the protected land.
One of the Atlas maps visualizes countries with and without biodiversity planning, and the United States a gaping void. Once, atlases presented the “New World” as a landscape of unknowns and sprawling nature, which through colonialism, development, and unchecked industry has been irreversibly changed. Yet there remain realms of biodiversity, even near our urban areas and places of potential development. If lost in the coming years, they cannot be recovered.
Atlas for the End of the World is available to explore online.