Debunking Straw Man Definitions of Wilderness

Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth
Edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler
Island Press, 2014, 248 pages

book cover thumbnail

As the Wilderness Act turns 50, there are people who are ready to turn their backs on the concept of wilderness itself. That’s unfortunate, seeing as there’s less and less wilderness at hand. We’ve altered as much as 80 percent of Earth’s land surface for our own use and the remaining 20 percent is increasingly in tatters. Yet, despite the growing rarity of wild landscapes, there are those who would devalue them even further. Take the Nature Conservancy’s Peter Kareiva, who wrote: “The wilderness so beloved by conservationists … places untrammeled by man … never existed, at least not in the last thousand years.”

Kareiva and other so-called “new conservationists” maintain that the future of the planet is that of control by human beings. They echo Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand’s 1969 credo: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” They even have a name for this new era: the Anthropocene, the age of humans, a bit of hubristic distortion of the geological time scale.

Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth is a broadside against this ultimately shortsighted perspective. The book – edited by longtime deep green activists George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler – is a wide-ranging collection of essays in defense of physical wilderness and the concept of wilderness. With voices ranging from that of the charmingly fatalistic Paul Kingsnorth, to the hopeful Terry Tempest Williams, to scientists like Michael Soulé, and longtime campaigners like Dave Foreman, it’s an invaluable read for those who love wild places. The essays challenge the concept that the world’s wild spaces either don’t exist at all, or that they should be tamed and brought under human control. A lyrical final section extols the values of wilderness.

The collection is at its most useful in those essays that debunk the straw man definitions of wilderness used by its opponents. Chief among those: the notion that capital-W wilderness is magically devoid of any kind of human influence. Instead, the best pieces in Keeping the Wild would have us define wilderness by the degree to which the ecological processes on a piece of land are self-directing rather than blunted by humans. As editor George Wuerthner writes in his essay “The Working Landscape Isn’t Working”:

No serious supporters of parks believe these places are “pristine” in the sense of being totally untouched or unaffected by humans. To make such a claim one would have to deny global warming, the global spread of pesticides and other chemicals, and a host of other well-known human impacts. … There are, however, hugely varying degrees of human influence… preserving such places where natural forces operate with a minimum of human influence is still the best way to preserve nature and natural processes.

The collection has some weak points. Several of the authors spend a fair bit of time bashing “postmodernism,” mainly due to the insistence of some postmodernists that wilderness is just a culturally defined product of Western society. But postmodernism is, at its heart, a discipline that reminds us that our point of view is inevitably subjective. There’s no reason it couldn’t be a valuable tool used by those who want nonhuman “points of view” taken into account when determining the fate of a piece of land.

I’d have liked it if some of the column inches spent bashing postmodernism had instead mentioned an example of serious real-world harm caused by the straw-man definition of wilderness. For example, landscape after landscape has been sacrificed to suburban development, renewable energy projects, or for mining and logging in exchange for protecting small parcels of what’s come to be called “quid pro quo wilderness.” The rationale: The lands on the chopping block lack those ineffable “wilderness qualities” that don’t always map to ecological importance.

Ironically, the answer to both that issue and the occasional postmodern opponent of wilderness is contained in the pages of Keeping the Wild. Wilderness shouldn’t be thought of as all about absence of human presence or activity. Instead, think of wilderness as land on which the living systems control their own destiny to a larger degree than would be true in a city park or on a tree farm. Such a definition of wilderness would allow us to protect all wildlands – including the ones that those holding fast to the “pristine” wilderness idea can’t see, regardless of which side of the fence they’re on.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.