Wilderness versus Wildness

Carbon emissions have rendered meaningless the ideal of a wilderness untouched by man; the new ideal is “wildness,” which is measured not by isolation from disturbance but by the diversity of organisms that can complete their life cycles.

Jonathan Franzen’s excellent description of wilderness versus wildness—taken from an otherwise unfortunate article1 on a presumed dichotomy between climate change and conservation—nicely summarizes the attitudes of most modern biologists, ecologists, and activists. Wilderness is an old phrase; unspoiled habitats and isolated “natural” landscapes are no longer possible in a warming world. Wildness—a managed state of diversity and constrained human impacts—is all we have left.

I wonder, though, what we lose in scraping the sentiment out of wilderness. Isn’t the idea of wilderness also about human hearts? Isn’t it about our own mortality—this notion of living and dying in the context of something infinitely more complex and ancient? Why else did Teddy Roosevelt, father of 20th century conservationism, describe Yosemite as “a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

Isn’t that what we’re protecting?

The modern notion of wildness is the more precise notion. It’s the more important notion for policy, and it’s a good one to teach. But the foundation of conservation—the sense of stewardship for that which is vast and beautiful—comes from sentiment too, not just science. And sentiment is one of our most powerful weapons.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The idea that climate advocacy and conservation are inherently at odds may be attention-grabbing, but it’s not a particularly coherent argument, and it lacks any empirical basis, at least as presented by Franzen. See Mark Jannot’s response for a point-by-point rebuttal of the article’s claims.

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  1. When I took a human geography class in undergrad, we learned that the concept of pristine or untouched wildlands was more how N. Americans saw nature, while Europeans saw humans as being naturally integrated into landscapes, partly based on their recent histories. Surely a simplified memory, but I remember being interested in the implications of the concept – while valuing “unaltered” wild areas seems important, if we can’t value the places humans have affected, maybe that’s actually a problem. Like how only gross animals (humans) live in cities. ?

    • Chris Bliss

      I like that. If the value of land is seen as bifurcated — spoiled vs unspoiled — then are we undervaluing the importance or possibility of things like urban biodiversity?

      • Anonymous

        Have you read changes in the land by william CRonon?

        • Chris Bliss

          Not me, no.

          • Anonymous

            I think you should read it, you’ll like it. Also Gary Snyder has a unique definition of wilderness and provocatively includes us in it.

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