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.