The value of wild landscapes is a theme that has preoccupied me for the past weeks. A stream of coincidental experiences have contributed to this focus: the Wilhjelm+12 rewilding conference at the University of Copenhagen, a recent PNAS publication by my collaborator Greg Asner on elevated rates of gold mining in the western Amazon, a Science paper documenting global patterns of deforestation, and a screening of the (in my opinion, strongly environmentalist) film Koyaanisqatsi.
I have written before about the ‘last of the wild’ and the consequences of its loss, but never about my personal opinions. I have a conflicted view of things, made no more simpler by the experiences of the past weeks. While thinking about these ideas, I have also been spending my days exploring European landscapes, protected and unprotected. The past few weeks have seen tours through a national park in Denmark (Mols Bjerge), a national park in Spain (Monfragüe), and protected areas west of Prague in the Czech Republic. It was hard to escape from the patchwork landscape of agricultural usage and old settlements, to the point that the very idea of wilderness seemed alien. I felt a deep sadness inside, and it took me some time to understand the reason. It was because these landscapes had not been wild in thousands of years, and so no one could see the absence of wilderness. I felt like something had been lost, and nobody knew. This, of course, is an oversimplification of the important and ongoing conservation efforts in these places, but represents accurately how I felt. And feeling it brought conflicting thoughts, which I want to share here.
On one hand, wilderness has inherent value for all the non-human living things there, as well as value for the humans who depend on it indirectly for the ecosystem services (water, clean air, biodiversity, and so on) it provides. But non-wild landscapes also have immense value. They represent thousands of years of human efforts and human success, our domination of the planet that enables us to feed billions of people and control our environment, to harness resources unavailable to any other species. Every cornfield and railway represents civilization and progress, health and prosperity, the conquering of uncertainty, long hours of toil. Destroying wilderness means freedom from predators, a consistent source of food, the stability to build cities and capital.
So here is the conflict: I love a part of the world that is largely incompatible with our modern world. My desire for wild landscapes may deny others the opportunity to prosper, and imposes values that are at odds with the reasonable value of others to use land in the service of their prosperity. I want to feel at peace in wild places, yet cannot live in them, and my life depends heavily on the exploitation of resources in other parts of the world. I mourn the loss of wilderness in Europe yet celebrate its cultural achievements made possible by this growth.
But the situation is not actually so simple, because wilderness and prosperity are not necessarily opposite each other. Many clever people and the governments of many countries and are trying to find ways to meet development goals without the exploitation of more land, or are finding ways to improve or expand conservation efforts that are supported by local populations. I am not offering any insights into this complexity.
Instead, I do want to suggest one thing: that all people, whether they be ardent environmentalists or businessmen, urbanites or farmers, rich or poor, learn the value of both wild landscapes and conquered landscapes.
To illustrate the problem, here is an example from the United States, where thinking about conservation issues is heavily biased by socioeconomic factors. Visitors to national parks are over eighty percent ethnically white (disproportionately to the general population, and forestry or natural resource jobs are taken by over ninety percent whites. Every person depends on our collective usage of natural resources, yet a very biased subset of people are involved in the conservation. I am sure the same issue (with different labels, different specifics) applies in other places.
I fear most a world in which we depend increasingly heavily on the exploitation of natural resources, yet do not appreciate the scope of this dependence or its true price.