Brandon Keim writes: Several years ago, I asked a biologist friend what she thought of a recently fashionable notion in environmentalist circles: that pristine nature was an illusion, and our beloved wilderness an outdated construct that didn’t actually exist. She’d just finished her shift at the local boardwalk, a volunteer-tended path through a lovely little peat bog that formed after the last ice age, near what is today eastern Maine’s largest commercial shopping area.
After a moment’s reflection, she said this was probably true, in an academic sense, but she didn’t pay it much mind. The fact remained that places such as the bog, affected by human activity, were special, and ought to be protected; other places were affected far less, but they were special and needed protection, too.
It was a simple, practical answer, from someone who’d devoted much of her life to tending the natural world. I find myself recalling it now that the ideals of conservation are under attack by the movement’s own self-appointed vanguard: the green modernists (aka the New Conservationists, post-environmentalists or eco-pragmatists), a group of influential thinkers who argue that we should embrace our planetary lordship and re-conceive Earth as a giant garden.
Get over your attachment to wilderness, they say. There’s no such thing, and thinking otherwise is downright counterproductive. As for wildness, some might exist in the margins of our gardens – designed and managed to serve human wants – but it’s not especially important. And if you appreciate wild animals and plants for their own sake? Well, get over that, too. Those sentiments are as outdated as a daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau’s beard, dead as a dodo in an Anthropocene age characterised by humanity’s literally awesome domination of Earth.
That humanity has vast power is true. Human purposes divert roughly one-fourth of all terrestrial photosynthetic activity and half its available fresh water. We’re altering ocean currents and atmospheric patterns, and moving as much rock as the process of erosion. The sheer biomass of humanity and our domesticated animals dwarfs that of other land mammals; our plastic permeates the oceans. We’re driving other creatures extinct at rates last seen 65 million years ago, when an asteroid struck Earth and ended the age of dinosaurs.
By midcentury, there could be 10 billion humans, all demanding and deserving a quality of life presently experienced by only a few. It will be an extraordinary, planet-defining challenge. Meeting it will require, as green modernists correctly observe, new ideas and tools. It also demands a deep, abiding respect for non‑human life, no less negligible than the respect we extend to one another. Power is not the same thing as supremacy.
If humanity is to be more than a biological asteroid, nature-lovers should not ‘jettison their idealised notions of nature, parks and wilderness’ and quit ‘pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake’, as urged in a seminal essay co‑authored by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation. Nor can we replace these ideals with what the science writer Emma Marris imagines as ‘a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us’.
Well-intentioned as these visions might be, they’re inadequate for the Anthropocene. We need to embrace more wilderness, not less. And though framing humanity’s role as global gardening sounds harmless, even pleasant, the idea contains a seed of industrial society’s fundamental flaw: an ethical vision in which only human interests matter. It’s a blueprint not for a garden, but for a landscaped graveyard. [Continue reading…]