Is wilderness gone already?

Bull elephant from Sabi Sands of South Africa. Photo by Lee R. Berger. Source.

The pandemic has hurt “wildlife tourism” and endangered the wildlife which drew in the tourists. The Guardian announced (May 5) that, “Ecotourism collapse threatens communities and wildlife,” and The Washington Post adds (July 17) that this tourism “is essential to wildlife conservation in many African countries.”

These reports are all very true, but send the wrong message and obscure an important reality: wilderness is almost completely gone already. Instead of preserving wilderness, we should be trying to re-establish wilderness.

The message of these articles seems to be: we’d better find a way to jumpstart tourism, in order to save the wilderness! But this usage of the term “wilderness” reflects a complete blindness to the total human domination of the planet. Wilderness, by definition, is something outside of the human sphere. Merriam Webster defines wilderness as “a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings.” But if wildlife has to “pay its way” in the human economy through eco-tourism, then it is part of the human sphere already. These “wilderness areas” are in reality run for the benefit of humans—in effect, a gigantic zoo, with close to ideal “natural” conditions.

I’m not saying that these wilderness areas are a bad idea! But they are still part of our human economy. Wilderness should be one of the rights of the natural world, it shouldn’t be an economic bargaining chip. True wilderness has mostly (if not entirely) vanished from the face of the earth. What I object to is not these “wilderness” areas themselves, which are actually a positive development under the circumstances, but the way that our use of language has obscured the reality of what has already happened to wilderness.

Do we need to claim every last square inch of the planet as part of the human domain? The truly wild areas that are still intact survive only because they are areas worthless to humans, like the Sahara Desert and Antarctica. The only way to preserve any meaningful wilderness area is not to preserve it, but to re-establish it.

Mule deer at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

The animal rights movement is mostly focused on domesticated animals—cows, pigs, chickens, foxes and minks on “fur farms,” and sometimes animals used in experiments. Their emphasis is understandable; the overwhelming preponderance of suffering animals are domesticated animals. Unfortunately, the reason that almost all the suffering animals are domesticated, is because we’ve already wiped out most of the wilderness!

Don’t wild creatures have “rights” just as much as we do, or the domesticated animals do, whom we are striving so hard to liberate? What do we, as animal advocates, propose to do with animals once we “liberate” them? The overwhelming preponderance of large land animals (over 95% of the biomass) is humans and their livestock, and most of that is livestock, not humans. There are three times as many domesticated birds (poultry in factory farms) than there are of wild birds.

We’ve already shot past the limits to growth in several ways. The current economic collapse is not a temporary condition; it is a new, permanent state. The human sphere is destined to shrink, either by design or by necessity. This is bad news for human capitalism, but good news for everything else on the planet. Vegans, vegetarians, and the animal liberation movement need to be thinking about what this means and what our role in nature — our new role — will be.

There is a place for humans on the planet, but not for this many humans and this many livestock animals. Why don’t we return half of the planet to wilderness, exactly as E. O. Wilson has proposed in his book Half-Earth? For the time being, we will have to ourselves “police” the planet, mostly (but not entirely) policing ourselves. “Half-Earth” is not a far-fetched goal, because most land use on the planet is precisely devoted to livestock agriculture. Once we get rid of, or drastically reduce, livestock agriculture, then we can talk more seriously about re-establishing wilderness.

5 Replies to “Is wilderness gone already?”

  1. We deeply need our children to grow up to live in a world where they are relieved of the awful burden our generation has created through its recklessness and greed and callous decimation of Nature.

    1. Thank you! One idea, to which my home state of Colorado could contribute, is that of the “Buffalo Commons,” which would turn over much of the Great Plains to wilderness, symbolically to the buffalo, but other species (elephants, even?) could also be accommodated. The Great Plains Restoration Council explains this concept and its history, which was originally proposed by Drs. Deborah and Frank Popper in 1987.

  2. I am reminded of Genesis 1:28-31. My father’s Scofield Reference Bible describes this as the “Edenic Covenant.” What role, if any, did the teaching of the Edenic Covenant play in the early church? To what extent are you and E. O. Wilson contemporary Edenic Covenant restorationists? I see he has recently authored a book titled “Genesis” that may also be relevant to the topics you well address in this blog.

    1. I’d like to believe that this passage from Genesis played a role in the thinking of the early Jerusalem church, the Ebionites, or actually any part of the earliest church. I suspect it did. The Ebionites opposed animal sacrifice and Homilies 3.45 states that God never wanted animal sacrifices, because he didn’t want the animals to be killed in the first place. But there aren’t many passages where people might talk about the need to protect wild plants and animals for their own sake more generally. Unfortunately Genesis 1:28 is the famous passage that gives humans “dominion” over the rest of creation and tells them to multiply their numbers. That might have made sense 3000 years ago, and with a suitable interpretation of “dominion” it might still make sense today, but it sends the wrong message to most of humanity today. We should likely nonviolently reduce human population substantially, and that may happen naturally anyway.

      I wasn’t aware of E. O. Wilson’s book Genesis! Thanks! I’ll have to check it out and find out if he really intends to interpret or reinterpret the biblical book of Genesis.

      1. I am sorry I have not yet had time to read Wilson’s “Genesis” (beyond the Amazon description), or I would elaborate on my suspicion that his latest insights into sociobiological altruism, including restraints on overpopulation, are relevant to your work. You are welcome and I hope your investigation is worthwhile.

        A proposition from Ha’azinu (this week’s Torah portion): “When God designed for the nations their allotments, when God divided the children of Adam, God set the boundaries of the peoples in relation to the portion for the children of Israel” (Deut 32:8), i.e., God had good ecological footprint stewardship in mind.

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