Debating Wilderness on Earth: Do We Have to Have Empty Places?

Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental and policy studies at Dartmouth College

How much of the Earth's surface would you guess is still wilderness?

According to a Sierra Club survey, about one-third of the Earth's land area can still be called wilderness (defined as at least 1 million acres upon which there is no road, power line, airport, dam or other major human construction). More than 60% of this remaining wilderness is tundra, ice or desert. Only 12% lies in the tropics.

In the United States excluding Alaska, just two areas qualify as wilderness--the Greater Yellowstone area and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. In Europe, India and most of China there is no wilderness.

Information like that usually evokes two kinds of reactions. One is: So what? The other is: Let's save every bit we can, while there's still time.

Said the late Justin Dart, an adviser to President Reagan: "I am for preservation. I say we should preserve the redwoods, sure, maybe 100 acres of them, just like the way God intended them, to show the kids. Those environmentalists who talk about preserving the wilderness in Alaska--how many goddamned bloody people will end up going there in the next 100 years to suck their thumbs and write poetry?"

Said Henry David Thoreau: "At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander."

Wilderness, said President Theodore Roosevelt, must yield to the needs of people: "A rich and fertile land cannot be permitted to remain idle, to lie as a tenantless wilderness, while there are such teeming swarms of human beings in the overcrowded, overpopulated countries."

Wrote Paul Gruchow in his book "The Necessity of Empty Places": "Empty; unoccupied or uninhabited; unfrequented . . . . Empty is one of those words that reveals unspoken attitudes. Lacking people, it means. No humans equals nothing . . . . The word empty inherently expresses contempt for everything that is not human. The old puzzle about the tree falling in an unoccupied forest would not be a puzzle at all in a world where trees and porcupines, say, were assumed to have some justification independent of humanity."

Wilderness is stupid, wilderness is sacred, wilderness is a resource for human needs, wilderness lifts us from our limited self-centeredness. In the paralysis engendered by these opposing views, one other view briskly prevails: Wilderness is a place to make money.

Ecologist Paul Ehrlich once asked a Japanese journalist why the Japanese whaling industry is busily exterminating the very source of its wealth. The answer: "You are thinking of the whaling industry as an organization interested in maintaining whales. Actually it is better viewed as a huge quantity of capital attempting to earn the highest possible return. If it can exterminate whales in 10 years and make 15% profit, but it could only make 10% with a sustainable harvest, then it will exterminate them in 10 years. After that, the money will be moved to exterminate some other resource."

The same logic propels the burning of the Amazon, the search for oil in the Arctic, the cutting of old-growth forests, the filling in of wetlands, the commercialization of the world's most beautiful places. Left to its own momentum, that logic will generate mountains of money and no wilderness.

About 8% of the remaining wilderness (slightly more than 2% of the Earth's surface), has been designated, on paper at least, as national park or nature preserve. UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is engaged in a worldwide campaign to establish at least one Biosphere Reserve in each of the 200 "biotic provinces" it has identified on Earth. So far only one-third of the needed reserves have been established. The cost to complete the job and manage all the reserves would be about $150 million a year--about 75 minutes' worth of the world's military expenditures.

Which of the many human opinions about wilderness will dominate over the next 50 years? The answer is important. It will determine whether there will be any wilderness left at all.

Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry: "We have never known what we were doing, because we have never known what we were un doing. We cannot know what we are doing until we know what nature would be doing if we were doing nothing."

Edward Hoagland: "The swan song sounded by the wilderness grows ever fainter, ever more constricted, until only sharp ears can catch it at all. It fades to a nearly inaudible level, and yet there never is going to be any one time when we can say right now it is gone."

Henry David Thoreau: "In wilderness is the preservation of the world."

Wendell Berry: "In human culture is the preservation of wilderness."

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