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Opinion – Why we need to redefine our understanding of ‘the wild’

Why is it important to talk about the differences in opinion on wildlife conservation and preserving the inherent character of natural lands in a world that is under siege by the global capitalist machine?

For most readers, particularly for those living in developed or Global North countries, the fear of death has been systematically displaced from our day-to-day experiences in order for the political and financial elite to maintain systems of control against what they deem as chaos.

For example, if you live in an average city or town, you will most likely not run into an animal that can threaten your life in your day-to-day routine.

Most, if not all, essential resources (i.e., food, water, medicine, etc.) are accessible at supermarkets and you can even get other people to bring them to you through delivery services like Uber Eats. What is the connection to climate change?

In rethinking how we approach the idea of “the wild”, and encouraging interaction with the natural world, I believe that this can foster a more harmonious relationship with plants and animals in a way that is rarely discussed in the broader environmentalist community.

What you choose to value will impact what exists around for future generations to come.

Is institutionalized wilderness the downfall of mainstream environmentalism?

First, we must explore contrasting interpretations of what is “the wilderness.”

Ross W. Gorte, a specialist in natural resources policy at the Congressional Research Service, refers to the Wilderness Act for a standardized definition of wilderness from the perspective of the U.S. government.

Wilderness, in reference to the Wilderness Act, means an area of land that is owned by the federal government and that humans do not change the inherent character of the land through unnecessary additions. Generally speaking, wilderness is referred to as uninhabited land owned by the government and that this land has maintained its natural characteristics.

As of 2010, agency land data under the supervision of the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management shows that the U.S. government manages approximately 615,060,009 acres of land across the nation, which makes up approximately 9% of the total landmass of the country.

In spite of promising grounds made in “wilderness” conservation by public and private efforts, University of Oregon researchers Arjun Adhikari and Andrew J. Hansen used LANDFIRE BpS data to determine that ecosystems in the Central United States have “either already lost over 70–80% area or are quickly approaching this threshold” leading to additional extinction of species due to land-use intensification.”

The definition of “wilderness” is clearly outdated given the escalation of habitat fragmentation and private leasing of public land for oil and natural gas drilling that has gone unfettered since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. That is to say, the public must recognize that wilderness as we have historically known does not exist.

Scientists and researchers have proven that the species of the world are undergoing mass extinction, which you can read more about in Elizabeth Kolbert’s book on this topic.

Luckily enough, there are some local environmental stewards that have already responded to federal and local politicians and environmental NGOs that are asleep at the wheel. An innovative initiative at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park was designed by the resident botanist in order to revitalize white bark pine populations amidst devastation by a fungus called blister rust and bark beetles.

The strategy involved planting 82 rust-resistant pine seedlings intermingled with other tree species throughout specified areas of Crater Lake, while cutting down other seedlings (e.g., mountain hemlock) that may threaten these new trees from growing to maturity.

At the same time, the U.S. government was slow in formalizing which areas can or cannot be intervened by “invasive” species, even though this designation was originally approved decades ago in 1970.

In spite of criticism by conservation groups, this new approach was deemed necessary by Jen Beck, Crater Lake’s botanist, and other project volunteers in order to preserve the “venerability of ancient, distinguished trees.”

I thought that these closing remarks from Emma Marris, former writer for Nature, encapsulated the need to move beyond this outdated paradigm of a pristine environmental conservation.

“If we truly are the humble beings we strive to be, if we truly feel we are not more valuable than other species, then we must be willing to sacrifice our human-made category of “wild” for the betterment of those beings.”

Putting “wilderness” on a pedestal, so to speak, prevents people from interacting with the natural environment on a daily basis, and in turn will continue to create psychological distance between humans and non-humans.

How will we know what to protect and how to effectively do so if we are not encouraging the public to interact with species such as the whitebark pine, as Jen Beck did in attempting to plant some of the 82 rust-resistant seedlings alongside easily accessible pathways.

This is why food sovereignty advocate Vandana Shiva’s paradigm-shifting perspective on the human-nature relationship is simultaneously so radical and transformative in terms of its implications for restoring humanity’s connection to the natural world.

Our future: Displacing wildness, Co-creating wildness

Vandana Shiva is a food sovereignty activist and educator based in India. Through Navdanya International, an organization Shiva founded in 1984 dedicated to seed saving and the cultural heritage within food systems, she instructed half a million farmers within India on food sovereignty practices and established over fifty seed banks across sixteen states.

To sum up just a portion of her life’s work, Vandana Shiva is a firm believer in the power of reframing wildness in terms of galvanizing climate action, ecological stewardship and gender equity.

In regards to ecological harmony, Shiva believes that the wilderness should be viewed as a force of generation, comparing the wild to the Hindu notion of  “living energies.”

In other words, Shiva believes that humans can become co-creators of wilderness and in turn transition the world economy away from the fossil fuel economy, which inherently harms people and the planet.

Meanwhile, Environmental Governance scholar Paul Wapner ponders over the question of whether “wildness” still does exist in the 21st century, and if people truly want wilderness in their lives. Wildness can refer to the uncontrollable nature of living beings in the non-human world, but it can also refer to the unexpectedness of human existence within what is known (e.g., waging war, behavior in large crowds, etc.)

Wapner believes that this age should be called the “Anthropocene” because humans have become geo-chemical agents of change by redirecting rivers, extracting oil and natural gas, and manufacturing single-use products that will never fully biodegrade within our lifetimes.

He actually goes further, clarifying that this era should be known as the “age of some humans” as a way to insert the structural critique of capitalism in fueling not only the surface-level impacts of the climate crisis like global warming and rising temperatures, but also the intergenerational exploitation and plundering of wealth away from the Global Majority.

In humanity’s conquest for consolidated control over the natural world, this one species threatens the ecological checks and balances that are in place to allow for general well-being, let alone prosperity.

Challenge the status quo by walking in a local green space, volunteering at a food bank, or better yet, find spaces within your home and community to let a little “wildness” in.

Embracing uncertainty  

Wapner believes that humanity derives its creative spirit from the wilderness even though much of human development has strayed towards the notion of modernity. He declares humanity’s lopsided approach to addressing wildness as “the capriciousness of living in a world of others.”

In his writing, Wapner has equated the subjugation of the wilderness to the emergence of self-perceived risks and unpredictability for humanity writ large.

In spite of their disagreements on their outlooks towards humanity’s level of sincerity toward the natural world, both Wapner and Shiva would agree that humans must wield their creative energies and affinity for their local environments and communities to become proactive stakeholders of nature.

Whether you are concerned that the status quo of global uncertainty will be a permanent fixture in the future, or you are emboldened by new approaches introduced by Shiva and Beck of harmonious ecological stewardship, both frameworks offer important critiques on the status quo of environmental conservation and environmentalism in general.

Even though GHGe reduction and renewable energy transformation are hallmark aims of climate activists around the world, we cannot lose sight of what we are fighting for in the first place: a more harmonious and in-touch reality with people and the world around us.


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