Why can't we talk about wilderness

Twice this week I was reminded that we are terrible at talking about wilderness. First, the The Atlantic launched a new series titled “Who Owns America's Wilderness?” While its centerpiece is a masterful reported essay by David Treuer arguing U.S. National Parks should be returned to Tribal ownership (read it!), my attention was grabbed by Emma Marris’ meditation on the ways nature documentaries mislead us about nature.

Marris’ writing is often challenging for me to stomach—or perhaps more fairly she is a writer who challenges me—because she is enormously talented and also I frequently disagree with her. “The Nature You See in Documentaries Is Beautiful and False” is classic Marris in being provocative, multilayered, and preoccupied with a 26-year-old essay by William Cronon:

The wilderness myth is simply factually inaccurate, in the Americas and elsewhere. It has also been a real stumbling block for conservation. With wilderness set as the gold standard for nature, any human influence has come to be seen as negative by default…Sometimes, people tell me I’m attacking a straw man, that no one believes in the idea of pristine wilderness anymore. Usually, the people who say this work in fields such as conservation, restoration, and ecology, where exciting new findings in paleoecology, plus a belated but welcome interest in indigenous environmental history, have gradually changed the way they think about nature and humans’ place in it. But outside that specialist world, I find that the wilderness myth lives on

Shortly after reading Marris’ essay and getting my teeth caught on this rhetorical gristle, I came across a newly released dataset of values for what’s called the Human Footprint Index, or HFI. The HFI is an “extensively used tool for interpreting the accelerating pressure of humanity on Earth”, and its latest iteration was generated by applying artificial intelligence to high-resolution satellite imagery. Beyond showcasing how remote sensing and machine learning are transforming ecology, however, the latest HFI paper underscores two points:

1) Understanding how and where humans alter habitat and ecosystems remains hugely important to scientists, and

2) Scientists treat human influence as a continuous variable—not a switch that is either flipped to “wilderness” or “not wilderness”.

Why, then, does writing about how no landscapes are “pristine” continue to take up so much space in high-profile environmental discourse? It could be that Marris is right in claiming that “outside that specialist world, I find that the wilderness myth lives on”, and writers are perpetually struggling to educate and re-educate readers on this issue. Communicating more complicated frameworks for how humans interact with the nonhuman world is crucially important and timely (though I think we can move on from “The Trouble With Wilderness” by now).

It also could be that writers like Marris truly wish to divorce the valuation of nature from its proximity or distance to humans—Marris’ peer-reviewed work on “ecosystem integrity” suggests such an agenda—and a scorched-earth campaign against a dated caricature of the wilderness idea (or the idea of any historical ecological baseline) is the best way to move the Overton window in their favor. Though not without merit, this a fairly radical stance, and I doubt it motivates more than a fraction of wilderness thinkpieces.

What I think is actually happening is more quotidian and depressing. Social scientists, life scientists, and journalists remain poor at talking to each other and the public, and when we do talk to each other, it usually happens in canalized, predictable ways. The consequence is that our arguments grow stale and our research lacks context. As we gut higher education—like the recent bloodbath at Laurentian University—that’s only going to get worse.