Ethan Linck

Wilderness and "A Third-World Critique" in the Era of Climate Change

ISSUE 69 | CARBON | OCT 2016

In 1989, the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha published a short but influential paper criticizing the biocentric “deep ecology” movement, an obscure but then-ascendant subset of Western environmentalism. In “Radical American Environmentalism: A Third World Critique,” Guha argued that the American preoccupation with national parks and wilderness preservation was at best an ineffective tool for addressing environmental challenges in the Global South, and at worst the legacy of four centuries of racism and colonialism. Instead, Guha wrote, conservation organizations should place a greater focus on questions of equity and resource distribution, modeling themselves after traditions in Germany and India which “allow for a greater integration of ecological concerns with livelihood and work.”

This year, as the United States celebrated the centennial of the National Park Service, the global atmospheric carbon concentration has permanently passed 400 parts per million, promising to bring dramatic change to landscapes both protected and and unprotected, and in both the First and Third World. It’s a benchmark that poses a thorny question to contemporary environmentalists: does the American wilderness idea -- and Guha’s criticisms -- hold continued relevance in a new epoch of climate change?

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Guha’s original paper was one of the more high-profile products of a larger philosophical conflict within environmentalism that James Callicot and Michael Nelson refer to as “The Great New Wilderness Debate” in their anthology of writings on the topic. On one side of the divide was a loose coalition of philosophers, grassroots activists, and scientists in the nascent field of conservation biology, united by a worldview they described as “biocentric.” The philosophy of biocentrism at its simplest holds that all life is intrinsically valuable and no one species has any more right to exist than any other, a Copernican paradigm shift away from the notion that human beings are rightful overseers on the natural world. Given an elegant voice in the writings of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss and the American forester Aldo Leopold among others, biocentrism quickly became associated with a broader range of political and ecological beliefs, largely united by their near-religious reverence for “wilderness”: landscapes “untrammeled by man,” as the United States’ seminal 1964 Wilderness Act put it. If all species are equally valuable, and unmanaged landscapes are essential to their survival, they argued, environmentalism should focus first and foremost on their preservation.

On the other side of the aisle a similarly loose coalition of philosophers, anthropologists, and environmental historians, who argued that the biocentric pillar of conservation and its focus on wilderness were guilty of drawing an artificial distinction between the human and nonhuman world. They argued that virtually every landscape on Earth was affected in one way or another by interaction with humans, and that by ignoring the influence of Homo sapiens on even the most remote corners of the planet, Western environmentalists were engaging in dated Transcendentalist fantasies with the potential to ignore environmental problems affecting poor people worldwide -- perhaps even justifying their exclusion from land deemed important for the conservation. Deemed “anthropocentric” by their opponents, a dichotomy Guha (among others) rejected as unhelpful, their position became known as the “deconstructionist” view on wilderness: if the wilderness concept is nothing but a social construct guided by a particular political and philosophical outlook, they argued, its centrality to environmentalism is a dangerous mistake.

Both parties were guilty of exaggeration. The biocentrists had a tendency to either romanticize primitive technology or understate its influence on natural systems while critiquing the modern industrial state. (“Before agriculture was midwifed in the Middle East, humans were in the wilderness. We had no concept of "wilderness" because everything was wilderness and we were a part of it,” writes Earth First! founder David Foreman in his autobiography Confessions of an Eco-Warrior.) Meanwhile, anthropocentrists consistently set up a strawman of a wilderness advocate who literally believed there could be “pristine” landscapes, when the modern biocentric position was rooted in a more scientific understanding of wilderness by degree of influence, not kind. (“The wilderness premise [is] that nature, to be natural, must also be pristine,” claims William Cronon in The Trouble With Wilderness, an essay he tellingly begins with several pages on Muir and Thoreau.) A productive undercurrent of the debate attempted to frame the positions of both sides with a common language -- say, evaluating the reality of wilderness by setting up a widely-agreed-upon set of attributes -- but in many cases, competing intellectual traditions spoke past one another, with widely disparate views on objectivity and subjectivity, on nature and culture.

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My own attempt at a pragmatic position is that it’s useful to consider wilderness as occupying the same conceptual space as the idea of species: both a recognizable biological reality and nearly impossible to find a common yardstick for, a range on a spectrum with shifting boundaries. There are clearly areas on the globe that remain largely self-determining, insofar as their fine-grained ecological processes are unmanaged by humans. In many cases, the cliché about pornography is applicable -- you know it when you see it, even if you can’t define it (I am not the first to make this analogy by any means, but it remains useful.) In others, categorizing landscapes is more immediately difficult. Does a 100,000-acre stretch of sagebrush rangeland with a number invasive plant species and occasional grazing pressure qualify? To some eyes, yes; to others, no. But arguing that fringe cases negate the idea writ large is an impressively simplistic position. Humans are always a part of the ecosystem, but their relative importance to a large number of natural processes varies widely between places like the Atlantic Seaboard and Greenland.

This can be true even if regions we consider wilderness today were once heavily inhabited, like the Amazon Basin, and even if they are influenced by broader, anthropogenic forces, like climate change. Last month’s 400 ppm benchmark is an arbitrary milestone that signals that current models of global warming are likely accurate, and perhaps even understates the magnitude of its effect on our planet. It also embodies the complexity of our relationship with the phenomenon: while we may have gotten the ball rolling, ecological forces beyond our control will also heavily influence its course.

Take, for instance, the interplay between forests in the northern hemisphere and the carbon cycle. While we’ve exceeded concentrations of 400 parts per million in the recent past, they’ve always dropped back down to a more comforting 350-399 ppm average during September, the cycle’s annual nadir prior to northern forests losing their leaves to decompose and release stored carbon to the atmosphere. It’s plausible that the extent and quality of these forests will shift as the world warms, changing the nature of this feedback cycle. It’s also plausible that the phenology of these forests itself will change – phenology being word ecologists use refer to the timing of key events in their life cycle. But just because our actions influence a phenomenon doesn’t mean it’s under our control, and it’s hard to imagine a future where our technology mediates the lives of deciduous trees. I think this, as much as anything, should discredit the notion that finding a human mark on landscape negates its value as wilderness, again using that word to mean self-determining natural system: more often than not, it leaves a mark on us, too.

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If you buy my premise that wilderness in this broad, functional definition exists, why should we prioritize its protection in a world with countless environmental concerns that more directly impact our daily lives? A common biocentric argument holds that wilderness is the stage where evolution occurs, a modification of the influential ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s dictum about the “ecological theater and evolutionary play.” On one level, of course, this is nonsense: evolution is agnostic to substrate, occurring as readily in the microbial communities in my sink as on the Serengeti. But on another, it highlights a belief that removing an organism from its ecological and evolutionary context – from countless millennia of living and dying autonomously, shaped by stochastic change, natural selection, and the community of life that has evolved around it – it is somewhat lesser version of itself. (Cronon feels differently, if no less romantically, urging us to remember the “wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us,” presumably meaning both the stirrings in our souls and trees in city parks)

More empirically, biocentrists cite decades of conservation research showing that large, unmanaged natural spaces are crucial to maintaining ecological integrity and preventing extinctions. This is most easily grasped by looking at the body of science supporting the ecological need for the presence of large carnivores in wilderness. To cite a canonical example from the American West, wolves both need large stretches of habitat, and have a disproportionately large effect on other plant and animal communities: where they are absent, elk and other prey often explode in number, resulting in a huge amount of grazing pressure on aspen groves. Other instances of this or similar patterns are legion, and it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that the preservation of biodiversity -- itself crucial to ecological integrity, as decades of research have shown -- requires wilderness in some form. Ruha disagrees not with these details but with the fundamental premise that this protecting biodiversity should be the goal of environmentalism: “What is unacceptable are the radical conclusions drawn by deep ecology, in particular, that intervention in nature should be guided primarily by the need to preserve biotic integrity rather than by the needs of humans.” To me, this is a perplexing argument, as it reiterates the very natural / unnatural dichotomy Ruha himself criticizes two lines further down as “of very little use in understanding the dynamics of environmental degradation.” However, it’s possible to critique his position regardless of this distinction, as there is now a broad scientific consensus that biotic integrity and the needs of humans are inextricably linked. This has been best embodied by the burgeoning field of ecosystem services, which studies how ecosystems aid humans through things like cleaning atmospheric pollution, protecting watersheds, providing food, and pollinating crops. Biodiversity has been shown to crucial component of maintaining the suite of benefits: to quote a 2012 paper from the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, it “…has key roles at all levels of the ecosystem service hierarchy.” Perhaps most importantly, the vision of environmentalism Ruha proposes -- and which continues today in the mission statements of many conservation organizations influenced by the deconstructionists – is ill-equipped to tackle the consequences of climate change when taken on its own. In his article, he cites the German Green Party’s emphasis on “the intimate links between industrialization, militarization, and conquest” as an imitable guiding philosophy in addressing local pollution and environmental justice. On the struggles of agrarian communities in North India, he argues that wilderness preserves would upset their “finely balanced relationship with nature,” and that supporting their struggle against industrial forestry should be the dominant concern of conservationists. Ignoring Guha’s diversion into Marxist rhetoric in the first example and the echoes of noble savage myth eviscerated elsewhere by Guha’s compatriots in the second, these cases are united by their emphasis on environmental justice in a narrow local context. They are therefore hard to argue with at face value. Yes, holding industry accountable for environmental degradation is important, and no, it’s not appropriate to displace peasants in order to turn a working forest in the Himalayan Foothills into a tiger reserve. As solutions, however, they’re deeply inadequate even from his own perspective that environmentalism should address the needs of humans before biotic integrity. This was true in 1989, but is even truer today, as climate change becomes our century’s defining environmental challenge.

Because climate change is a phenomenon with results you can study and think about and compute, is not itself easy to see directly, even if its symptoms are clear, it is what the philosopher Timothy Morton refers to as a “hyperobject,” meaning something omnipresent and yet not directly apprehensible. As a result, treating its symptoms – as Guha and others propose to do by prioritizing the local manifestations of widespread, systemic environmental concerns -- will prove to be little more than a stopgap measure. A world with thousands of urban food gardens but no Northern Forest will neither store much carbon nor preserve the ecological and evolutionary characteristics that provide its myriad benefits to humans. Small national parks with woodcutters who chop down just the right number of trees but have no wolves will not maintain the biodiversity that makes them anything more than a long-term source of lumber.

Instead, the very aspects of the wilderness idea that make it so vexing -- perhaps even a “hyperobject” itself -- make it an essential part of climate change mitigation. To preserve organisms on both their own merits and for their contributions to ecosystem services, large, connected areas of unmanaged land spanning a wide range of latitudes and are necessary. This is true across both ecological and evolutionary timescales. In the short term, organisms need to be able to track the set of climatic conditions they can survive in as temperatures and precipitation regimes change. In the long term, they need sufficient genetic diversity to be able to adapt to a permanently altered world, something only possible with sufficient population sizes spanning diverse habitats.

None of which is to say that Guha’s emphasis on better integrating economic concerns into environmentalism is not an important part of the equation. Indeed, I largely agree with the majority of his essay, and particularly his attacks on the imperialist tendencies of international conservation organizations and misguided views of the East in Western environmental thought. But climate change is a global problem with local symptoms, and resilience requires solutions to mitigate ecological collapse and biodiversity loss on a broad scale. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine a healthy planet in the Anthropocene without wilderness -- in spirit, if not letter of law -- as its cornerstone.

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