Great Wilderness Debate

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it —Upton Sinclair

Preamble In wildness is the salvation of the world, wrote Henry David Thoreau nearing the end of his short life in 1862, and he had a point. What could wisdom be if not simply the long view? What you get, sooner or later, when you forget this is the Pandoracene, the Time of Consequences. What you get when you continue to forget that, or refuse to remember, is something else, which I won’t name here. We all have faith in something. My own faith is in wild places, especially wild places writ large, which is wilderness. Let’s see how we go.

First Approximation


s must be obvious by now, this website frames the world’s recent entry into the Pandoracene as a kind of ultimatum sent by the Living World to kindly reexamine our collective priorities and get with the programme.

At the heart of any such re-examination is wilderness. The reason must be obvious. Wilderness is Gaian physiology working to capacity. For if otherwise, then we simply wouldn’t be here to debate the matter. In the beginning was the wilderness; wilderness was what there was; and because there was wilderness, so we are too.

Wandering Daisy on Table Mountain by Jason Hollinger 2009

Let’s start by considering that wilderness is, by definition, the kind of place where the myriad living things of the Earth self-organize within complex adaptive systems – a forest or a grassland or a subalpine meadow say, but not a vegetable garden or a putting green or a clearcut.

To say this another way, the biological and ecological processes that prevail in wild places are non-linear. It is this nonlinearity that the human aesthetic picks up on when it contemplates a wild place, from a distance at least. It is also this nonlinearity that confers upon the Living World the freedom and creativity it needs to keep on keeping on.

Conceived of in this way, wilderness can and does exist at all spatial scales. Magnify a drop of pond water a thousand times under a compound microscope, and it too will be a wild place, teaming with wildlife. At the other end of the spectrum, wilderness can also be defined as Aldo Leopold defined it, that is, as a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.

This emphasis on exclusion of human technologies has greatly exercised a great number of people in recent decades. In my library live several books on the nature of wilderness, including a few – The Great New Wilderness Debate and The Wilderness Debate Rages On – that speak at some length to this point.

The debate these books allude to rehearses the question whether (or to what extent) wilderness is “real” or whether (or to what extent) it’s a social construct disjunct from any referent you could shake a stick at. Leafing through the earliest book in the series recently – Uncommon Ground, edited by William Cronan, and published in 1996 – I was struck by how stale, how behind the times its arguments already feel only three decades on. Ditto the two books named above. One senses that the Great Wilderness Debate had the misfortune to roll out just as the world was changing in ways that rendered it pointless.

In fact that’s not a bad assessment of the situation. For of course something did happen. It’s called the Pandoracene and it began to pinch until the early 2000s, just as the Great Debate was revving up. Needless to say, the meaning of wilderness in the Pandoracene is necessarily very different than most of us understood it to be in the Time Before.

Here we come to the fatal flaw inherent in the arguments of a great many participants in the Great Wilderness Debate: their (socially constructed) assumption that any meaning wilderness possesses, apart from some vaguely defined ecological functions, must ultimately trace to human frames of reference – a move that obviously relativizes wilderness, makes it conceptually, not to mention politically, unstable, volatile, apt to turn on a dime. To this extent, the Great Wilderness Debate, or much of it, turned on a category error; it mistook the anthropocentric meaning of wilderness for its Gaian meaning.

Nor can one fail to notice a certain irony inherent in the onset of the Pandoracene, which effectively performed a salutary end run round the whole silly Great Wilderness Debate by bringing into focus the foundational importance of Gaian planetary systems. For if Gaia brackets all, as I believe she does, so do the vast wilderness tracts whose healthy ecophysiological functioning is prerequisite to Gaia. Wilderness too brackets all.

This of course raises the question about how much wilderness Gaia needs in order to continue to sustain the likes of you and me into the indefinite future. I really don’t know, do you? All I do know is what the situation, which has long been gloomy, has lately become ghastly.

To sum up, let’s not worry overmuch about the extent to which wilderness does or does not jive with our current neoliberal imperatives. Let’s not worry overmuch if some wilderness areas once supported human populations whose ecological footprint can hardly, in any event, have exceeded that of other concurrent members of the biosphere. And for heavens sake, let’s not worry overmuch if so-and-so said the world needs such-and-such an amount of wilderness and somebody else said something different.

Rather than any of this, let’s instead keep our eye fixed on the Great Gaian planetary picture and then, having made our personal assessment, begin the long hard work of bringing our own personal lifestyles into proper alignment thereto.

May the wilderness be with you —Trevor

Next up: Teaching a Stone to Speak