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"Wilderness is Dead" by Father Bud Grant

A Commentary

In his essay Walking, Henry David Throeau famously declared that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  We should all hope that he is wrong. 
About five years ago I was hiking in the Rocky Mountains looking for a glacier.  It took us a while to find one...or rather, it took us a while to realize that the tiny slumping saddle of ice up ahead was all that was left of our elusive quarry.  As we stared at it, I felt something more chilling than the snow-melt pool we'd plunged into earlier.  We were staring at an ecosystem already impacted by global warming.  The creek down to our left was running faster and colder than it should, draining off the ice at a fast clip.  Inevitably some aquatic and riparian species must already be locally extinct.  As those species go, so would other flora and fauna all around the alpine meadow.  Once the glacier is gone, and all glaciers on earth are clocked to disappear by mid-century, that creek will run only seasonally, meaning that there are even more dramatic ecological changes in the offing.

By the time my hiking companions return here with their (yet to be born) children, the whole place will be permanently altered, and while those future “peak baggers” would never know what they’d be missing, their experience would not be of "nature" as we know it. Their expectation for a “wilderness experience” simply wouldn’t include glaciers.  Nor could it, by then, in all probability, include polar bears or whales or elephants or…you get the point.  Besides the extermination of glaciers, we are also watching the fastest and most dramatic pandemic of extinction in over 65 million years—when the meteorite slammed into the Gulf of Mexico triggering the collapse of what might be called the global “dinosaur ecosystem.”
But it isn’t just some future explorers who will have a truncated experience of nature.  Not even WE know "nature" as true "wilderness."   Consider this: 18 of the past 20 years are the warmest ever recorded.  I teach at a university and this year’s first year student has lived her entire life in the age of Global Warming: she has never known a wild, pristine nature.  
To paraphrase Nietzsche, wilderness is dead,
Because of human generated, that is “anthropogenic,” ecological changes triggered by either human over-population or human over-consumption, the planet we inhabit is fundamentally different from the one most of us were born in. Environmental activist Bill McKibbon puts it starkly: it is as if we have been swept to a new planet that is less amenable to human existence than the one we came from.  
The Earth is changed.  We are changing it.  It won't ever be again what it once was.  While we are not, in some Heideggerian sense, destined to hurl ourselves against the shoals of ecological apocalypse, it is still true that things are going to get worse before they stabilize, since so many of our practices have already triggered ecological processes that can't be shut off.  Consider a few more sobering facts:
Global warming is real and anthropogenic.  There is no reasonable debate on this.
8 of the top 10 Fortune 500 corporations sell oil or cars, another is Walmart.
Before 1900 there were never more than 1 billion people on earth, now there are over 6 billion, with another 3 billion within the next 50 years.
Grain production and fishing have peaked out and are falling.  Fresh water sources are threatened and diminishing.
The USA, with less than 5 percent of the earth’s population, consumes more than 20 percent of the earth’s resources
2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day, 1.5 on less than $1
One effect of all of this is that there is no place on earth that has not been impacted by humans, whether deliberately or unintentionally, hence, no wilderness. 
Rather, we have various grades of nature: managed, tamed, domesticated, and artifact.  The best we can hope to accomplish now is to manage some of God's creation so that it behaves as much as possible like wilderness, analogous to how, for example, TNC manages its bison herd at Cross Ranch in North Dakota – with vaccinations, simulated migrations (by shifting them from pasture to pasture) and periodic culling.  Treating an ecosystem like a managed species means cordoning off our most endangered ecosystems while filling in as best we know how (which, importantly, isn't all that much) with simulations and substitutions for those natural processes—like prairie fires, say, or capstone species—that  are otherwise gone.  
Besides this “managed” nature, there are legitimate ethical reasons for wanting some parts of nature to be "tamed." A tamed species, such as elephant or caribou, are not fully domesticated (for example, we cannot control their breeding), but we can capture them and make use of them.  An example of a tamed ecosystem is our national park system where nature is bent to our needs so that we enjoy it fairly free of danger.  It is worth noting, by the way, that our greatest national park, Yellowstone, is only one-fifth the size of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, severely threatening our attempts to tame it.
There is also room for "domesticated" nature which, like chickens--the first species we domesticated (not for eggs, meat, or even feathers, but for cock fighting), is re-designed by us and for us.  The best example of domesticated nature is the family farm.  Finally, there is also justification for nature as "artifact." An example of an artifact species is the "Hecks Aurox,” which is one scientist's attempt to re-constitute the wild progenitor of modern cattle by reverse breeding, re-creating an animal that has been extinct since the Middle Ages.  Nature-as-artifact includes prairie reconstructions such as the 8000 acre Neal Smith National Wildlife Area south of Des Moines, Iowa, which used to be corn fields.
The point of all this is to define what we mean by the term “nature.”  Because of anthropogenic changes to the planet, especially in the wake of the West’s industrial revolution, there is now no such thing as wilderness.  But we still do have, and can maintain nature, in varying degrees from managed to artifact. Only with this fundamental concept being clarified can we begin to construct a theological, ethical, and Catholic response to the ecological crises facing creation-vis-nature.
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He's the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose's environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II's visit to Iowa.
Click HERE to read more commentaries by Fr. Bud Grant!


Rev. Alfred Patterson, OSB | Saturday, February 12, 2011

My "attitude of gratitude" is to thank you for your loaded yet concise article. Thank you again.

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