Wilderness or Biospheres?

Wilderness or Biospheres?

As human populations continue to grow, conservationists have become more concerned about the state of our natural environment and how it will survive in the face of human activity.  Everyday, all over the world, natural lands and wildlife are compromised for the purpose of human activity or resource extraction.  Still, more and more people are drawn to the effort of conservation and consistently debate the best approach to do so.  Regardless of political belief, it seems that most people can agree that we want to keep our nature as pristine and  as clean, if not more, as it was when we found it.  Most people want to preserve species and to ensure their offspring are able to survive in this world.  However, when it comes to how to accomplish these goals, there are different views on the best approach.  In recent years, the discussion of preservation and conservation has shifted away from wilderness areas to biodiverse areas.  This article will take a closer look at the arguments for and against wilderness and biodiversity protection.

In dissecting these positions it is important to define wilderness and biodiversity.  Wilderness, as defined by Merriam-Webster is a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings” and  “an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community.” The United States is the first country to ever define and designate wilderness areas by law.  In the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is defined as  “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  Biodiversity, though certainly related to wilderness, has a slightly different definition.  Merriam-Webster defines biodiversity as, “biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.”  Biodiversity is a defining characteristic of biosphere reserves, another type of protected area.  Unlike wilderness, biospheres do not prohibit human activity.  In 1970, UNESCO began the Man and Biosphere Reserve Program (MAB) which emphasized the protection of high biodiversity areas as biosphere reserves.  The purpose of these protected reserves is to conserve species and minimize loss, to perform research and monitor environmental conditions, and to promote sustainable development in the surrounding communities.

The idea of wilderness preservation was one of the first to emerge in environmental philosophy and emphasized the importance of keeping nature in it’s current state. By keeping out human economic developments that destroy natural habitats (logging, mining, drilling), wilderness areas benefit us as a society and as individuals.  Many wilderness areas provide environmental services such as protecting a watershed for human consumption and cleaning and filtering the air.  Wilderness areas are also great settings for recreational activities like fishing, hiking, or camping.  Today there are 109,138,286  protected acres of designated wilderness areas that are excluded from over-consumptive development. According to Reed F. Noss,  wilderness areas also provide a perfect benchmark for scientists to look back on and study how the natural dynamics of an area proceed without human activity.  These wilderness areas are of paramount importance to ecologists and conservationists who are working to restore a damaged area to an earlier, healthier condition.  

Though the wilderness approach has been adapted in the United States, and wilderness designated areas expand every year, there are arguments made against wilderness for conservation.   In The Trouble with Wilderness,  William Cronon argues that our sense of separateness from nature allows us to treat the areas we inhabit without the same regard as we treat nature. He writes, “idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home.” In other words, the perception that wilderness is a place where human activities are forbidden invites us to guiltlessly perform our activities in any other non-wilderness location, for better or worse.   Cronon affirms that human activity can be beneficial to the study of environmental conservation. He writes that an effective environmental ethic, “will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it… wilderness tends to cast any use as abuse, and thereby denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship.”  He believes the wilderness approach has hindered our conservation efforts because it leaves no room for successful, positive human activity in a natural area.  Additionally, it neglects to conserve “unnatural” ecosystems like those present in cities or suburban areas.

Another argument against “wilderness” is that it is not a universal approach and it cannot always be applied in areas outside of the United States. Not every country has the geography and/or size that allows for large tracts of land to be sectioned off from human activity, thereby making the model inefficient in addressing conservation worldwide. More importantly, setting aside land for wilderness preservation usually implies a removal of the people who inhabit it. In addition to the ethical flaws of removing indigenous people, it is also important to note that ecosystems can improve when indigenous people tend to them and removing them might be a disservice to the environment.

Though wilderness has been successful in many ways, thus far, some conservationists argue that the wilderness model is outdated and we should shift our attention to biodiversity hotspots and encourage protection of those areas as biosphere reserves.  For instance, the Amazon is a biodiversity hotspot that houses nearly 10% of known species and is home to an estimated 20 million indigenous people.   In a biosphere reserve area, humans and animals are able to cohabitate in a sustainable way.  Protecting biospheres and biodiversity hotspots requires a model that engages sustainable human activity with conservation minded preservation efforts.  Unlike the wilderness model, biosphere conservation does not neglect that humans are part of nature and instead it encourages sustainable development in cooperation with the needs of nature.

There are three connected areas in a biosphere.  The center of the biosphere is a protected core area similar to a wilderness area.  A concentric second zone surrounds the core and functions as a buffer area where scientists can perform research and monitor the area. Sociocultural and ecological development is permitted in the third zone and you can likely find indigenous people living in sustainable harmony with the natural environment. These three concentric zones of a biosphere intend to address all the conflicting issues that arise when protecting lands and allow for a more integrated approach to conservation.   

The way we view ourselves in contrast to nature is an important philosophical distinction to consider when we talk about wilderness and biosphere reserves. Are we part of nature or are we separate from nature?  The wilderness model draws clear boundaries of where human society ends and where wilderness begins and therefore limits all human activity so wild ecosystems can thrive. The biosphere model promotes a different type of conservation that allows humans to be present in an area and reach a sustainable balance between the needs of people and nature.  Though both models intend to preserve nature to the best of our capabilities and have been successful in doing so, their is still a question of which is the better model.  How do you view humans’ relationship with nature? Should we separate ourselves in order to save nature or should we allow humans to take control of their natural environments in a sustainable way?  Which conservation model would you support?

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