photo credit: Ontario Parks website
According to a story in today’s Globe and Mail, residents near Algonquin Park are fighting the Ontario government’s decision to try to site a wind farm nearby. Why? Because wild areas should be preserved in all their unspoiled glory.
Brent Peterson, a cottager who speaks for 45 families with property on McCauley Lake, says this is not a case of NIMBYism, where people simply don’t want to get too close to the necessary but obtrusive aspects of life. He says it’s not about individuals but about an unspoiled area that is “about to be industrialized.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me to go and tear down a forest to put industry in the name of green,” Mr. Peterson said. “Some areas don’t make sense for the green industry, aesthetics or no aesthetics.”
There’s only one problem here:
There’s no such thing as “wild.” “Unspoiled” vanished approximately 10,000 years ago when the first humans traipsed across the land bridge into North America. This idea that any space without obvious human constructions such as buildings or roads in it is somehow pristine or unaltered is both persistent and completely false.
Human beings are animals. All animals modify their environments. Beavers cut down trees and flood forests with their dams. Insects devour forests. Beech seedlings can’t grow under adult beech trees, and maple seedlings can’t grow under adult maple trees, which is directly responsible for Southern Ontario’s very stable mix of beech and maple trees in its climax ecosystems. The shallow roots and acidic leaves of pine trees choke out the undergrowth. Ants distribute trillium seeds by eating their juicy exteriors. Humans are no exception to this. Whether you can see our activities tangibly on the landscape in something definitely human like a hut or a skyscraper or a wind turbine or a dam is irrelevant; even in the depths of the amazon rainforest, the activities of the local hunter-gatherers have modified the mix of species (in such a way that species edible to humans are far more dominant than they otherwise would be). Layers of pollution coat the antarctic, thanks to air and water currents. And Algonquin Park? Thanks to 10,000 years of human habitation, even before the arrival of the Europeans, Algonquin Park is already not what it would have been without us. By now it is dramatically different. We camp there, hike there, fly over it, fish it, hunt in it, burn coal upwind of it. It is not pristine. It only looks pristine.
There is no wild.
Humans will inevitably modify any environment they live in or nearby. We are animals; we can’t exempt ourselves from natural processes, even with good intentions.
Rather than ask ourselves, “what can we do to keep this place unspoiled?”, which is impossible and puts us in a losing position from the outset, it would be more constructive to ask, “what are the effects of this activity likely to be, and do we want those effects, or not?”