Where the "wild" things are

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?”

7 thoughts on “Where the "wild" things are

  1. I watched a program on CTV Saturday W-Five. They were discussing wind farms and the turbines. I was wondering if you’d mention anything about it and you did!

  2. That always amuses me, since the soundbite is usually in an area accessible by manmade roads, traversed using a vehicle.
    We’re here, we’ve altered, period. Let’s move on and find a way to lessen the impact.
    And maybe I’m weird, but I love the look of those wind turbines-reminds me that we’re trying to find the right way. (or I’ve watching 28 Days Later too often-not quite sure)

  3. Yes!
    And, have you read _Second Nature_ by Michael Pollan? It’s been a long time since I read it, but what I took from it was that humans are a part of nature, and our denial of that is at the heart of our environmental problems.

  4. A gigantic resort was just approved for construction near a long-beloved and “unspoiled” (ie not dammed; remote) river here in Oregon. People were so upset about it they just kind of sputtered, “But! It’s the Metolius!” By which I think they meant: It’s sacred. You can’t put houses along it any more than you can spit on the Madonna… No one would refer to a river as sacred in public discourse, though, so I wonder — is that what that fellow meant when he said “unspoiled”?

  5. It might be, but I still don’t agree.
    This idea that Nature (or at least parts of it) should be kept, unchanging, in a glass case and that the best and only thing humans can do is remove ourselves from it is, besides utterly false, passive. What’s sacred varies from person to person. There are a number of local treelots and blobs of highly modified green that are sacred to me.
    The problem with the analogy is that, besides making the park and the Metolius into the Madonna (a figure that will not resonate with everyone), it makes houses and windfarms spit. Where is it ok to spit? It also ignores all the ways we’ve already spat on them. Our beloved Madonnas are coated in spit. What differentiates this spit–windfarms, houses–from the spit of pollution, hunting, photography, camping? In fact, the Madonna is made out of spit–our spit, beaver spit, tree spit, bug spit, flower spit, deer spit, coyote spit–our ecosystems are the sum totals of the ways in which species interact with each other and the environment. That includes us.
    So what makes the windfarms or the resort different? It’s not that we are modifying an unspoiled place–it’s that *we don’t like the modifications.* Which is perfectly fine. I’d argue it’s better; it puts us in a position where we can examine our values and choices and make decisions.
    Sin, yes, exactly.

  6. I keep thinking about this one. Here’s what I’m wondering. How do I argue that a resort or a windfarm shouldn’t be built w/o using the phrase (or the concept behind) “unspoiled wilderness”?
    I value forests where people do not live, but only visit. I can’t tell you exactly why. It has something to do with being surrounded by so much life, so much that’s growing. It has something to do with being surrounded by living things that can’t talk and which live, in some cases, hundreds of years more than a person does. It has something to do with allowing myself to be in danger — far from hospitals and police, out of range of a cell phone.
    Yes, forests are good for wildlife and for carbon sequestering, etc. etc. — but that’s not the reason why *I* find them valuable.
    I believe those forests need to be maintained, if only because they’ve been so completely destabilized by logging, fire suppression, etc. I believe people should have access to them, even if that means building roads and trails and toilets. But I don’t believe that people should live in them.

  7. Well, I think you’ve actually got a pretty good grasp on what you value about it–but in any case, that’s the first step. What is it the community wants to maintain about that space? Silence? Access to a real night sky? Habitat for animals that don’t have habitat–or enough, or good enough habitat–elsewhere? A certain kind of ecosystem? The experience of being far from other people? Plant species that require certain kinds of environments to grow in? Aquifer recharge/water purification? Critical habitat for migrating bird species? And so on.
    I’d venture to guess from having read your blog for so long that one of the things you value is being able to interact with an environment that isn’t exclusively human, that hasn’t been planned, that isn’t controlled. Plenty of studies indicate that we need those kinds of spaces for our psychological and physical health.
    But here’s the thing: when you say, “this place is unspoiled and we should leave it alone,” you basically leave yourself without an argument. It’s not unspoiled, you’re already not leaving it alone; so what distinguishes the camping/hunting/fishing from teh resort/windfarm, if that’s all you care about?
    Whereas when you say, “We, as a community, value these particular things about this space, and we want those things preserved,” then you have the tools to challenge any particular development proposal. “We want to preserve habitat for brown bears, which need x acres each of healthy y ecosystem and can’t tolerate much contact with humans; the resort hotel would destroy that.” then get the information proving that the resort hotel would destroy it. “We value this as a place to get away from the city and enjoy some solitude, quiet, and interaction with the non-human world.” You get more tools that way.
    We’re already making these kinds of value judgements all the time. Certain ecosystems are worth preserving, others aren’t (from a completely subjective human point of view). I really believe that understanding what we value, and being able to articulate that, and knowing what it takes to defend it, are the most important three first steps. It might not be necessary in a world where everyone still shared the same basic value system, but we don’t live in that world anymore.

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