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Into the Wilderness

Last night I wrangled a Litquake event in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act made great by the writers who joined me and by a smart, engaged audience. As with the best conversations, there was some friction. I had an inkling of this when I was briefing Ken Brower on the other panelists. Ken Brower is the son of one of nature’s most effective protectors, David Brower, for whom the fabulous Brower Center in Berkeley is named, and a long-time, accomplished journalist. His most recent book Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake deconstructs the dam in a literary way that Brower advocates making literal. I mentioned to Brower that Nathan Sayre, another panelist, is author of Working Wilderness, which is about the breakthrough collaboration among the famed Malpai Borderlands ranchers in Arizona to put ecologically sustainable practices on their land, especially fire. Brower said to me, “I’m sure what they’re doing is worthy but there’s no such thing as ‘working wilderness.’”

Peter Algona, author of After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, pointed out that the human terms by which we define any piece of land (or water) reflects a value that we put on it, or not. Brower held to the position that pristine wilderness is sacrosanct. I know Brower’s position well because it is shared by Michael Soule, the “father of conservation biology,” who I profile in The Spine of the Continent. Soule’s solution is to protect “mega linkages” where we still have nature working at historic scales, which E.O. Wilson echoes in the September issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Wilson points out that “nature needs half” in order for us to stay within planetary boundaries for safe operations here. Both Soule and Wilson lay out the prescription to yes keep wilderness wild, but also to integrate higher ecological functioning into landscapes that don’t have that designation.

Algona’s human-centric observation has even more resonance thanks to the frightening dimensions of the anthropomorphic footprint limned by Anthony Barnosky is his book Dodging Extinction. This book should be a community read for our entire democracy. Barnosky’s a paleontologist and takes the long view. He adds up the numbers to conclude that humans currently use up more energy per diem than is made available through photosynthesis. Thus we overdraw our energy budget by way of fossil fuels. Not only are we creating the poisonous feedback loop called climate change by doing this, we are depriving other life forms of photosynthesis! This is an occult driver of extinction, invisibly constricting the available life space for creatures who we are also depriving of habitat. Sayre pointed out several times that call it wilderness or open space, the enemy is the profit motive plied expertly by developers. What we are engaged in here is a self-consuming system. We are Saturn engorging ourselves on our children. It is not impossible to face up to this and deal with it. Barnosky lays out 1-2-3 how to do that.

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