Friday, September 30, 2011

Wilderness vs. Ecosystem Services

Finally read an article in Science by Peter Karieva et al. from 2007 that I'd had in the docket for a long time. It's a big-time Science-y agenda-setting piece. That is, being in Science, it shapes the debate and defines what constitute appropriate questions and appropriate boundary conditions in the world of Ecosystem Services.  And in that respect it’s a bit disturbing.  Karieva et al begin from the assumption that the world is “domesticated”, that is, that there is no wilderness unaffected by humans – in fact, they come right out and invite us to accept this as an axiom: “If one accepts that virtually all of nature is now domesticated…”.  They do not really defend this assertion, but hey move on to say that, being domesticated, it would be irresponsible of us not to manage global ecosystems as if they were composed of services.  That is, if the world is at the service of humans already, managing it as a bundle of services is merely the ecologically responsible thing to do.  Ergo, wilderness advocates and deep greenies are not only defending a nonexistent world, but harming the real one.

Here’s what gets me.  Karieva and his coauthors are late to the party of “there’s no such thing as wilderness” -- it’s depressing (but predictable) that they do not cite the geographers who have been working this seam for a few decades, including Bill Denevan (“The Pristine Myth”), Tom Vale and Bill Cronon.  Denevan was arguing that much of what Euro-Americans have conceived of as wilderness was profoundly shaped by large and active native populations, and that the landscape of even our National Parks is anthropogenic.  Fine.  What do we do with that? 

A) “It’s all fake!  Tear it down!  Kill it with fire!  Preservationists are all deluded! Management regimes must not be based on non-human goals!”

This is the rather postmodern interpretation encouraged by, among others, the Georgia-Pacific timber company, who used Denevan’s work to argue that their forestry techniques were morally equivalent to native uses of the landscape.

Notice the Manichean worldview.  If the world is divided into Pristine Wild and Fallen Human Landscapes, and we discover that there is no Pristine Wild landscape, then all landscapes must be contaminated, human, and fallen.  Domesticated. This view retains the Wild/Fallen dichotomy, and is a view shared by Karieva et al.: if there is no Wilderness, then nature is best understood in terms of human uses and welfare.  Wilderness, or its absence, structures this view, and is best understood as a kind of aporetic presence. (In the Derridean sense.  I know, sorry).   What that means is that the coherence of Karieva’s argument still depends on the power and coherence of the concept of Wilderness.  Its absence is present.

The problem is this isn't at all what Cronon and Denevan meant.  They meant that the pervasiveness of human influence should make us question the concept of wilderness, not that we should declare a previously-existing Eden "gone".  If non-economic approaches to nature are welded to the concept of wilderness, it's a trap -- springing it simply involves showing that humans have some impact on a given tract of land. So how about this instead?

B) “The absence of unaltered non-human landscapes should make us question the very taxonomy that we had previously used to describe nature.  The Wild/Human dichotomy actually makes no sense, so let’s get down to what really matters: what are ecologically and socially sound practices?”

Yeah, this is harder.  But it’s actually what Denevan and Vale and Cronon have been trying to say for 20 years.  It leaves open the possibility that the goodness of treating the world as composed of “services” is (as it should be) an open question to be answered on a case-by-case basis.  As long as Karieva et al. cordon off possible objections to this into the now-nonexistent realm of “wilderness advocacy”, there is no voice for them.

What it comes down to is this.  As always, the act of seeing the world as a set of economically valuable services, or the world as domesticated, is an achievement that has to be constantly reiterated through arguments (most effectively, through high-profile ones in Science).  It must not be assumed away as a boundary condition for debate.

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