Wilderness Preservation

Arguments for Wilderness Preservation

In "An Amalgamation of Wilderness Preservation Arguments" Michael P. Nelson recounts (and critiques) the plethora of arguments that have been given for the preservation of wilderness.

All of these rationales he prefaces as being : 1) focused only on terrestrial wilderness, thus ignoring aquatic wilderness and ecosystems as well as that of space; 2) Australian - American focused. This, he claims, is mostly due to the fact that Europe does not have untouched nature to preserve. Additionally, the ideas of Aldo Leopold seem to run through (or at least can be offered in support of) nearly all of the arguments mentioned.

Nelson details 30 arguments, but for the sake of discussion we will only focus on certain ones. Below are what I think are the most relevant arguments:

  1. The Natural Resources Argument : Nature should be preserved in order to save the resources that it possess for future generations. This argument entails that the resources will be used in the future. According to Nelson, "resource reserves, then, are only wilderness areas insofar as their use is potential and not actual" (EE 414). This argument is similar to the Pharmacopoeia and the Service Argument as well as the Future Generation argument. Each views nature as a resource and in terms of the benefit it have for humans or future human generations.
  2. The Ontogeny Argument : Humans need nature in order to evolve.
  3. The Disease Sequestration Argument : The wilderness acts as a barrier between humans and many infectious bacteria/viruses. Should we encroach on forests or cut them down (especially in tropical areas) viruses and bacteria that we will expose ourselves to previously un-encountered viruses and bacteria which have the potential to adapt to human hosts such as Ebola and HIV.
  4. The Animal Welfare Argument : This argument attempts to focus on animal rights and to give a non-anthropocentric reason for wilderness preservation. It states that as many animals need large spaces (wilderness) in which to roam and live the wilderness should be preserved because these animals have to right to thrive and also to be encumbered by humans. However, as Nelson notes, animals do not necessarily need wilderness to survive; many animals live interspersed within human- altered or human- constructed landscapes.
  5. The Cathedral Argument : Wilderness and natural sites are places of spirituality and religious worship and because of this should be preserved. Nelson comments that such an argument could easily hold up in a U.S. court by claiming the right to freedom of religion.

Almost all of the arguments are unabashedly utilitarian and most, but not all, are anthropocentric. Is this necessarily a bad stance for an argument? It seems to be that these arguments are the most accessible as well as the easiest to legally defend. Is it the basis for the argument or the end result, saving wilderness, that is important?

Also, the Ontogeny Argument brings up another issue of human connection to nature. It is still involves humans deriving benefit from nature but seems to argue that humans not only use nature but are dependent upon it. I think this is an interesting and, possibly, new take on utilitarianism. It also brought to mind the Paleo Man we saw in class. Are we only behaviorally and genetically human because of our natural environment? But humans have also been influencing the environment for millions? of years. Is the interplay between humans and nature more important than the actual wilderness of nature?

Wilderness Preservation: Response to Callicott

Reed F. Noss’ response to Callicott argues that while Callicott’s solutions such as biosphere reserves are good ideas, they should not be seen as alternatives to wilderness preservation. In fact he says that those types of things would be in line with wilderness preservation. While he agrees that humans should use sustainable practices when dealing with nature like Callicott argues, he still has several areas where he argues he believes Callicott was wrong. His first and most important disagreement would be with Callicott's idea that wilderness preservation will be a fruitless attempt to save the environment. Noss argues that we still need to attempt to protect wilderness areas from human intervention. Conservation needs to attempt to protect lands from human intervention.

There are several other disagreements that Noss makes. Noss disagrees with Callicott on the value of hands off wilderness areas. He says that they act as reference sites for the restoration of wilderness areas. Noss does not agree with Callicott that wilderness preservation has failed. Noss claims that the multiple use areas are being destroyed at a faster rate than the wilderness areas, and that roads built through these areas cause the wildlife there to die. In addition to this he tries to argue that while wilderness conservation is a defensive game, it is a game that must be played otherwise the environment would be destroyed. He says that wilderness preservation is the only thing that will save the environment.

One of Noss’s greatest disagreements though would be with Callicott’s argument that humans are included in the environment. While he says that humans are part of the environment, our culture and lifestyles separate us. He says that the lack of unsustainable practices. Our culture leads to roads and other things that make it impossible for species to survive in these particular areas. This is why humans should be separated from the environment as long as we maintain our current culture. He says that humans can be useful for maintaining the historical natural habitat, like the burning of forests by Native Americans. These burnings helped to maintain the habitat before the Europeans arrived and changed the entire landscape. According to Noss the environment can and should be managed by humans, but it should not be changed.

If the environment can and should be maintained by humans, doesn’t that mean that nature has always been controlled by humans? Why should we maintain that historical environment? If nature naturally evolved by the work of animals and other forces, why does it matter if we transform it or let it change all by itself?


An historical example of the consequences of deforestation

The history of deforestation goes back just about as far as our own— we have been cutting down trees for resources (most notably for firewood and shelter) since we developed stone tools, and up until the oil revolution in the late 19th century, we have been doing so at a reasonably sustainable rate. There are several examples, though, of pre-industrial revolution civilizations that have pushed deforestation too far.

One of the most telling examples is that of Easter Island, off the coast of South America. In 900 C.E. when humans were thought to have first arrived on the island, they found a diverse forest with an equally diverse set of animals (most notably land and sea birds) (Diamond 104). By 1722 C.E. when Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch admiral, ‘discovered’ and christened Easter Island, he noted that there were no trees on the island that exceeded ten feet in hight (107). Over the course of those 800 years, the Pacific Islanders living on Easter had cleared the island’s trees to make room for agriculture, for firewood (to heat homes and for cremating the dead), building canoes for fishing, moving and erecting their famous statues, in addition to a number of other uses (106). As the island’s trees were removed, human and non-human animal populations suffered greatly. For the Islanders, fewer trees meant fewer canoes and fewer firewood, and acquiring and cooking food became incredibly difficult, and this eventually lead to cannibalism among islanders and close to a 90% decrease in human population (118). Though there are other pre-industrial examples of the consequences of over-deforestation( the Mayan civilization, medieval Japan, and Western Europe (which greatly influenced colonization, especially in the New World), Easter Island was one of the most extreme cases.

Modern deforestation

The Earth’s forests have really started coming down in the early 20th century, though, with the invention of the chainsaw, which allowed loggers to fell trees at a substantially quicker rate, one which the forests could not keep pace (Bourne 38). The forests along the west coast of the U.S. has been hit particularly hard. What once was the home to a massive redwood forest, “today less than 5 percent of the roughly two million acres of virgin forest remains, mostly in parks and reserves throughout the range” (38). Over the past century, logging companies have mostly practiced a method of deforestation called clear cutting, which, as the name implies, involves cutting everything in a particular area, leaving nothing behind but stumps. Practices have recently begun to change to a more sustainable method of acquiring timber that only removes “only the least robust trees, the runts…every 10 to 15 years” (Fay 61), preserving the old growth and, by opening up the canopy, encouraging new growth. There is also a great deal of concern about deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere around the world.

Arguments against deforestation

For an anthropocentric argument for the preservation of forests, we should look at how they serve humans. The most obvious service forests provide is the production of resources like lumber, and we, according to the Natural Resource Argument (see the top of the page), obligated to preserve the Earth's forests so that future generations will have access to the same resource. But forests are more than simple reservoirs of resources. They are ecosystems, full of biodiversity, which, as Donella H. Meadows argues, is valuable to us for economic reasons (in that many industries—tourism, forestry, and recreation, to name a few are dependent upon the existence of biodiverse ecosystems). Additionally, Meadows writes that the biodiversity found in forests "performs environmental services beyond price" (267) (services like "cleansing of air and water, flood control, drought prevention, pest control, [and] temperature regulation," (268) all of which humans depend upon in order to survive).

Suggested Reading:

On Deforestation:
The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

On wilderness:
Desert Solitare by Edward Abbey

Bourne, Joel K. "The Super Trees" National Geographic Oct. 2009: 35-59. Print.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Suceed. New York: Penguine, 2005. Print.

Fay, Michael J. "The Redwoods Point the Way." National Geographic Oct. 2009: 60-3. Print.

Meadows, Donella H. "Biodiversity: The Key to Saving Life on Earth." Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. Ed. Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman. Florence: Wadsworth, 2008. 267-9. Print.

Nelson, Michael P. "An Amalgamation of Wilderness Preservation Arguments." Environmental Ethics. Ed. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Noss, “Wilderness—Now More Than Ever: A Response to Callicott.” Environmental Ethics. Ed. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

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