Why the myth of ‘wilderness’ harms both nature and humanity

Humans have affected every aspect of life on Earth – from hunting prehistoric beasts to changing the climate – and the illusion that pristine nature still exists undermines our efforts to make a better world, says environmental writer Emma Marris

Earth 1 December 2021

New Scientist Default Image

A Hakea tree stands alone in the Australian outback during sunset. Pilbara region, Western Australia

Shutterstock/bmphotographer

What is nature? We tend to think of it as something “out there”, far away. We watch it on TV, we read about it in glossy magazines. We imagine somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s grubby hands, unchanging except for the turn of the seasons. This is our mistake. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It also blinds us.

After many years thinking and writing about nature and wilderness, I have come to see these concepts as not just unscientific, but damaging. The notion of a pristine ecosystem is a myth. Over millennia, humans have stirred up the global pot and changed the entire planet so that all organisms alive today are influenced by us. And it goes the other way, too. We humans are deeply influenced by the plants and animals we evolved with; we are part of “nature”.

Changing our ideas about nature isn’t easy. It is hard for you and me; it is probably hardest for those who have spent their lives studying and protecting wilderness. But it is crucial that we do. “Wilderness” rhetoric has long been used to justify denying land rights to Indigenous people and to erase their long histories. What’s more, thinking of nature and humans as incompatible makes it impossible to revive or discover ways of working with and within nature for the common good.

Behind-the-scenes at Iberá National …

Related Posts