There are a variety of books lamenting the decline of wild spaces, or looking at nature disconnection. Lucy Jones’ Losing Eden is one of the more recent. The title of this book suggests something along those lines, but Paul Wapner’s answer is unexpected.
Wildness is not over, he argues. It is displaced.
By wildness, Wapner means unpredictability and lack of control. Much of the history of progress is about taming wildness, making life more stable, more comfortable. It has been about insulating and protecting us from things that we can’t control, such as weather, the cold, darkness, or the actions of animals and other people. As life has been domesticated, that wildness has not been eliminated. It has been moved elsewhere.
Wildness is displaced in two directions. It is displaced sideways, onto other people. “The privileged have mostly enjoyed the fruits of pushing wildness out of immediate experience” writes Wapner. It is pushed to the margins, where others have to deal with it. For example, cars and planes allow us to travel in an isolated bubble, free of the old inconveniences of traveling through a physical environment. But somebody else has to deal with the wildness introduced through oil extraction, or through the climate change that results from burning fossil fuels.
Wildness is also displaced upwards, from the local to the global level. In one of the more imaginative framings of climate change that I’ve come across, Wapner argues that “the world now faces global wildness.” Storms, droughts, rising seas or wildfires are all manifestations of this. “In its persistent efforts to get rid of wildness in daily encounters, humanity thrusts it upward to the globe. The Earth itself is now wild.”
The temptation is to push further into domestication, warns Wapner, through global scale projects such as geo-engineering or de-extinction. These would be attempts to exert human control at the planetary scale, wrestling global systems and even the processes of evolution into submission. We should be looking in the other direction, the book suggests. “The Earth itself has been compromised through the pursuit of more comfortable lives“. Perhaps it’s time to think beyond human comfort as our highest aspiration.
That doesn’t mean turning our backs on the modern world, but re-introducing wildness, refusing to eliminate every last inconvenience. If your mind immediately leaps to wolves running in the streets, then remember how broad the author’s definition of wildness is. Choosing to eat strawberries only where they’re in season would qualify as reintroducing wildness. So would walking or cycling instead of driving. These trivial inconveniences honour the natural world, but also undermine privilege and redress injustice. This embracing of wildness “calls on us to stop feeling annoyed, threatened and endangered by everything that escapes control and to resist the urge constantly to direct and dominate the world around us.”
Is Wildness Over? is a short book that answers a provocative question, from the same publisher as Will China Save the Planet?, which I also rate very highly. It combines history, philosophy, ethics and ecology, with a strong sense of justice and moral clarity, all in accessible language. In fact, it’s quite rare to find a book that presents such unorthodox ideas in such straightforward terms, and it’s one I’ll be thinking about for a while.