“Keeping The Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth”
Edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler
Published, 2014 by Island Press. 271 pages.
By Steve Glass
Keeping the Wild is a collection of essays brought together in response to Anthropocene-boosters, who, in the view of the contributors, “claim that wild nature is no more, that human-caused extinction is no big deal, and that “novel ecosystems” are an adequate replacement for natural landscapes.” The volume is comprised of 20 essays, and divided into three sections (Clashing Worldviews, Against Domestication, and The Value of the Wild) plus an introduction and an epilogue. All of the essayists are well-known, long-time conservationists, historians, writers, academic scholars, researchers, deep ecologists, and scientists. Among the more widely known contributors are David Ehrenfeld, Dave Foreman, Curt Meine, Kathleen Dean Moore, Roderick Frazier Nash, Michael Soule, and Terry Tempest Williams.
“Keeping the Wild” is the product of a meeting of leading conservationists, sponsored by the Weeden Foundation, hosted by Michael Soule, and held in Denver, Colorado—the
Acknowledgments section does not reveal the date of the meeting, but a Google search indicates that it was held in 2012—the purpose of which was to discuss the “increasing prominence of voices who are promoting the ‘Anthropocene’ and using it to frame conservation in terms of a human-dominated Earth” (page 222). Tom Butler, one of the editors, refers to this conservation influence when he notes, in the introduction, that the book was “Conceived to confront the notion of human hegemony and also to join the growing conversation within the conservation movement about the so-called Anthropocene.” Butler goes on to say of the Anthropocene movement: “That word describing the age of human domination of Earth has been embraced by some academics, journalists, and environmentalists and is increasingly used to conceptualize, and often to justify, further domestication of the planet.”
To those of us in the restoration ecology field, this sounds eerily like the concerns that are voiced about the “novel ecosystems” concept and what many fear would be the result if the proponents’ arguments were carried to their logical extreme. If you have not been following this discussion, restorationists like Richard Hobbs, Eric Higgs, Carol Hall, and James Harris, among others, have been drawing attention to the fact that the ecology of some sites has been so altered as a result of recent human influence that it may be impossible, for all practical purposes, to return them to any clearly defined historic condition, and that all of them will sooner or later be subject to novel—or “no-analogue”— conditions as a result of climate change in any case. With this in mind, they espouse land management goals that allow for the emergence, and even deliberate creation, of novel systems adapted to these altered conditions. While they do not generally propose this as a substitute for restoration, their position on this point is at least consistent with the idea that we might as well give up on the admittedly challenging task of restoration and focus on attempts to create novel, presumably more or less self-sustaining systems for the future. If the editors and authors are aware of this discussion, however, they do not mention it. (To read more about the novel ecosystems concept, see the 2013 book by Hobbs, Higgs, and Hall “Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New World Order”)
It’s relevant, however, because “Keeping The Wild” is a book about the age-old dichotomy or conflict between wilderness conservation and natural resource exploitation. As Curt Meine reminds us in his essay, the domestication versus wildness debate is not new, and each generation must have its “great new wilderness debate.” Surprisingly, in this book, which sets out to argue against the Anthropocene boosters, the one thing that a reader might well think is crucial, but that is missing, is a critical discussion of the arguments for the Anthropocene point of view. I would have both enjoyed and appreciated a rigorous examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the Anthropocene philosophy, or at least an acknowledgement of critiques say, in the style of that offered by commentators like Murchia, et al (2014) in their examination of the novel ecosystems concept.
In the Introduction Tom Butler acknowledges that the “Ideas of the Anthropocene are worthy of a close inspection; respectful debate; and, in the view of the editors, vigorous rebuttal.” But, unfortunately, the book is short on “close inspection” and heavy on “vigorous rebuttal”. Restoration ecology would have provided a useful context for reflection on this point, since it has both scientific and practical value and has staked out a creative and constructive position in the middle ground between the two extremes of resource conservation and hands-off preservation. True—and just for this reason—restoration ecology is a difficult, complex, and wicked middle ground, but it has gained rapidly as a conservation strategy in recent decades, and is where a credible amount of worthwhile work gets done. Yet only three authors refer to the discipline: In the Introduction, Butler calls for a wider range of strategies—including those “oriented toward sustaining wildness and restoring degraded ecosystems”—to serve as an antidote to the Anthropocene boosters who, he writes, want to oversee “the great unraveling of wild nature.” In addition, Curt Meine (50), and David Ehrenfeld (106), make respectful and realistic assessments of restoration’s potential and its shortcomings and constraints, to deal with the world’s current and future environmental problems. But beyond those three mentions, restoration ecology does not play a role in the nearly two dozen essays brought together in this book.
The quality of the writing is consistently high throughout the book, with some of the chapters lyrical even. But truth be told, it’s not clear that in sum, “Keeping The Wild” promotes any conservation strategy, other than the one that calls for humans to stop tinkering with ecosystems, and to just keep their hands off of natural resources. But a “hands-off strategy has not worked well historically, and in the face of climate change, its viability is increasingly in question. So what, in the view of this book, is the alternative? Just what changes in attitudes, actions, and behavior might a person (or a society) take in behalf of perpetuation of what used to be called “natural” areas? In the Introduction, Tom Butler lists “restoring degraded ecosystems” as one of the strategies required, but this theme is not developed, and the book offers no apparent guidance on the critical matter of how a global restoration strategy might be implemented.
Perhaps there is guidance for activism in the book but it did not jump out at me. I think this lack may be partly due to the fact that the book reads like a conference proceedings: there is no cohesion among the various essays; the essays do not refer to other essays in the book, nor do authors build upon points made by fellow authors. Each essay is a stand-alone piece, each a variation on the same theme—human tinkering with the Earth is bad. There is no general theme development, or weaving together of various points into coherent strands of thought. Instead, unfortunately, as a collection of essays, the book is repetitive and unpersuasive—even to a member of the choir.
 “No-analog systems”, when used in the sense of novel ecosystems, refers to assemblages of species, abiotic conditions, and communities that we have not seen before.
Steve Glass is a contributing editor for “Environmental Prospect”. For further discussion of ideas mentioned in this review, see the Restoration Ecology Laboratory website.