The Value of Wilderness

Ecological Protections and Public Lands for the Sake of Spiritual Values, Social and Ecological Justice; from Altai to Yellowstone

A Paper by Dr. Steve Szeghi, Professor of Economics, Wilmington College, Co-Editor, GCGI Journal, presented at the 12th Rhodes Forum, September 26-29, 2014

Human Beings derive tremendous benefits from Wilderness, from a sound and healthy ecological balance, and from Public Lands. The range and type of benefits of these three and, why human beings essentially need all is vast and complex. In addition there are relationships that exist between Wilderness, Ecological Protections, and Public Lands.

Altai is a deeply spiritual and special place in Siberia, in Russia, where much of the natural ecosystems enjoy significant protection. In the United States Yellowstone is a similar place. I have now at this point in my life been quite fortunate to have journeyed to both. In so doing I deeply appreciated more fully my personal connection to nature and my enhanced ability to bond with other human beings, other species of animals, and all the elements of nature in both places.

In spite of Altai and Yellowstone each enjoying significant legal and cultural protections, more protection is needed in both regions in order to truly safeguard the ecosystems and biodiversity of Altai and Yellowstone. People from the United States and the People of Russia, who genuinely and sincerely wish to safeguard these special places for future generations have much to gain and much to learn from one another in a mutual and honest dialogue focusing upon how these special places have been protected, through laws, regulations, and administrative agencies; and upon what more needs to be done, how, when and by whom.

The indigenous/aboriginal peoples of Altai and the indigenous/aboriginal peoples of the United States have much in common as both played, and continue to play, a significant role in gaining and establishing many of the protections for these special, sacred, and spiritual places. The indigenous peoples also have much to teach us concerning what more we must do in the future.

Broad swaths of public lands are absolutely essential in order to maintain wilderness areas. But in order to retain the wilderness character and the ecological integrity of public lands it is absolutely necessary that more public lands be granted the highest degree of protection, official Wilderness designation. This involves substantial restrictions placed upon human activity and policies which allow only gentle impacts or very small human footprints in these areas. Most importantly significant restrictions and guidelines need also to be imposed upon human economic activity in general, but most especially in areas that are adjacent to or abut wilderness, in order to safeguard entire ecosystems. In addition green belts and ecological/wildlife corridors need to be established on other public lands as well as many private lands, even upon lands that involve substantial human settlement and enterprise, as well as urban areas.

We must do this for the benefit of other species, so that other species have room not only to survive but to flourish upon this earth. Compassion for and respect for other species demand no less of us.  Ecological justice insists that we do no less. It is our moral and ethical and spiritual duty to recognize the right of other species to survive and prosper and then to take all the necessary steps we need to take in order to make room that they may do so.

So why is Wilderness protection so important?

1, It is important in order to provide critical habitat for wildlife, which almost everywhere else is hemmed in, fenced or pushed out of, or relegated to the margins.
2, In order to have places that allow for study and research of wild animal, fish, and bird populations for the sake of knowledge.
3, We have a deep, psychic or spiritual need to visit and experience such places as wilderness.
4, Or even if we never visit or can no longer go to wilderness; just to know it is still there, remains something we derive benefit from and something we need.

Edward Abbey, an early environmentalist and nature writer wrote in his book Desert Solitaire in 1968, “No wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization that destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principal of civilization itself.”

Abbey continues, “If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention to seal himself off from the natural and to isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth” The eminent biologist, E.O. Wilson calls the connection to wilderness biophillia, which he also regards as an inherent need, a legacy of millions and millions of years of evolution, written into our very genetic code.

In addition to Wilderness and the need of public lands in general, as well as some private lands where ‘human development’ is trimmed and limited for both wildlife corridors and for urban parks and natural green spaces for people and other species, we must also place limitations on most if not all forms of human economic activity in general. Throughout the human economic system we need rules and regulations and structures in place to effectively govern our activities, our production, and our consumption in more and more environmentally friendly manners. It is our ethical obligation to other species, to future generations, and to ourselves to use the earth as gently as possible, taking only what we need, in ways that are both sustainable and ecological, leaving as few and as small foot prints as possible, not just in wilderness but upon the earth as a whole.

Wilderness and ecological integrity are absolutely essential for the Spiritual health and development of human beings. We need wild places such as these to fully appreciate and experience who we are, to be fully human by connecting with nature. It is no accident that Holy People such as Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, and Francis of Assisi, spent significant time in the wilderness. But in addition to spiritually needing wilderness, we also need to protect wilderness because morality and ethics demand it, and if we ignore the morality of the issues involved we do so at the ruin of our very souls.

We also need wilderness and ecological integrity for the sake of human equality. Without public lands for people to enjoy, most individuals would never be able to see and walk upon vast areas of wilderness, for without public lands any wilderness that remained would be the exclusive privileged holding of the few who are the elite or the very rich. Wilderness and ecological integrity and health allow human beings to be more equal in fact, and to share common spaces with one another and thereby build common bonds and common appreciations. And that is good for human relationships.

Equality between people allows for deeper and healthier and more meaningful human relationships and connections, for public land in the form of parks and wilderness also deepen our human connections with one another just as they deepen the human connections and relationships with the natural world. And it is relationships and connections with others, other people, the other that is community, and other species and all the other elements of nature, that ground us in reality, allow us to grow spiritually, awaken our souls, and bring us true joy.

“Kermit the Frog, to summarize the situation in a phrase is sick. And to varying degrees so is much of the rest of the living world. Might Homo sapiens follow? Maybe, maybe not. But with certainty we are the giant meteorite of our time, having begun the sixth mass extinction of Phanerozoic history. We are creating a less stable and interesting place for our descendants to inherit. They will understand and love life more than we, and they will not be inclined to honor our memory.” E.O. Wilson

I hope, or rather I cling to the hope that there is still time for us to alter course so that we can instead pass on to our children, our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren a world that is thriving and teeming with an abundance of life, of biodiversity. And to this end we need Wilderness and Public Lands for Wildlife, for Social Justice, and for our very souls.

Works Cited
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, a Season in the Wilderness, Random House, a Ballantine Book, 1968, p. 211.
E.O. Wilson, The Creation, Norton and Company, 2006, p. 81.