Bioethics Blogs

Nature Isn’t What It Used To Be

Is the end in sight for wilderness? A recent opinion piece in the New York Times, by the science journalist Christopher Solomon, says it is. “There’s a heresy echoing through America’s woods and wild places,” writes Solomon. “It’s a debate about how we should think about, and treat, our wilderness.”

We have always thought of a wilderness as a place untouched by human beings. But as Solomon points out, there is no such place left on earth. Humans have put their fingerprints everywhere. Moreover, many of the places we think of as “untouched” are sufficiently badly damaged—or at risk of damage—that human effort is now needed to keep them healthy.

Solomon’s observations are not new in environmentalist circles, of course. Some years ago, another science journalist, Bill McKibben, offered a similarly gloomy view of wilderness in his book The End of Nature, and more than a few scholars have proposed that the Holocene, the geologic era that began about 12,000 years ago with the most recent withdrawal of continental ice sheets, should be deemed over, superseded by the Anthropocene, a new geologic era defined by the fact that human activity has itself become a major geologic force.

Solomon’s conclusion is that we may need to give up on the idea of wilderness. The moral goal in our relationship with nature can no longer be just to preserve untouched nature; we must accept the task of stepping in and, as it were, retouching nature. As Solomon puts it, we must become gardeners instead of guardians.

But there’s another way we might go.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.