If there was any hope during the 20th century that untrammeled, truly wild places still existed on earth it was diminished by the realization that man-made climate change was occurring at a devastating scale, affecting permafrost and ocean ecology no matter if humans had ever set foot there before. The last couple of days I've been reading Bill McKibben's classic The End of Nature, which I see as a kind of window into the thoughts of someone who believes deeply in a conception of nature as eternal and separate from man, and the moment they realized that this idea is dead because of climate change. Written in 1989, it's still a sad and even dark text: McKibben likens nature to a forest where the whine of a saw (representing perhaps man's ultimate folly) will forever reverberate and taint it.
"An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is 'nature,' the separate and wild province, the world apart form man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental 'damage.' But that was like stabbing a man with toothpicks: though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces--the wind, the rain, the sun--were too strong, too elemental." (pg. 48)
Climate change alters the very forces that shape nature, giving birth to new deserts, altered landscapes, different air. It kills the conception of nature as something that is bigger, more powerful than humanity.
There have been many challenges to McKibben's ideas, particularly the dichotomy that he establishes between men and nature. In the 1990s, environmental ethicists like J. Baird Callicott began questioning the assumption that wilderness is an objective thing at all and not simply an ethnocentric concept that arose out of a particular cultural and philosophical moment, namely the arrival of Europeans to the "New World." This place looked pristine, never mind the tens of thousands of people who already lived there. "1492, the only continental-size wilderness on the planet was Antarctica," wrote Callicott in A Critique of and an Alternative to the Wilderness idea. "The aboriginal inhabitants of North and South America, further, were not passive denizens of the forests, prairies, and deserts; they actively managed their lands--principally with fire."
Despite these conceptual challenges, McKibben's idea of untrammeled nature and a sense of mourning over the loss of it is, I think, very much alive even 25 after it was declared dead. In June, scientists announced they had discovered a lake on the Gold Coast of Australia that was untouched by climate change for 7,000 years (the whole of human civilization, in other words). Calling it a "climate refuge," researcher Cameron Barr of the University of Adelaide said they had tested fossilized pollen and algae and found little change in the lake's chemistry over time. "It's like God's bathtub," he said.
It's an apt description, not for accuracy but because "God" is the only word in this context that could convey the sense of otherness or separateness from man that I think Barr was trying to communicate. It reminded me of a similar story about Lake Volstok in the media last year, when Russian scientists finished two-decades of drilling to reach the freshwater lake which had been hidden under miles of Arctic ice for 20 million years. "There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,' said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI, at the time. 'It's a meeting with the unknown."
It's revealing that such stories focus on the novelty of these ecosystems' pristine condition. Maybe this focus is as much about a wish to still have undiscovered, unknown places on earth, places that are different and independent from us, beyond our reach despite our seemingly unlimited power to wreak ecological havoc.