Where on Earth is the wilderness?

 

A recent report found that 70% of the world remaining wilderness is confined within just five countries on earth; these being Russia, Canada, Brazil, Australia and the US. The report also elaborates that these last ‘true wildernesses’ compromise a mere 23% of the Earth's landmass.

 

These five countries might not come as a significant surprise given they are among the biggest on earth, and known for their vast expanses of largely uninhabited lands. But if you thought the definition of wilderness was in any way indicative of an intact region of the earth as yet unaffected by anthropogenic influence, you would be sorely mistaken. In this sense of the term wilderness, there is virtually none left.

 

The issue is the criterion used, or at least how it has been interpreted by reporters. Business Insider claims that wilderness is “places that do not have industrial level activity within them”. Does this mean primitive hack and slash agriculture can retain a wilderness? Does it mean a nuclear wasteland is wilderness? The key failing of this definition is that it doesn’t actually account for anything wild in the wilderness, and certainly not as to how rich, healthy and diverse such wild is.

 

The report itself has a more realistic definition, “places that contain mixes of species at near-natural levels of abundance”. The terminology of ‘near-natural’ here is telling. The largest expanse of such wilderness is said to be found in Russia, and much of this is contained in the tundra. However, the tundra we see today is not a result of natural processes.

 

Not so long ago it was a vast grassland home to rich megafauna such as mammoths, lions, bison, woolly rhinoceros and many more; when hunted to extinction by mankind, the rich landscape maintained by their activities was eroded away till only the hardy tundra plants we know today remained.

 

The incredible mammoth steppe is now trying to be reproduced by the Pleistocene Park project, through the slow introduction of the remaining descendants of such megafauna. It’s working, slowly, but it shows clearly that this ‘wilderness’ has already virtually been destroyed by ancient human interference, and what we see today acts as a scar of human activity, crudely healing as best it can.

 

The situation is comparable for oceanic environments talked of in the report, where although they may not be subject to intensive harvesting, they are nonetheless affected by global human activity. Data suggests a population decline of 89% in hammerhead sharks, 79% in great white sharks, 65% in tiger sharks, 80% in thresher sharks, 60% in blue sharks, and 70% in mako sharks. 

 

There are examples within some of the regions highlighted in the report that perhaps have better claim to the title of wilderness, where human impact both historical and current is hardly noticeable. Yet with the advent of anthropogenic climate change, a human never has to step foot in these lands for them to degrade. In the depths of the Amazon’s thickest jungle, the most desolate regions of the Sahara, and even the (unmentioned in the report) frozen wilds of Antarctica, the footprint of humanity penetrates as a toxic miasma that can destroy seasons and poison every part of an ecosystem.

There is an important caveat we must consider in regards to humanity’s effect on the wilderness - the idea that it happens as an automatic condition of human presence is a myth. Even in Australia, where the so-called wilderness has long since lost its megafauna to aboriginal predation, there is no confirmed proof of inherent human incompatibility.

 

Another report suggesting aboriginal presence in Australia up to 80,000 years ago shows these peoples lived in sustainable lifestyles with the megafauna for tens of thousands of years, before an alteration in climate or behaviour pushed them to extinction. Even in the aforementioned deep Amazon, there may well be indigenous tribes living here as they have for millennia, and in general Amazonian tribespeople’s impact has been utterly negligible to the overall ecosystem. True wilderness is not necessarily incompatible with human presence.

 

By contrast, it took European settlers mere centuries to nearly wipe out the bison and wolf populations of the United States.

 

There is obviously little chance humanity as a whole will revert to sustainable hunter gatherer societies, and perhaps for the best, as most of these were still ecocidal in nature.

 

Whether modern human civilization can take a truly sustainable and nature-compatible turn remains to be seen; but it seems that in the case of this report at least, we are still in the dark as to how far we have to turn to make space for the wilderness once more.  

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