Thursday, December 28, 2006

Craig Delancey: "Optimal Ecosystems: A Positive Account of Wilderness"

Another nice talk at the session I was at attempted to provide a new definition of wilderness, one that works better than "A place that people haven't touched." Here it is:
A wilderness is an enduring ecosystem that, for the available genotypes and
resources, is highly optimal in terms of maximizing both the quantity of the
flourishing of the individual organisms and the quantity of kids of organisms,
relative to the historical conditions for that ecosystem.
Basically the definition points to the aspects of ecosystems that environmentalists find attractive as the defining characteristic of wilderness, and adds a clause relativizing it to historical conditions and available resources. This last bit is key, otherwise the Amazon would be more wild than the arctic, since it supports more life and more kinds of life. The idea is that a wilderness is a place that is doing as best as it can to create life, given where it started. It then turns out to be a historical contingency that areas less touched by humans are more likely to be wilderness.

It is worth noting how this definition deals with some potential counterexamples. A pig farm is not a wilderness because it supports few kinds of individuals, although it contains many individuals. A zoo is not a wilderness because although it supports many kinds of individuals, it doesn't large numbers of individuals. The moon is also not a wilderness on this definition. DeLancey thought this was an advantage of his account, although immediately after the talk, I bumped into someone who said "of course the moon is a wilderness!" Make of it what you will.

On this definition areas that have been stripped of life by either natural or human causes are "denuded wildernesses" which amounts to not being a wilderness at all.

1 comment:

Breena Ronan said...

Interesting, but I don't think I can agree with this definition. A place that supports diverse life is not necessarily a wilderness, just a healthy ecosystem. According to that definition traditional polyculture systems (especially at a large scale, multiple farms) might be considered a wilderness. A wilderness has to be a place that excludes people. It has to have some relationship to wild, to being outside of cultural controls, that is how the word is used. Wilderness areas in National Parks have a more limited set of human activities that are permitted. Roads especially seem to be considered antithetical to wilderness in the eyes of conservationists. Also, I don't know about the moon, but Mount St. Helens is definitely a wilderness, and wasn't less of a wilderness right after the eruption.