Lives Not Our Own

January 12, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedNature is gone. . . . You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene—a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.1

“Wild” is process, as it happens outside of human agency. As far as science can reach, it will never get to the bottom of it, because mind, imagination, digestion, breathing, dreaming, loving, and both birth and death are all part of the wild. There will never be an Anthropocene.2


IN HIS “FAT MASTERPIECE,” The Fool’s Progress, Edward Abbey wrote of the protagonist’s father: “Joe Lightcap was not a philosopher; he took ideas seriously. ‘Ideas can hurt people,’ he would say. ‘Ideas are dangerous. I’d rather have a man come at me with an ax than a Big Idea.’”3
This is a book about ideas—ideas dangerous and ideas infused with restorative, healing properties. It’s also about language and the way it shapes individual and collective views of the world, forging the deep “root metaphors,”4 to borrow education reformer Chet Bower’s term, which so fundamentally shape a culture’s development that they become invisible to the people within that culture. Such is the idea of human hegemony, the way that our species, but one of millions on Earth and subject to the same forces and beneficiary of the same biological lineage, has (especially in its modern technological incarnation) come to believe that the community of life is merely a storehouse of “natural resources” subject to appropriation.
Keeping the Wild was conceived to confront the notion of human hegemony and also to join the growing conversation within the conservation movement about the so-called Anthropocene. That word describing the age of human dominion of Earth has been embraced by some academics, journalists, and environmentalists and is increasingly used to conceptualize, and often to justify, further domestication of the planet.
Cheerleaders for the Anthropocene have variously been called “neo-greens,” “pragmatic environmentalists,” “new conservationists,” “Anthropocene boosters,” and “postmodern greens.” As there is not one dominant moniker for their camp, the editors have not enforced consistency among this volume’s contributing authors.
The essays to come explore in detail the arguments made by the neo-greens, whose writings include the following claims:
  • The Anthropocene has arrived and humans are now de facto planetary managers;
  • If “pristine wilderness” ever existed, it is all gone now; moreover, focusing on wilderness preservation has poorly served the conservation movement;
  • Nature is highly resilient, not fragile;
  • To succeed, conservation must serve human aspirations, primarily regarding economic growth and development;
  • Maintaining “ecosystem services,” not preventing human-caused extinction, should be conservation’s primary goal;
  • Conservation should emphasize better management of the domesticated, “working landscape” rather than efforts to establish new, strictly protected natural areas.
  • Conservationists should not critique capitalism but rather should partner with corporations to achieve better results.
These ideas, individually and collectively, are worthy of close inspection; respectful debate; and, in the view of the editors, vigorous rebuttal. While some contributors to this volume offer spirited rejoinders to the neo-greens, their criticism is nowhere intended to denigrate specific persons or organizations. Indeed, the editors have assumed that all of the players in these debates are acting in good faith, with genuine desire to see conservation succeed. Clearly, however, we have stark differences in worldview and thus disagree about strategies to protect the Earth.
Even a cursory look at the burgeoning Anthopocene literature will reveal celebratory, techno-triumphalist voices that seem not discomfited by but almost to revel in the belief that humans have become overseers of the planetary plantation. Other voices are more muted in tone, regretfully embracing a kind of environmental realpolitik— that, for better or worse, humanity is now in the global driver’s seat and thus should manage Earth well. Whether celebratory or reluctant, the neo-greens’ language creates a linguistic platform that reinforces and shapes anew humanity’s resourcist agenda. The growing chorus of Anthropocene boosterism strikes us as an updated form of noblesse oblige inflated to a planetary scale—a call to humanity to rise to its globe-managing responsibilities—but actually embodying the type of hubris that David Ehrenfeld dissected so well in The Arrogance of Humanism. 5 This is all the more ironic because it is anthropocentrism—the worldview at the heart of this arrogance—that is leading Earth, and humanity, to ruin.
Before citing Stewart Brand’s famous quote that opened the Whole Earth Catalog—“We are as gods and might as well get good at it”—contemporary Anthopocene proponent Erle Ellis gushes about the “amazing opportunity” that “humanity has now made the leap to an entirely new level of planetary importance.”6 But whereas one could read Brand’s full passage as a whimsical entreaty to personal empowerment at the apex of 1960s countercultural zeitgeist, it is hard to interpret Ellis as anything but a straight-ahead celebrant for a cyborg generation alienated from the natural world, steeped in simulacra, and inclined to believe that any environmental problem can be solved through a techno-fix.
Are we truly “as gods”? Certainly humans now have the ability to destroy life on a scale formerly reserved for geological and astrophysical phenomena. But our godlike powers of destruction, rooted not in malevolence but in our sheer bulk and thoughtless ways of living, are not balanced by equivalently divine creative powers. Notwithstanding the efforts of synthetic biology engineers (whose goals are utilitarian—building new life-forms to serve humans), we do not have the ability to create diverse and beautiful life as nature has done on this globe for some 3.5 billion years. We are born of that epic evolutionary flourishing, and yet now are busy disrupting the primal force that gave us life. We are second-tier deities, conceited demigods, at best.
If the only choice before us were either to become good at being godlike or to remain inept and toxic to the diversity of life, then surely it would be right to choose the former—to make ourselves better “stewards” (a word that originally meant the ward of the sty, the keeper of domestic animals). This seems to be what the Anthropocene boosters in conservation are hoping for when they propose, “nature could be a garden.” That is, a world thoughtfully manipulated, perhaps even “sustainably,” for human ends.
But these prospects for the future of humanity are a false dichotomy. Surely there are other possibilities, including our potential choice to become plain members and citizens in the community of life and relinquish the delusion that we are “Lord Man.”
Writing some twenty-six centuries ago, likely from a simple cabin in the woods, a Chinese sage considered what results when hubris prompts people’s desire to possess the world:

As for those who would take the whole world
To tinker as they see fit,
I observe that they never succeed:
For the world is a sacred vessel
Not made to be altered by man.
The tinker will spoil it;
Usurpers will lose it.7
(Lao-Tzu, 6th century B.C.)

The proposed “Anthropocene” term for a new geological epoch and the Anthropocene-framed agenda for conservation based on domesticating Earth represent an unmistakable and, we contend, illegitimate claim on power. These developments not only make humans usurpers but advance this way of life as right. The present global extinction crisis tallies the ways we are indeed losing the sacred vessel of the world.
While perhaps little considered by those who are economically and politically power-hungry, a usurper always retains the option of renouncing and stepping away from a claim on power. In modern, techno-industrial society where the civil religion of progress means ever-more commodification of nature to serve economic growth, promoting a reasoned discussion about retrenchment puts one on the margins of polite society. In the world of ever more, the idea of less—of reducing human numbers and economic pressure on the biosphere—is almost unthinkable. But it is not impossible, and the act of forgoing technology-enhanced power has occasional cultural precedents.
Such precedents include the nonuse of firearms, a technology already long known in Japan, during that nation’s self-imposed, roughly two-centuries-long isolation from global trading networks prior to 1854, and the present-day Amish culture’s decision to avoid technologies that undermine family and community life. Individuals, too, have the opportunity to step back from assumed godhood by embracing a personal philosophy based on deep ecology principles, which affirm the intrinsic value of all lifeforms and the desirability of living on a planet of flourishing biological diversity. We can consciously choose to live in ways that minimize impact on the Earth by managing ourselves—lowering our numbers, scaling down our global economy, and making thoughtful decisions about the technologies we use.
Are such questions about worldview, power, and technology relevant to a book devoted to debating the future of conservation? Yes, for they help illuminate the foundations of the schism to be examined. Within every social change movement there are tensions between reformers and those who seek structural change. Our point is that if the conservation movement simply assumes that the current trajectory of population growth, economic development, and technological innovation should persist—or is just too entrenched to question—then it may be reasonable, as the neo-greens attempt, to craft human-centered conservation strategies that aim to reform that status quo by “greening” it. Within the context of the status quo it is sure to be deemed politically realistic and will bolster opportunities for conservation groups to partner with corporate interests.
But seeking to tinker with the whole world is, as LaoTzu warned, destined to spoil it. We believe that merely greening up a flawed system cannot stem the global ecosocial crisis—the great unraveling of wild nature and indigenous human communities—and a different range of strategies will be needed. Those strategies will be oriented toward sustaining wildness and restoring degraded ecosystems. They will steer us toward domesticating less and doing so more skillfully, with our managed landscapes emulating to the extent possible the inherent vibrancy of natural ecosystems. Nature will be our measure, and the ultimate yardstick for cultural health will be the degree to which our species does not cause the extinction of others, allowing the rest of life to flourish. These aims cannot be accomplished without fundamentally changing our presence on the planet.
In short, the debate over the future of conservation hinges on our vision for the future of Earth: Do we continue down the path toward a gardened, managed planet with less beauty and wildness? Or take a wilder path toward beauty and ecological health, with a smaller human footprint, and cultures imbedded in a matrix of wildness, where we are “part of a seamless membrane of life”?8
CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS VOLUME are a luminary collection of writers, thinkers, academics, and conservation activists from North and South America, Europe, and Australia. We have grouped their writings into three sections: “Clashing Worldviews,” “Against Domestication,” and “The Value of the Wild,” with a personal essay by Kathleen Dean Moore as Epilogue. Unlike many anthologies, the contributions herein reflect considerable variety in tone, from academic to popular. Perusing some of the writings in section one will help orient the reader to the debate at hand, but each essay stands alone and can be understood by persons without extensive familiarity in the scholarly literature about wilderness, including earlier critiques of the wilderness idea by so-called wilderness deconstructionists.
Indeed, wilderness deconstruction—the literal kind, not the abstruse theorizing of academics influenced by postmodern literary criticism—concerns us most. Of primary importance is how “Anthropocene” thinking is influencing the communications and strategies of on-theground conservation practitioners, from the largest international NGOs to state agencies and local land trusts. If conservation is to be framed primarily within the context—and acceptance of—human domination of the planet, there will continue to be profound consequences for life: for the diversity of species and subspecies, populations of wild plants and animals, variety of ecosystems, ecological and behavioral processes, and evolutionary unfolding. The contributors to this volume submit that such a conceptual framing will almost surely lead to ultimate failure to protect the natural world. As never before, the Earth now needs a radical questioning of human domination coupled with creative, successful conservation strategies to restore and preserve the diversity of life.
It is this grim reality that wild and beautiful places continue to be destroyed by human action, that our numbers and behavior have precipitated a sixth great extinction event in Earth history, which challenges us to examine deeply our societal trajectory. Moreover, we cannot take on faith, nor encourage such faith in the mass of humanity, that the current dominant economic and political structures will persist indefinitely. The prospect of rapid and potentially catastrophic climate change is poised to accelerate the extinction crisis and, in worst-case scenarios, could make the planet unfriendly to much of life, including ourselves. Thorough, systemic criticism is crucial if conserva-tionists are to become more effective. We hope that this and a subsequent, companion volume focused on protected areas—and the need to expand them and connect them—can help build the intellectual infrastructure of the global conservation movement and keep us from going down strategic dead ends. This is no mere academic exercise for all of us who are working to conserve wild places and creatures around the globe.
Conservation and environmentalism are big tents, and the history of these separate but related movements is rich with tension between people who saw their objective primarily as about preserving wild nature and those who sought “sustainable” use of “natural resources” for people. Many scholarly works cover that ground, which will not be repeated here, but it does seem to us that the current debate about the future of conservation is, as Curt Meine explains in his essay, not particularly new. Apparently each generation will have its “great new wilderness debate.”
Why is it that domestication-versus-wildness is such a fascinating subject? Not just, perhaps, because of the dynamic historical and ongoing tensions within the conservation movement, nor because a new term, Anthropocene, has entered the popular lexicon. Perhaps it is because these competing inclinations and tendencies exist also within the human heart and psyche; we come from wildness, and those of us in the wild tribe embrace the power of wildness in every way that we can, even while immersed in a technocratic milieu. In order to live, most human societies, at least since the Neolithic Revolution, have domesticated their surroundings. And so we inhabit a world deeply affected by the activities of our own kind, and sometimes we have domesticated with skill and beauty. The accelerating domestication of the world, however, can make us lose sight of the love of wildness within us. As Barbara Kingsolver put it so well:
People need wild places. . . . To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours. . . . It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet Earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.9
Just as the competing urges of the wild and the domestic live within us, they are likely to persist within the conservation movement until humanity embraces a land ethic that both places the well-being of the entire biotic community first and renounces the idea that Earth is a resource colony for humanity. Do we have the wisdom to exercise humility and restraint, to choose membership over Lordship? The lives that are not our own hang in the balance.

1. E. Ellis, “Stop Trying to Save the Planet,” Wired, May 2009.
2. G. Snyder, pers. comm., 2013.
3. E. Abbey, The Fool’s Progress (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1988), p. 150.
4. C. A. Bowers, “Toward an Eco-Justice Pedagogy,” 2003.
5. D. Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1979).
6. E. Ellis, “Neither Good nor Bad,” New York Times, 23 May 2011. the-age-of-anthropocene-should-we-worry/neither-good-norbad.
7. Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, R. B. Blakney translation (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1955), Signet Classic edition 2001, p. 29.
8. K. Sale, After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domestication (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 120.
9. B. Kingsolver, Small Wonder (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), p. 40.

This essay is the introduction to Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth, ed. G. Wuerthner, E. Crist, and T. Butler. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2014), ix–xv. Reproduced at with permission.

Tom Butler

Conservationist Tom Butler edited the new book Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (

He is editorial projects director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology and president of Northeast Wilderness Trust. 

Tags: Anthropocene, ecology, environmentalism, wilderness