Against the Domestication of Earth: a Review

“Keeping The Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth” Edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler

Published 2014 by Island Press 271 pages.

Reviewed by Steve Glass

Keeping the Wild is a collection of essays brought together in response to Anthropocene-boosters, who, in the view of the contributors to this volume, “claim that wild nature is no more, that human-caused extinction is no big deal, and that “novel ecosystems” are an adequate replacement for natural landscapes.”

The volume, edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler, is composed of 20 essays, and divided into three sections (Clashing Worldviews, Against Domestication, and The Value of the Wild) plus an introduction and an epilogue. All of the essayists are well-known, long-time conservationists,  historians, writers, academic scholars, researchers, deep ecologists, or scientists. Among the more widely known contributors are David Ehrenfeld, Dave Foreman, Curt Meine, Kathleen Dean Moore, Roderick Frazier Nash, Michael Soule, and Terry Tempest Williams.

on the shore of lake michigan

On the Lake Michigan shore near Chicago.

Keeping the Wild is the product of a meeting of leading conservationists, sponsored by the Weeden Foundation, hosted by Michael Soule, and held in Denver, Colorado—the Acknowledgments section does not mention the date of the meeting, but a Google search indicates it was held in 2012—the purpose of which was to discuss the “increasing prominence of voices who are promoting the ‘Anthropocene’ and using it to frame conservation in terms of a human-dominated Earth” (Wuerthener, et all, 2014 page 222). Tom Butler, one of the editors, refers to this conservation influence when he notes, in the introduction, that the book 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.” Butler goes on to say of the Anthropocene movement: “That word describing the age of human domination 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.”

To those of us in the restoration ecology field, Butler’s description of the Anthropocene movement sounds eerily like the concerns that some restoration ecologists (myself included) voice about the “novel ecosystems” concept and what many fear would be the result if the proponents’ arguments were carried to their logical extreme. If you have not been following the novel ecosystem discussion, proponents like Richard Hobbs, Eric Higgs, and Carol M. Hall (2013) in their edited book Novel Ecosystems, Intervening in the New Ecological World Order,  expound on the view that some ecosystems have been so altered by human activities that they are now in an unprecedented, no-analogue, or novel, condition and in many cases probably beyond the powers and knowledge of humans to restore either to a historic condition or to a site’s previous trajectory. So, the proponents of novel ecosystems argue, we might as well give up on traditional and fundamental restoration, and create new, sustainable systems for the future.  If the editors and authors of Keeping the Wild are aware of this discussion they do not mention it.

But the novel ecosystem discussion is relevant to a critique of the Antoropocene notion, because Keeping the Wild is a  book about the age-old dichotomy or conflict between wilderness conservation and natural resource exploitation. As Curt Meine reminds us in his essay, the domestication versus wildness debate is not new, and each generation must have its “great new wilderness debate.”

In this book, which sets out to argue against the Anthropocene boosters, the one thing that a reader might well think is crucial–but that is missing–is  a critical discussion, a critique,  of the arguments for the Anthropocene point of view.  In the Introduction Tom Butler acknowledges that the “Ideas of the Anthropocene are worthy of a close inspection; respectful debate; and, in the view of the editors, vigorous rebuttal.” But, unfortunately, the book is short on “close inspection” and heavy on “vigorous rebuttal”. I would have both enjoyed and appreciated a rigorous examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the Anthropocene philosophy.

Restoration ecology, and its ‘novel ecosystem’ controversy,  would have provided a useful context for reflection on this point, because restoration ecology has both scientific and practical value and has staked out a creative and constructive position in the middle ground between the two extremes of unlimited resource consumption and hands-off preservation. True—and just for this reason—it is a difficult, complex, and wicked middle ground, but restoration’s middle ground has gained rapidly as a conservation strategy in recent decades, and is where a credible amount of worthwhile work gets done. Yet only three authors in Keeping the Wild refer to the discipline: In the Introduction, Tom Butler calls for a wider range of strategies—including those “oriented toward sustaining wildness and restoring degraded ecosystems”—to serve as an antidote to the Anthropocene boosters who, he writes, want to oversee “the great unraveling of wild nature.” In addition, Curt Meine (page 50), and David Ehrenfeld (page 106), make respectful and realistic assessments of restoration’s potential and its shortcomings and constraints to deal with the world’s current and future environmental problems. But beyond those three mentions, restoration ecology does not play a role in the nearly two dozen essays brought together in this book.

In a vein similar to the thoughtful and considered views of Curt Meine and David Ehrenfeld,  a current article,  A critique of the ‘novel ecosystem’ concept,  by Murcia, et al (2014) provides both a fine example of a thorough critique of the case being made for novel ecosystems, while also taking an appreciative look at restoration ecology.   Check it out  in Trends in Ecology and Evolution Volume 29, Issue 10, p548–553, October 2014)

The quality of the writing in Keeping the Wild is consistently high throughout the book, with some of the chapters even lyrical. But truth be told, it’s not clear that in sum the book promotes any conservation strategy, other than the one that calls for humans to stop tinkering with ecosystems, and to just keep their hands off of natural resources. As we know, a “hands-off strategy has not worked well historically, and in the face of climate change, its viability is increasingly in question.  So, what in the view of this book, is the alternative?.  Just what changes in attitudes, actions, and behaviors might a person (a neighborhood or a society) take on behalf of perpetuation of what used to be called “natural” areas?  In the Introduction, Tom Butler lists “restoring degraded ecosystems” as one of the strategies required, but this theme is not developed, and the book offers no apparent guidance on the critical matter of how a global restoration strategy might be implemented.

Perhaps there is guidance for activism in the book but it did not jump out at me. I think this lack may be partly because the book reads like a conference proceedings; there is no cohesion among the various essays; the essays do not refer to other essays in the book nor do authors build upon points made by fellow authors. Each essay is a stand-alone piece, each a variation on the same theme—human tinkering with the Earth is bad. There is no general theme development, or weaving together of various points into coherent strands of thought. Instead, unfortunately, as a collection of essays, the book is repetitive and unpersuasive—even to a member of the conservation choir.


About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Ecological restoration, Novel Ecosystems, Restoration ecology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Against the Domestication of Earth: a Review

  1. SANDRA E STARK says:

    Wow. Can you get this published in other sources too? i really learned from reading it.


    Sent from Outlook

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