Protecting the Wild

cover48067-mediumEdited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler
Island Press

If you haven’t been paying attention lately, the traditional conservation movement is being challenged by a new species of “environmentalist” with the goal of reframing conservation efforts by replacing “conserve” with “manage.”

The core of this new, doubly “neo-con” approach is the idea that the only way that we can motivate the level of political and financial support needed for conservation is to give up on trying to save the earth, the animals, the plants, or the climate because they’re intrinsically worthwhile or valuable. Instead, their argument goes, it’s only when we frame the struggle for survival in terms of entirely human goals and needs that success will be possible.

Protecting the Wild is an effort by the Foundation for Deep Ecology to contest the new approach.

One of the great challenges to be faced by conservationists in the future will be that of clarifying in the public mind the distinction between ecosystem services and biodiversity protection.

The great threat in the neo-cons’ argument is that their approach seems to be a “win-win,” with the managed conservation of natural areas of direct use to us cast as an efficient and sufficient protection of nature. The authors who collaborated to produce Protecting the Wild reject this tactic, insisting that “There is no alternative. Parks and other strictly protected areas are the answer.”

One counter to the management tactic is the present state of “mixed” areas, where natural “preserves” and human economies overlap. Typically, while animal, plant, and water resources that benefit people are managed for economic gain, resources that don’t benefit us, or even actively compete with us, are massively reduced or completely eliminated. This is the usual fate of an area’s top predators. Tigers, lions, and wolves are hunted because they threaten our livestock, or even stalk us directly when given a chance. Others, like sharks, are hunted because we fear them or because they have something we want (shark fin soup, anyone?)

An ecosystem without its top predators is an unbalanced interaction, with often catastrophic if often unanticipated consequences.

…the natural state of the trophic cascade with top carnivores present is what stabilizes ecosystems. Interfere with the interaction chain, predator-herbivore-plant or predator-mesopredator-small prey animal, and ecological impoverishment is certain to ensue.

The neo-cons’ approach to nature is entirely anthrocentric. Ours is an “extraction- and use-focused culture, which has viewed the landscape almost exclusively through the lens of economic possibility: ‘How can I profit from this place? Can I log it, or mine it, or graze it? How can I make it my garden?’”

One perhaps unexpected rejection of traditional conservation comes from the postmodernist left, where some argue that excluding large natural areas from human development is a benighted Enlightenment holdover. (The idea that developing countries should be allowed their “turn” to pollute their economies into the post-industrial world by exempting them from environmental controls is a similar argument.)

The counter: “The movement’s foremost tool—protected areas—rejects a colonialist, imperialist attitude toward the living Earth. The designation of protected areas is an expression of humility about the limits of human knowledge and a gesture of respect toward our fellow creatures, allowing them to flourish in their homes without fear of persecution.”

Protecting the Wild asks: “Given this context, should conservation give up on its core commitment of stopping anthropogenic extinctions and instead focus on humanized, managed landscapes intended to produce “ecological services” for people?”

The rest of the book gives the answer, which is a firm “No.”

The days of protecting wild nature are not, and should not, be in the past. A bolder, resurgent conservation movement need not settle for an agenda based on trying to ameliorate the effects of humanity’s numbers and overconsumption. Rather, it might sound a clarion call for a peace treaty between humans and nature, a cease-fire in industrial humanity’s war on wild nature.


The fundamental choice for our species is whether we will continue striving to be the planetary manager, the gardener-in-chief, or become a respectful member in the community of life. With every action to reassert the dominion of beauty, diversity, and wildness over the Earth—each hectare protected, each habitat secured—we tug the universe a bit more toward justice.

After a number of reiterations of this core philosophy by a cadre of noted conservationists, Protecting the Wild convincingly outlines the problems with a management approach and the need for a redoubled effort at true natural conservation, most effectively by devoting most of its chapters to detailed, specific examples of natural areas around the world. Some are success stories, others are cautionary.

This level of detail raises the argument well above the “merely” philosophical or ethical and provides readers with enough material to turn fence-sitters into conservationists.

2 thoughts on “Protecting the Wild

  1. My degree is actually called ‘natural areas management’. Less and less money is going to undeveloped, protected areas and folks don’t seem to care. They are even more upset when the land is closed off to protect whatever is precious there.
    Thanks for the review!

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