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A Voice Crying in the Wilderness?

Monday, 3 March 2014  | Mick Pope

Have you ever been bushwalking, or been out at night away from big cities and looked up at the stars? Have you ever stalked a bird or mammal just to get the right photo? Does walking along the beach recharge your batteries? Many of us crave and seek out experiences of nature or wilderness; that need to get away to a place unspoilt or at least largely unoccupied by others. And yet what place is truly wild anymore? Humans live or have lived on most of the earth, fish from most of the productive waters, and have warmed the planet over the past 150 years (the consensus view of climate scientists). So is any place really wild anymore? And does it matter, particularly to the church?

Three recent books deal with this issue: Authenticity in Nature: Making Choices about the Naturalness of Ecosystems by Nigel Dudley (London: Earthscan: 2011); Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris (New York: Bloomsbury: 2011) and Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot (London: Allen Lane: 2013). In this review, I want to cover the basic content of these books and reflect briefly on a theology of nature and why Christians should be interested in this issue.

Dudley notes that there is no such thing as genuine wilderness anymore. Everywhere has been affected by human activity. Climate change is the obvious example, and is set to radically change our ecosystems and economies (see, for example, the book Claire Dawson and I are writing for Urban Neighbours of Hope, A Climate of Hope, due out later this year). And yet we’ve always modified where we’ve been: be it the Maoris when they reached New Zealand or the first peoples of North America. It is just now that our reach is global. While climate change is a well-known example, there are other less well-known effects. For example, DDT is now found in penguins in the Antarctic, far away from where it was first spread.

Given this ancient and modern disturbance, conservation faces the issue of shifting baselines. To what state can an ecosystem be restored? As Marris notes, Hawaii may appear a lush paradise, yet apart from the extinctions caused by Europeans, the Polynesians had earlier modified the ecosystem heavily and managed the land. Given this, do we simply accept that ecosystems have changed and value them for what they have become?

Dudley suggests that just as it is a myth to suggest there is such a thing as 'true wilderness', it is also a myth that naturalness doesn’t matter. Biodiversity doesn’t need humans to flourish, and yet there are many places where nature has cultural significance. One of the things that both Dudley and Marris critique is the removal of peoples who have had a long standing relationship with the land. The creation of Yellow Stone National Park is a case in point. Dudley also notes that this is an ongoing issue in Brazil, where the local natives oppose mining, logging and the building of dams that would destroy sections of the Amazon.

A common myth about conservation of wilderness is that it is against the needs of people: "Animals before people!" is the cry. Yet we draw so much value from nature. Forests store carbon and provide a host of non-timber products that are often of greater value than the timber itself. Bush meat, if managed sustainably, can feed many in the developing world. Water catchments are kept cleaner and often with a better supply where forests are kept intact. Many people also have cultural, social and spiritual connections to wild places. Dudley is surprisingly charitable towards religion in general and Christianity in particular, noting that Christians have taken a spectrum of views on nature. What he perhaps does not realise is that a biblical theology of creation requires no borrowing from other traditions but rather a better reading of Scripture.

While Dudley spends some time on defining naturalness and authenticity in nature, Marris asks us to consider the nature in our backyards and altered landscapes, and value that as well. She lists cases where invasive, introduced species have actually done some good. Empty spaces (ecological niches) can be filled by species we have introduced, and while the ecosystem will not be the same as before, it will still function well. Likewise, English farms, if they are more sparing with the pesticides and let the hedgerows grow, can support many native species of birds. Bird feeders and nest boxes have a long tradition in the USA, and green roofs are starting to have an impact. I myself planted a bottlebrush in my backyard 3 to 4 years ago and just this summer found it full of honeyeaters. The point is not to cave in to modification and only support what is in our backyard, or to mistake such efforts as a replacement for looking after wild places. What such actions do is recognise that humans and nature are inseparable, and that there is a spectrum of habitats to care for, from the mostly natural to the heavily modified.

One of the topics Marris covers is rewilding, which is the subject of Monbiot’s entire book. The idea is simple enough: over several thousand years, humans have removed many elements from various ecosystems, and we should try and put them or their nearest equivalent back. One of Monbiot’s pet hates is sheep farming. In Scottish and Welsh highlands, grazing on marginal lands for little profit is keeping ecosystems in an unnatural state. Rewilding in this case would simply amount to removing a grazer in order to allow vegetation to be restored.

More controversial is the reintroduction of predators. This is where 'the wild' really becomes wild. Nature becomes risky to visit. We understanding this in Australia with venomous snakes, crocodiles and sharks, and yet the recent WA shark culls show that some people want to tame nature and reduce risk in what is a very risky world. But when predators are removed, ecosystems suffer. Apart from the removal of the first Americans, Yellowstone had its wolves removed. This led to overgrazing by deer (with more than any hunter could shoot) that increased damage to river banks that in turn led to a decline in river quality and fish stocks. The reversal since wolves have been reintroduced is stunning.

The lack of predators in Australia (either by climate change or arrivals of humans) has often meant that existence rights (for a species simply to continue) and animal rights (care of individual creatures) can often clash. Dudley recounts the outrage at a planned kangaroo cull in the ACT, yet like it or not, if there are no predators, we sometimes have to fulfil that role.

Some of Monbiot’s reintroduction plans may seem grandiose and threatening. Humans in many parts of the world have greatly modified ecosystems, making them less wild and less healthy. In other parts of the world, humans still run into wild animals and have to decide how best to manage this. Sometimes solutions are simple and effective, such as the Ted talk (www.ted.com) narrating a young boy’s experiments with car batteries and lights to keep big cats away from livestock and not have to shoot them.

One reviewer of Monbiot’s book lamented that he spent too much time talking about himself, and yet that’s part of the point. Is there something too tame about our safe, urban lives that a little wilderness could help bring back into focus? If we had to take more care on our bushwalks (apart from bushfires – both a natural phenomenon and one shaped by human interference), might we view ourselves less as untouchable and powerful, and more finite and humble. And it is here we can add some theological reflection on the value of wilderness.

There appear to be two ideas that run through Scripture regarding our relationship to nature. The first is the theme of the image of God: humans are representations of God in the 'temple-cosmos' - see John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One (Intervarsity Press). The 'heavens and earth' are envisaged as a kind of temple in which God dwells and works, especially through his representative 'image', i.e. us. That makes the entire world sacred, but not (as Genesis 1 goes to great pains to tell us) divine. It thus makes creation care a sacred task.

The other great theme is one of wilderness (those areas outside of human society) and how they come under God’s care. Key passages include Psalm 104 and the latter chapters of Job. Psalm 104 can be read as a commentary on Genesis 1 but it takes the argument in a different direction. For example, in verses 6-16, the Psalmist talks about what we would call the water cycle; from the primeval 'separation of waters' to the rain that falls. Only two verses discuss human agriculture; the rest deal with the natural world. Verses 16 onwards discuss habitation. The fir trees are for the storks, and not merely timber. The high mountains are for goats, and not simply to be conquered by mountain climbers. I’m not aware that the Israelites ate storks. There are some things outside our economic interest. Lions too have their place, to prowl at night. Not only are these creatures outside of the human economy, they could be harmful to it. Remember, these are the days before ecotourism or wildlife documentaries! The point is this: the Psalmist recognised that wild places tell us about the greatness of God and his providential care; a care that includes us but also is for the rest of creation far from our industry and concerns.

The end of Job tells a similar tale. There are things that the ancients did not understand: all jokes aside, we have a much better understanding now, including our massive impact upon the climate. There were also animals the ancients could not tame. In our hubris, we should not think that our knowledge is infinite nor our control absolute: we are still learning and often our attempts at control or management are destructive. Job chapters 38 and onwards should teach us humility. When far from cities, we can see the stars that show us both how tiny we are and yet how privileged we are to bear the divine image. In a time of dwindling wilderness, it’s an image we need to bear much better than we do, and cherish those wild places God has made.



Ian Hore-Lacy
March 4, 2014, 8:46PM
You dont have to agonise about how "natural" a bit of bush is in order to enjoy it to the full worshipfully as part of God's wonderful creation! And while there are aesthetic issues, affecting its recreational value, why is an altered part of creation less wonderful than unaltered? - morally. Humans as stewards have a job to do feeding 7 billion people - but that is another question.
But if modified ecosystems are less wild (Monbiot), are they necessarily less healthy?
At the extreme, what is Christian response to hugely increasing urbanisation? If the country (eg China, India) is depopulated of peasant farmers, agricultural production increases and the newly urbanised have better access to water, food, health and education services. Is that good, or really soul-destroying? We need to have a view IMHO.
Byron Smith
March 6, 2014, 2:50PM
Great piece. Thanks Mick!

I found this article from a year or two ago to be very stimulating.


This is a fascinating essay describing the evolution of our attitudes towards the natural world under the effects of our de-naturing of it. In short, the argument is that Romantic idealisation of Nature as sublime other is only possible (and necessary) after the de-wilding of wild places, the enormous upheaval that human presence or actions have effected upon the vast majority of the planet, especially the destruction of large predators that pose a direct physical threat to humans. Almost no predator larger than a dog has escaped losses in excess of 80-90% due to human activities. "There is little public awareness of impending biotic impoverishment because the drivers of collapse are the absence of essentially invisible processes [...] and because the ensuing transformations are slow and often subtle, involving gradual compositional changes that are beyond the powers of observation of most lay observers." We are bringers of profound change, and yet the changes we effect are often hidden from our own eyes, only registering gradually in large cultural shifts in our attitudes.

It is a false humility to pretend that humans are too puny to be shaping the world and its geophysical and ecological systems in profound ways. Humility means honestly facing the truth about our impact and making our political and ethical deliberations in light of it.

On another topic:
"Dudley recounts the outrage at a planned kangaroo cull in the ACT"
Are you aware that this outrage ironically lead to the Greens losing a possible Senate seat as a result? Since a local Greens councillor supported the cull, the Animal Rights Party preferenced the Greens last in retaliation. These 1,500 or so votes going to the Liberal candidate rather than the Greens candidate changed the outcome. And so those who care above all about animal rights ended up electing a Liberal (whose woeful environmental policies are becoming increasingly and painfully apparent) and keeping out a Green. Talk about losing the forest for the trees!

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