What Does “Wild” Really Mean?

By Jon Christensen

Some ideas are like burrs stuck in your boots. If you don’t stop and deal with them, they’ll keep on troubling you. But coming to terms with a troubling idea is never as simple as shaking out your boots. If it were, conservationists would not still be driven wild by questions about what on earth “wild” means.

You would think that the Wildlife Conservation Society might have a grip on what it means to be wild. The society grew out of the venerable Bronx Zoo to become one of the most respected wildlife conservation organizations in the world. It has just begun a new annual series of status reports called State of the Wild. (1)

But the inaugural 2006 edition seems to be deeply troubled by a question that has plagued conservationists of late: What does “wild” really mean?

It’s ironic that Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (2), has literally the last word in an afterword to the State of the Wild 2006. McKibben is in many ways responsible for starting this most divisive of debates in modern conservation. But there is a surprising twist here which gives me hope that, when all is said and done, this may turn out to be one of the most productive intellectual showdowns in the history of conservation.

In The End of Nature, McKibben argues that greenhouses gases and global warming mean that the heavy hand of man is now all over nature. William Cronon, an environmental historian, joined the debate in 1996 with an essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Cronon pointed out that our ideas about nature and wilderness exist within a social and historical context. McKibben’s “end of nature” is just the end of an idea of nature as separate from human culture—and maybe that is not such a bad thing to let go.

By sanctifying the wild over forms of nature that are mixed with human culture and human endeavors, Cronon asserts, we run the risk of devaluing much of nature and much that is wild in us and among us. Cronon never actually says that nature and the wild are no more than ideas, as some of his critics charge to this day. But it’s a testament to the power of ideas that people still get so worked up about this debate.

It comes as no surprise that the Wildlife Conservation Society is concerned about preserving the concept of the wild. It’s in their name, after all. And it’s not just the concept, of course, that they want to conserve. “We believe that the wild does exist and that it is threatened by the increasing hegemony of the human race,” Kent Redford pleads in the preface to the State of the Wild 2006.

For his part, McKibben seems to have found a resolution for the conflict he set up. He calls it the “relative wild.” I’m betting the “relative wildlife conservation society” is a nonstarter. But it’s a step in the right direction: putting the focus on conservation where it really matters—not just in the wild, but everywhere.

1. Guynup, S.(ed.) 2005. State of the Wild 2006: A Global Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands, and Oceans. Island Press, Washington, DC.

2. McKibben, B. 1989. The End of Nature. Random House, New York.

Jon Christensen is a research fellow in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University.

The Uneasy Chair is named in honor of Bernard DeVoto, who, from 1935 to 1955 wrote “The Editor’s Easy Chair” column for Harper’s magazine-a perch from which he often sallied forth in defense of conservation. Wallace Stegner’s biography of DeVoto was more aptly titled The Uneasy Chair (Doubleday, 1974), from which this column takes its name and its challenge.

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