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The sustainability of wilderness

By Ralf Buckley - posted Wednesday, 10 March 2010

On the surface, the questions addressed in this forum seem simple. Given growth in human populations, (a) can we still “afford” wilderness; or (b) should we aim to use it “sustainably”? The straight answers are (a) yes, and (b) no. But as my quotation marks indicate, the terminology is misleading.

To afford something means to have enough money to buy it. So who’s buying, what do they want, and who’s selling? The total cash cost to buy all the world’s remaining areas of high biological diversity at current local land-sale prices is estimated at $20 billion per year for ten years. This is less than annual US expenditure on soft drinks. So yes, the world can afford it.

Most wilderness, however, is not for sale except politically. It is controlled by national governments; which either protect it, exploit it or ignore it depending on their own economic and political power bases.


Ecuador, for example, despite a $30 billion lawsuit over damage by the oil industry in one national park, now wants to produce oil from another park unless it gets a multi-billion-dollar international buy-off. Since it wants the money up front with no strings, there is no actual guarantee of future protection.

A much more important question is whether we can afford the continuing loss of wilderness worldwide. We rely on relatively undisturbed natural ecosystems to clean the dirty air and water which emanate endlessly from our cities. If the air in a city were not constantly replenished by winds bringing clean air from the wilderness, the people living there would die just as surely as those locked in a garage breathing car exhaust fumes. If urban rivers did not flow into the ocean and fall as rain into water catchments upstream, the people in those cities would be poisoned by a mixture of industrial effluents and human waste.

Wilderness areas, especially oceans and tropical grasslands and forests, also help to absorb atmospheric carbon to mitigate human-induced climate change. The only realistic way to get carbon out of the atmosphere is to put it back in the soil.

“Biochar” is one attempt to do this artificially, but it’s a lot cheaper and more effective just to keep these areas under native vegetation and let the plants maintain soil fertility.

Permaculture farming can have the same effect, but we aren’t likely to produce the world’s food supply through permaculture any time soon. Current farming and forestry practices in most of the world typically reduce soil organic matter content, taking carbon out of the soil and into the air. So wilderness mitigates climate change impacts from human activities elsewhere.

It is also wilderness areas worldwide which provide the genetic diversity which underpins our food, textile and pharmaceutical industries. It is plants and animals which provide the specific chemicals which we use to produce almost all our drugs and medicines. Wild plant and animal species also provide the genetic material which allows us to keep breeding new varieties of staple food crops and livestock, as older varieties continually succumb to new pests and diseases. This is why pharmaceutical and agricultural companies pay so much for “bioprospecting” rights, the opportunity to screen wilderness areas for potentially valuable species.


Ten years ago a group of economists calculated that the recurrent financial value of goods and services which human societies derive from the natural environment is at least twice as large as the entire global economy: many tens of trillions of dollars every year. Most of this is what they call “ecosystem services” - clean air and water, genetic materials and so on - and most of this relies largely on wilderness. So wilderness is something we definitely can’t afford to lose.

Given that we can afford to keep wilderness and can’t afford to lose it, is it perhaps possible to use it “sustainably”? This is also misleading terminology, for two reasons. First, we do already use wilderness, all the time, to keep the planet habitable for humans. Every breath you take and every drop you drink uses wilderness.

Second, the concept of sustainability, which is vague at best and most often used as a soft excuse to avoid the hard realities of environmental science, is completely dependent on scale. At a global scale, there are large areas where the human economy consumes the natural environment: towns and cities, mines and manufacturing plants, logging areas and most croplands. Since humans as biological creatures are completely dependent on the natural environment, they can only continue to survive as long as there are also areas where that environment is not being consumed: i.e., wilderness.

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About the Author

For the past 17 years, Ralf Buckley has been Director of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research at Griffith University. Before that, he ran the environmental consulting division of the southern hemisphere’s largest mining analysis firm. He has written and edited a dozen books in ecotourism and environmental management, as well as the nationally-distributed 2007 report Climate Response which did much to shape Australia’s current adaptation strategies.

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