John Muir’s Last Stand

John Muir
On Christmas eve, one hundred years ago, John Muir’s spirit left his body and set off into the pathless wild. For those of us who love the wild world and for whom Muir is an indispensable intellectual ancestor, the way Muir and his conservation legacy have been getting beaten up recently is hard to fathom. You may have noted the way that various postmodern greens have been using Muir as a punching bag.

We believe the man and his legacy need to be celebrated on the centennial anniversary of his death, and into the future through the resurgence of a parks and wilderness movement focused on protecting the wild.

If you agree, we hope you’ll consider passing along the attached editorial, “John Muir’s Last Stand,” which touches on the present philosophical dustup in conservation.

Best wishes for a happy and WILD new year!

—Tom Butler and Eileen Crist

Tom Butler is editorial projects director of the Foundation for Deep Ecology and president of Northeast Wilderness Trust. Eileen Crist teaches in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech. 

6 thoughts on “John Muir’s Last Stand”

  1. Matthew, do you agree that “today’s vision for the future of conservation—and the future of the Earth—is one of planetary rewilding, where a scaled-back human civilization is embedded in a matrix of wildness, and where at least half of the globe is left to nature”?

    How will human civilization be scaled back, if not via a natural event such as a cataclysmic meteor strike?

    • Certainly, a “Whatever Happens” mindset doesn’t really lead to those outcomes. I also really doubt that John Muir would be in favor of the “Whatever Happens” fantasies and outcomes, today. I think that many would call him a traitor, if he were alive today.

      • Hi Steve. Thanks for reading the article.

        Here’s the rest of that quote, which you left out. “It is a vision both idealistic and achievable: Broad swaths of green and blue— beautiful, untrammeled, evolution-supporting lands and waters encircling the Earth, where wild life and people flourish together.”

        I think you are confusing what the authors mean by “human civilization.” You seem to directly equate civilization with population, which is clearly not what the authors are referring to. As an aside, I do think that the environmental and social costs of over-population are pretty clear, and have chosen myself to have zero kids, being ‘fixed’ for almost 20 years.

        To me, “a scaled-back human civilization” means less consumption of the earth’s finite resources, less pollution of air and water and more sustainability of our entire human systems, including food, transportation, housing, education, etc.

        Like the authors stated, “It is a vision both idealistic and achievable.” Although perhaps I’ll concede it’s not easily “achievable,” especially given the current global political and economic systems, which concentrate so much wealth and power into so few hands.

  2. Matthew, the authors’ ideal is that “at least half of the globe is left to nature.” That sounds far more extreme than you interpretation, which almost anyone might agree to: “less consumption of the earth’s finite resources, less pollution of air and water and more sustainability of our entire human systems, including food, transportation, housing, education, etc.”

    We have recently discussed US wilderness areas — places that are “left to nature.” The authors seem to suggest wilderness on a continental scale.

    • Steve, the “extreme” perspective you quote may be partly a matter of cherry-picking one particular phrase from the essay.

      Here’s a longer segment: “Those of us who value untrammeled landscapes—areas not yoked to human will but free to follow their own course—do not argue that conservation should preclude human economic welfare among its objectives. From the early days of conservation practice, utilitarian aims have always been included. But a primary focus on such aims—rather than on the health of the biotic community as a whole—is a strategic dead end for nature protection as it spells increasing losses of species, wildlife populations, and wild ecosystems.”

      That doesn’t seem especially radical. And while the value of wilderness may be undervalued by most of our society, it doesn’t follow that “natural areas” and “wilderness” are synonymous. As Matthew pointed out, you left out a significant point the authors make: “…where a scaled-back human civilization is embedded in a matrix of wildness, and where at least half of the globe is left to nature.” (note that they say “wildness” rather than “wilderness”, not the same thing).

      As Matthew also points out, “population” and “civilization” aren’t synonymous; human population remains highly concentrated over much of the planet, but the effects of civilization’s insatiable consumption are spread much wider. The need for some intelligent foresight that isn’t entirely human-focused is the take-home message I got from the essay.

      Some interesting graphics:

  3. What does it mean to say “at least half of the globe is left to nature . . . where wildlife and people flourish together?” Are oceans, which cover 71% of the globe, included? If so, on what current proportion of ocean do “wildlife and people flourish?”

    Okay, maybe the authors disregard the oceans, although that seems anti-ecological of them. Isn’t everything connected to everything else? Don’t the iconic salmon (gotta always refer to salmon as “iconic”) depend as much on the ocean as they do freshwater streams? Whether oceans are in or out is a game changer when it comes to meeting the “half of the globe” goal.

    Just for fun, however, let’s pretend (like the authors may of) that there are no oceans. That the goal is “half of the land surface area” of the globe “left to nature.” What might that mean? Urban areas occupy 3% of the earth’s surface area. I’m guessing no urban area would meet the authors’ test for wildness, no matter how smart its design. That leaves 97%.

    About 40% of the earth’s land surface is dedicated to agriculture. Does non-GMO, organic cropping count as wild? Does a perennial pasture of native grasses where the deer and the antelope graze peacefully with some rich guy’s farm-to-market bison? I don’t know. Let’s assume not.

    Urban + agriculture = 43% of the land surface, still below the 50% threshold. Does productivity count for anything in this analysis. Are all acres created equal? Does an acre of rich, Mississippi Delta bottomland equal an acre of Siberian boreal forest?

    Maybe I should just read the article . . . oh, on second thoughts, maybe not.


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