Wilderness is defined in many ways, but all definitions have in common that wilderness areas are large, biologically and ecologically intact landscapes that are free from human disturbance. They need not be entirely devoid of people but they are free from large scale disturbance like industrial activities, infrastructure, and commercial agriculture. These large and intact systems offer significant benefits beyond the value of beautiful natural spaces. Wilderness areas sequester twice as much carbon as degraded landscapes, act as a refuge for many species, and help stabilize local weather patterns.
Before there were enough people to have a significant impact, the entire earth was wilderness. Generally speaking it remained that way until sometime between 1700 and 1800. In the roughly 250 years since then people have consumed 76.8 percent of the planet’s wilderness. The last ten percent was consumed in only 20 years. It goes faster with time, as more people with bigger and faster machines gobble up untouched land at unprecedented rates. Even though only 23.2 percent is left worldwide, and only 5% of America is protected, there are people and corporations who strive to develop the last remaining scraps.
With entire ecosystems now collapsing and human activity changing the world’s climate, no place is completely untouched today. In some areas record breaking droughts regularly parch the land, fires rage over it, and torrential rains liquefy entire mountainsides. In other areas epic rains flood tens of thousands of square miles every year. Insects no longer killed by winter’s cold turn immense pine forests brown in Canada and the northern United States. Air pollution from distant cities limits visibility in even the most remote places and light pollution makes it impossible for 80% of America to see the Milky Way. Compared to just 75 years ago our world is dramatically impoverished. Most do not realize this because an impoverished world is all they ever knew.
It is only a matter of time before nothing that could be called a wilderness exists. Given the current state of the world and our track record it is crazy to think otherwise. Even now many people rarely set foot on a surface that is not paved or planted, or see a vista that is unchanged by the hand of man. For some inexplicable reason we believe we can have endless growth in a finite world with finite resources and not end up in a living hell, or worse. The notion is idiotic but greed drives us onward. We swarm over the earth like ants on a big apple, laying waste to everything as we multiply, build, dig, drill, and develop. Unlike the ants we have only one apple and what we destroy is gone forever, but we never acknowledge that. It is an utterly hopeless situation that makes me glad I am old and makes me sorry for those who are young. The only upside is that people do not miss what they never knew. Your grandchildren may not hate you for leaving them a wrecked world unless they become history buffs. On the other hand, take a look at these fun facts...