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It's All Gardening
Alex Steffen, 15 Apr 04

What will conservation biology look like in this new centruy? Daniel Janzen may know. I missed his Long Now lecture, but this essay is a nice overview of his ideas on why we need to look at all ecological work, now, as gardening:

"Why can't the wild tropical species be left "out in the wild" to fend for themselves? Because the wild is at humanity's mercy. Humanity now owns life on Earth. It plans the world, albeit with an unintended here and an uninformed there. Until the Pleistocene, not more than a few thousandths of 1 percent of the Earth's surface was ours. Today it all is. If we place those species anywhere other than in a human safe zone, they will continue in their downward spiral as grist in the human mill, just as they have for the past 10,000 years. ...

"We eat wild biodiversity, and we do all we can to help our chromosomal extensions eat that which we cannot eat. A bean plant is a green machine that grows directly out of our chromosomes, sitting where wild biodiversity once was, another mouth for sun and minerals.

"However, gardens are forever. Gardens are mushrooms on horse manure and cats under the kitchen table. Gardens are beehives and cows, and 16 varieties of rice growing in one rainforest clearing. Gardens are hydroponic tomatoes and vats of whisky-spewing yeast. Kids do it, agroindustry does it, grandparents do it, astronauts do it, and Pleistocene Rhinelanders did it. And we will all still be doing it 10,000 years from now. The garden is a somewhat unruly extension of the human genome.

"So, how do we hide 235,000 species in the garden? By recognizing and relabeling wildland nature as a garden per se, having nearly all the traits that we have long bestowed on a garden¬ócare, planning, investment, zoning, insurance, fine-tuning, research, and premeditated harvest. And this leads to the question of absorption of humanity's omnipresent footprints.

"Part of the problem is in the name. Stop labeling the wild as the wild. There are simply many varieties of gardens. There is no footprint-free world. Every block of the world's wildlands is already severely impacted. Not only are they internally impacted through macroevents such as the megafaunal extinctions and selective extraction of old-growth timber, but the very frameworks of their existence¬óglobal warming, acid rain, drained wetlands, green revolutions, wildland shrinkage, introduced pests, and many more-are set by Homo sapiens. The question is not whether we must manage nature, but rather how shall we manage it-by accident, haphazardly, or with the calculated goal of its survival forever?"

It's not easy, when many of us who care about the natural world have been raised to venerate wild places, to reimagine the world as a garden. But, as Janzen says, the alternative may be simply to pretend innocence and practice ignorance.

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'Wilderness' doesn't imply the same kind of responsibility as 'garden.'

The Garden of Eden wasn't a wilderness, and Adam and Eve had only one responsibility. And they screwed it up. :-)

Posted by: Paul on 15 Apr 04

What a thoroughly depressing article. As far as I can tell, he's saying: stop fighting and accept the inevitable, because the wilderness is already gone and we might as well get on with the human race's first terraforming project. Well, fuck that! I love wilderness, and even damaged wilderness is better than nothing. If we give up now, the remnants that are left will just be torn down that much more quickly. Then what? We might as well fight on, even if we're going to lose; what harm can it possibly do? At least we can slow the machine down a bit.

A world where every piece of every ecosystem serves mankind somehow, every piece of land is part of the global economy, every square inch of land is known and cataloged and part of the system - it sounds like hell. I refuse to give up and let it happen without a fight.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 15 Apr 04


I think Janzen is arguing that if every inch of the planet is impacted by climate change, chemical pollution and human intervention (which is almost true), then the idea of wilderness as a place which gets along fine on its own is out of date. I think he is in fact arguing that we need more attention to the preservation of natural systems, not more exploitation of them. Reread it and tell me what you think...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 Apr 04

I've reread it, and I guess his point is still flying over my head. It still seems like he's saying: "the wilderness is already gone, and we run the entire planet whether we like it or not; so let's stop talking about saving wilderness and start figuring out how to integrate the undeveloped ecosystems we used to call 'wild' into the global economy, so we can exploit them sustainably instead of just destroying them outright."

This argument strikes me as utterly fatalist. The entire point, to me, is to roll back the human footprint on Earth until the wildernesses that remain are no longer threatened by our presence. I don't want a world where harmless, human-safe rainforest replicas live on under our supervision and management; I want a world where vast, dangerous, hostile rainforests thrive outside our use or observation. I accept the fact that human beings always rebuild their environments; my goal is to mark out the boundaries of the human environments, and design social and economic systems that will enforce those boundaries, so that the rest of the planet can live in peace.

If he's right, it's too late for that already, and there's no way to go back. I have no specific reason to believe that he is wrong, but I have to assume it anyway; otherwise there is no reason to keep working, and I might as well just abandon the planet to strip malls and cattle farms.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 17 Apr 04



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