Wild wilderness

by Alexandra Bosbeer

[26 March 2018] I recently had the pleasure of joining an ecological conference on wilderness in central Europe. Conferences are especially good for exchanging ideas with other participants. I also always like to see the images selected to illustrate the ideas. And some of the photos shown at this conference were wonderful. The tiny, twisted, old-looking trees, or enormously wide stems that disappear up towards the sky, are inspiring. Awe. However, this feeling must be tempered with knowledge that ancient or important species are not always the photogenic ones. For example, it is beetles and fungi which are mainly associated with hard-to-find ancient trees. Most people don’t particularly like insects, nor do most people feel pleasure at viewing a slowly dying tree. And yet these rare species of invertebrate and fungi, are among those most in need of protection.

One conference participant noted that, the more time people must spend in the built environment, the more they crave wilderness. Indeed, psychological research has shown that patients after operations get well more quickly and have less pain when they have a view on nature (compared to a view of built environment), and that students do better in exams when their study desk allows a view of trees. Walking in nature alleviates psychological complaints. People need nature. However, it may not be wilderness in all its facets that people crave: uncomfortable thickets where a person can’t walk upright, wetlands full of sodden areas and tussocky plants between deep ponds. Dangerous wilderness, singing with the wings of biting insects and rank with fungi is very probably NOT what most people like.

But here we are again, exploring the perceived importance of wilderness through the narrow frame of human enjoyment.


First of all, what is wilderness? The concept of untouched nature has an inherent appeal. A few decades ago, everyone was talking about virgin or ancient forests, and now it seems the vogue is for the term of wilderness.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global organisation, has a definition of wilderness which includes being undisturbed by significant human activity, free of modern infrastructure and where natural forces and processes predominate. Sounds wonderful! As a global organisation, of course, the IUCN’s remit includes parts of the world with far fewer people than Europe, and parts of the world we have sometimes (correctly, or, often, not) assumed to be ‘untouched. Wilderness is only one category of importance: the top (1a) category for IUCN is ‘strict nature reserve’, and the next category below wilderness is national park (category II).

The conference was in part a hashing-out of what these terms might mean in Germany – how big is big enough, what would loss of human influence look like? Ah, now we have one of the first challenges to considering wilderness in contemporary times: human-caused air pollution and climate change will affect most every place in Europe. However, this fact means also that wilderness can show us the effects of climate change without the other human impacts. The control group, if you will.

The key element with wilderness is the removal of human management. A question about how to support the return of wilderness, was met with a response that would be humans again steering the direction of wilderness development. It is our human hubris : our management, our rubbish, and, today becoming ever clearer, our refusal to adapt.

Warnings have been emerging for decades about human impact on nature, and The United Nations has even recently appealed to human self-interest, pointing out that we are threatening the existence of our own species as well as hundreds of others. The biodiversity rapporteur has clearly connected human rights such as right to water and food, to biodiversity. One day very soon we must find the key, the factor that slides the balance from ignoring warnings about the state of nature, to realising the importance of nature.

This blog is the first in a series exploring nature, biodviersity, and wilderness. We have heard the warnings – how will we tip the balance toward proactive self- and nature-sustaining policies?

More soon!