On March 22 University of the Pacific will host a day-long symposium that asks this provocative question about the 100 years since the death of conservationist John Muir: What has been saved? What has been lost?
This question is provocative for a variety of reasons. It suggests the idea that in fact something, some small portion of the planet could be “saved,” perhaps by designating it as a national park. These parks are beautiful places, but the designation does nothing to “save” them from the impacts of air pollution, climate change, and growing human population, none of which respect park boundaries. Any saving that has been done is very temporary. In other parts of the world it is easier, perhaps, to see what happens to the animals and timber in national parks once the neighboring human population is large enough and desperate enough to overwhelm security measures. National parks tend to be temporary playgrounds for a few generations for those with the time and money to get there. Then they become sites for looting by others desperate for resources.
For better or worse, our species, the humans, is having an epoch in which we are dominant. That epoch, like previous epochs in which other species dominated, will someday end. And it seems possible our epoch may be short when compared to the time of dinosaurs, or trilobites. Does the fact that human intervention has created huge dead zones in the oceans mean those areas are lost? Once our epoch ends and we no longer send all those chemicals down rivers, those dead zones will, presumably, be gradually re-colonized by life forms and evolution will resume.
Not that I don’t value Muir’s achievements. I too like to hike in the mountains. I too find them beautiful. I am glad that in my life there have still been places that I find beautiful. But I am part of a species that is incapable of self-regulation. This is not unusual. No species self-regulates. Just like me, all the other humans have desires, and will strive to fulfill them until we can’t. At least so far, the desire for the particular kind of beauty that some humans find in wilderness (whatever that is) has generally lost out to all the other desires.
Here’s a link to learn more about the symposium: