Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?


Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.

8 thoughts on “Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

  1. I’ve been trying to leave you a reply for about 15 minutes now, but words fail me … it’s so crazy that Trump was elected, and what may result from that. But I find a measure of solace and optimism in the great truth of Maragret Mead’s statement (which I’m sure you know well):
    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

    • It is completely insane. I was speechless when I found out. I am finding solace in my students and in the fact that there is finally enough snow on the ground for skiing. I spent some quality time soaking up the twilight this morning.

  2. Hiya!

    I’m so sorry about all of this. Here in the UK we are still reeling from our own (very similar) situation with Brexit and trying to make sense of it.

    Make sure you take time for some self care amongst all your other excellent priorities!


    • I can only imagine – I’m still in the initial stunned disbelief phase. What comes next? What came next for you?

      Self-care = skiing, and now that there is snow on the ground, I can finally spend time out there in the quiet woods. I scouted a few rabbit trails this morning and felt a little frustration slip away.

      • What comes next, well I’m not sure entirely. We are still feeling our way through things. Things I’m trying to do:

        1. Allow yourself to mourn – it will take time and we are still going through it.
        2. Reach out to the most vulnerable people affected by the vote and try to do things to practically improve their lives (even small things like donating to foodbanks, anti-racism charities etc.
        3. Hold the people in power to account – not just politicians but all people in power. Recently a petition in the UK has forced Lego to stop advertising in a big daily newspaper which was promoting race hate and calling independent judges “enemies of the people” simply for doing their jobs. Holding them to account is just as important as holding our government to account because it is the naked racism of certain newspaper in the UK which has allowed xenophobia to flourish and regain legitimacy.
        4. Be a safe person, making it known to vulnerable people that I have their back. When I see or hear race hate, homophobia etc in my physical life I don’t stay silent, I try not to escalate the situation but I make it really clear to the victim that I have their back and they are not alone. As a white, British person I don’t get targeted like some of the people who’ve been the subject of racist attacks since Brexit. I use that privilege to help those who are being attacked. I just don’t want to be taken as silently agreeing with the racists, so I am loudly disagreeing with them every chance I get.

        There may be more I can do in time (I have a 5 month old baby, to go with the 3 year old I already had and they are a bit of a time suck!) But raising them to be the best people they can is my long term goal!

        Best of luck in fighting the good fight.

  3. Your words really resonated with me, and I share the same fears. ANWR was one of the first things I thought of when they announced the official winner of our presidential race. I can only imagine how scary it must be for someone living in that area. I’m out in Bristol Bay and I feel that we may be impacted too, as old projects are given new life. You’ll be in my thoughts!

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed your defense of wilderness. I will miss all this, Keely, when I leave at the end of the year. I hope it will remain forever as wild and beautiful as I found it. When I look at the wilderness around me, I don’t feel small. (I remember once when I was a young man I passed through a desert and found my way into a box canyon cut out of solid marble along the boudary a mesa. I hiked to the rim at dawn. Below my feet, that canyon and beyond the mesa, a wide wide valley contained by distant mountains. That humbled me, as this land humbles you, I imagine.) But I never feel small. It inspires within me this conviction that the world is too grand to have been authored by chance. You know why I enjoy your blog so much? Because it’s permitted me to watch you fall in love with all this over the past few years. You were made for the wilderness, Keely. Best wishes!

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