Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ocean wilderness

What is it? Big pristine ocean areas where fish run amok? Or does ocean wilderness live in the hearts of people? It matters, because the answer guides our ocean future.

Imagine a young city person at a beach, putting on a mask and diving cautiously under the surface. What’s there? Murk and muck, and the bright shimmering of the surface seen from below. Further out, what’s that?…A fish. A real live ocean fish in a real live ocean, the first time. A brief sight, and then it vanishes into the depths, a magic visitor from another world. Running up the beach, tearing off the mask and shouting, sky-high with joy.

Is this ocean wilderness? An electric feeling that changes a life?

Picture a scientist, drawing lines on a map. After reading studies of currents, fish, dolphins, whales and corals. Lines on a map become an idea…then a goal, protect a big area forever. Save a piece of the ocean’s finest, forever.

Is that ocean wilderness? Protect the best we have left, save ocean ecosystems for future generations?

The difference is the role of people.

Are we partners? Lovers and protectors of our oceans? Is there a place for us since we’re trustworthy friends who didn’t mean to cause harm?

Or are we some sort of plague on the earth, a virus or cancer that only destroys oceans?

I think we need to be careful of misanthropy when we answer. Do we dislike people, and seek reasons for a purge? Is wilderness just an excuse to create a zone of exclusion where there are no people?

In the underwater world of blogfish, people are welcome. Here, wilderness is a state of mind, and if people say they’re friends of the ocean, then they are. And when that city kid comes roaring out of the ocean with a shout of joy, I want to be there and offer encouragement, because that’s a person who is ready to join the cause.

It's true that we need Ocean Wilderness areas that are protected from human impacts. But we'll never get there by needlessly alienating people. We need to find a way to embrace people, work with their feelings of connection--whatever the source--and pursue shared conservation goals. Sometimes, it seems that too much of conservation has an alienating holier-than-thou flavor. That's not good.

Because we'll never save our oceans by attacking people.


Up Welng said...

Great Post!

Henry David Thoreau (please excuse this former New Englander's love of Thoreau) thought wilderness could include humans and some level of human activity. I think that Thororeau's worldview certainly needs updating to understand what "some level" means in today's standards. Many contemporary extremist commentators think of wilderness as devoid of permanent human influence. I think wilderness is, as you so clearly identify, a very personal definition.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), in our day it is the competing ideas about wilderness that still frame the unresolved questions about the future of our oceans. How various people have experienced it and written about it (from Melville to Steinbeck to London to Fujita), raises questions about what constitutes wilderness, the relationship between humans and the natural environment, about conservation and ecology, and not least about our personal relationship to the wilderness.

But I ultimately agree with you, it serves no purpose to alienate. Finger pointing is too easy.

Mark Powell said...

Thanks Rick, And good work over at Malaria, bedbugs, sealice, and sunsets!


Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's a semantic issue. The crux of wilderness, as the name implies, is that it's wild. That doesn't mean that people cannot set foot (or, more appropriately in this context, fin) in it. But it does suggest that it should have minimal human impact.

The more important issue is that the long-term future of nature requires not only wilderness in the traditional sense of the word (since there is little hope of maintaining any more than a tiny fraction of the earth in that state), but more importantly a gentle interaction of humanity with the rest of nature, what Michael Rosenzweig calls reconciliation ecology.

The Natural Patriot
"In order to form a more perfect union"