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Wildness Unleashed Paul Wapner on Embracing Wildness, Coming to Terms with Rattlesnakes, and Writing a Book He Needs to Read

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Herd of wild horses running across a plain with hills in the background

SIS professor Paul Wapner has long been a proponent both of the human side of environmental protection and the equal importance of protecting biodiversity. Basically, life in all its forms is his focus, and in his new book, Is Wildness Over?, he writes at length about the “more-than-human world” to describe everything that people might have been taught to think of as less-than-human.

The book is fairly short, and its potential audience is broad. In it, he is clear about the role people, especially those in the Global North, have played in environmental harm. He writes: “People throw environmental harm onto the lives of others rather than deal with it themselves. They toss it across space, time, and species. They send it to other communities, the future, and into the lives of other creatures. In each case, some benefit while others suffer. Too many ignore those on the receiving end. They turn a deaf ear to the vulnerable and politically weak, whether human or nonhuman. In this sense, climate change and mass extinction represent more than technical problems. They are atmospheric and terrestrial expressions of injustice.”

I reached him by phone in New Mexico, where he is riding out the pandemic, to discuss his ideas on wildness. During our conversation, I had the chance to ask him about numerous themes in the book, including environmental ethics and the role of technology. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Q: Your book is about wildness; very briefly, what is the basic idea of wildness?

Wildness is that element of life that escapes our control. It is what we experience when we encounter unforeseen circumstances. The word stems etymologically from “self-willed”—the idea that there are things operating independently of human interest, human design, human power. 

Most environmentalists write about wilderness, and there is a connection between wildness and wilderness. The latter is a place, usually far from human habitation, where one can come into contact with and be vulnerable to predatory animals, falling trees, unpredictable weather, and other uncertainties. Wildness, in contrast, is broader than wilderness in that it is not simply a place but a state of mind. As such, one can experience wildness both in the woods and the city. Wildness involves encountering unpredictability, uncertainty, and the capriciousness of nature and other people. 

In the book, I explore how humans have long felt agitated and uncomfortable in experiencing wildness. I also examine how people have thus tried, for millennia, to tame or otherwise control wildness. 

Q: I liked how you wrote about wildness in terms of outside and inside—that “inside” doesn't necessarily have to be indoors. It's more about the way that we've parceled out the land. You write about the centuries since the Agricultural Revolution and how people have cordoned off and tamed wildness as a means to control and contain danger and increase the convenience and ease of their own lives. But then you take it a step further, and you say, in doing that, humans have unleashed a different type of wildness—the uncontrollable wildness of climate change. Will you explain that? Because it almost sounds like “nature's revenge” when I put it that way. What do you mean by the type of wildness that humans have unleashed?

Basically, what we've done is we've pushed wildness out of our immediate experience; so many of us live in air-conditioned houses, we have heating, we have microwaves, we have cars. There are all these gadgets that are the expression of our pushing uncomfortableness—and even some danger—out of our immediate lives. But what I suggest is that wildness is like energy; it can't be created or destroyed, so that when we push it out of our immediate lives, it doesn't just disappear and evaporate, but actually, we push it in two directions.

First, we push it horizontally, to people downstream, people who are less advantaged than us. Toxic waste: no one wants to live with toxic waste in their lives. It's pretty wild. It's unpredictable in how it affects human health and community and is downright dangerous. But one of the things we—and I mean us, the privileged—do is we shove it into the lives of other people, so they have to deal with it. This is what I mean by displacing wildness horizontally. If you think about it, if we take almost any environmental problem, we say, "Well, have humans solved it?" We rarely solve a problem. We generally displace it. We push it across time, to future generations.

Nuclear waste, for example. We haven’t solved the problem. We just say, "Oh, we'll bury it in canisters that won't last as long as the waste itself. And good luck, future generations." Or we can displace it across space. A lot of our e-waste, we ship to India, and little kids dismantle our computers and so forth, so that we, the privileged, don't have to interact with something that is dangerous and has its own toxicity. And finally, we displace it across species, so that we throw this stuff into the more-than-human world. That's what I meant by horizontal.

We also push wildness vertically in the sense that we catapult unpredictability and danger up to the global level—creating “global wildness.” Indeed, one of the main themes of the book is to explore the mechanics and quality of global wildness. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and other global environmental dilemmas represent the consequences of displacing wildness out of our immediate lives and having it accumulate at the planetary level. Thus, we have global environmental challenges, not simply local ones anymore.

Q: How does this idea of pushing wildness horizontally align with the ideas underpinning the movement for climate justice? Is that essentially the same thing—the idea that we are causing harm to others simply because we can?

Yes. Well, look at the extraction of fossil fuels. Who extracts them? Where are these things extracted? And where's fracking taking place? Where is coal mining taking place? Where are pipelines being built? It's not the executives who are suffering, but it's people who have to live near those facilities and often are doing those wild, dangerous jobs.

And then when we talk about burning fossil fuels, who's on the front lines of climate suffering? It's often those people who live in substandard housing, so that when floods and weather events happen, they suffer. The same people often lack the resources to recover after such disasters. This is a long way of saying that I do see, absolutely, a conjunction between what I was writing about—this horizontal displacement—and climate justice.

Are we, the privileged, willing to accept a little more wildness in our lives as a way to take our foot off the gas pedal that's pushing wildness into other people's lives and up to the planet? That's where that rewilding part of the book comes in. It's saying: are we willing to cut that deal with ourselves? I argue that I think it's a good deal and that I think we could live more satisfied lives if we did. I'm not asking for us to go eschew electricity and comfort completely, but I do argue that I think there's space for us to experience a little more discomfort and a little less scratching every itch we have by turning to fossil fuels and sanitizing our world. And every animal that sort of bothers us, we'll just either wipe it out or push it away from us. I think that's at the root of the problem.

Paul Wapner's book Is Wildness Over? with green shrub in background

Q: You wrote a chapter about technological solutions. In reading the book, I come away with the impression that you have a dim, or at least a somewhat skeptical, view of technological solutions like Solar Radiation Management, Carbon Capture and Storage, and Direct Air Capture. You talk about using these solutions to pretty much manage the entire planet as part of the same controlling impulse that has not gotten us where we want to be. How do you view technological solutions? Do you think that technology can be additive to your idea of wildness, or are the two concepts fundamentally at odds?

Yes, I definitely take issue with geoengineering. I've done a lot of work with [SIS professor] Simon [Nicholson], and I respect the effort to think along those lines, but to me, the idea of trying to control the entire planet—the atmosphere, evolution, carbon cycle, and so forth—is ludicrous. The impulse to do so uses the same orientation that got us into climate change and loss of biological diversity in the first place. Geoengineering is putting that impulse on steroids. That very much worries me, to put it mildly. But my discomfort is not a blanket critique of technology per se. There can be sensitive technologies—technologies that don't just try to control the world but actually address it in ways that we can live meaningfully, and in place, and at a scale that it makes sense.

Take, for example, solar sources of energy. To be sure, solar power is a technology—with all the trappings of material engineering and ingenuity. But the difference is that solar technologies lend themselves to a kind of decentralized infrastructure that works against colonizing forms of control. They enable virtually anyone to utilize the sun’s rays rather than trying to capture and control energy in a centralized way and, further, aim to manage energy production rather than extending human reach to planetary infrastructure itself. Like wind, hydroelectric, and other so-called “soft energy” paths, solar doesn’t take on the planet as a whole and command global capture. Rather, it is a technology that aims to harmonize ourselves with the world. We're not digging into the crust of the earth and grabbing material, and lifting it up, and burning it, and therefore appropriating the world. When we use solar, we're not stealing the sun. We're not depleting the sun, but we are in relationship to the sun.

As you can tell, I certainly don’t eschew technology per se. I'm talking on an iPhone now, and I certainly don’t think that all technologies are bad. It's that some promise a scale of control by humans that, to me, is problematic.

Q: I thought it was also interesting that you wrote something like, 'I'm writing this in a room, and I'm alone. And the fact that I'm able to be alone in this space, with this environment exactly the way that I want it, on a planet with 7.7 billion people, is remarkable in itself.' But we don't think about that. We, in the privileged space that we're in, just assume that we will always be able to have that.

To me, one of the main themes of the book is the idea that, especially in the Western world, we have this illusion of control, but when you talk about pushing it horizontally, we have pushed that uncontrolled wildness to areas where people don't have the ability to have climate control whenever they want it. It's definitely a thought exercise to think, "What would it be like if I couldn't just shut the door and keep my room at a perfect 72 degrees while I think these deep thoughts?"

Right now, people in parts of Asia and the Middle East have seen summer temperatures approaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Think about that number. How can people work outside or simply get through their days in such heat? It is mind-boggling and incredibly horrifying and unfair. This represents the displacement of wildness insofar as those living on the frontlines are not the ones sitting in private rooms, shutting a door, and turning up the air conditioner. 

Q: You write about the Anthropocene era and the idea that, at this point, everything on Earth has a human signature on it. But there are 7.7 billion humans on Earth, and they aren't all equally responsible for that signature. When we talk about the human signature, who's responsible for the biggest part of it? How disproportionately is this human influence distributed currently? Who causes the most environmental harm, and who suffers the most?

The Anthropocene: it's a very adaptable word a lot of environmentalists use these days to describe this moment. And it does speak of our species' signature on the planet. Human influence on the earth’s ecosystems is now so deep and extensive that it makes sense to see our time as a new geological era. But as I say in the book, to me, the Anthropocene is not the “Age of Humans,” as it is conventionally defined, but, more accurately, the age of some humans. Some of us definitely have a disproportional influence on the planet. I think those of us who are plugged into affluence and technology and a culture of consumer entitlement, we have a disproportional effect.

But the other thing about the Anthropocene, which my book tries to critique, is that the concept of the Anthropocene also suggests that everything is humanized—that humans are now not simply running the planetary ecological show but controlling and steering ecological destiny. This seems to me to be going too far. It seems to over-inflate human importance and bleach out the more-than-human world. There is wildness in the world that escapes human control. There are other critters. There are wind patterns. There's solar gain. There are ecological forces that, while imprinted with a human signature, still operate partly on their own. Right now, with climate change, anywhere you stand there's a human influence, but this doesn’t blot out otherness. Other beings and forces move not only to a human beat. 

I feel like it's really important for us to respect that otherness, certainly in other people, so we'll stop sending our harm always elsewhere into other people’s lives and into the other-than-human world. I think we become more alive as human beings as we practice such respect and as we stop trying to grab the world around us as if we own and can control everything at our fingertips. 

Q: That’s a great transition to rewilding. Toward the end of the book, you write about rewilding, and you frame it as “coming home.” What does it look like if people approach their relationship with nature in a fundamentally different way?

I must admit that I write books that I need to read. I say this because, while I whole-heartedly encourage cultivating a more sensitive relationship to the more-than-human world and recommend specifically rewilding our lives, I’m far from mastering the practice of rewilding myself. I have much work to do. However, I have been experimenting.

For example, for the past few years, I’ve consciously worked to feel the temperature around me rather than instinctively turn up the heater in the winter or air conditioner in the summer every time I feel a hint of discomfort. I’m trying to be aware of every time I turn to fossil fuels to scratch a material itch. I’m also trying to eat more in harmony with the seasons and more locally grown food. I’m trying, in other words, to stop enforcing my desires and extending my controlling hand onto the world. I’m trying to resist making my environment a mirror image of everything that I want.

My wife and I are currently living in New Mexico. We have rattlesnakes on our land, which, I must say, worry me. But I've been trying to play with my discomfort in an effort to take seriously rewilding. On the one hand, I’m thankful for the rattlers; they tell me that the land is healthy—it can support all kinds of critters. We also have coyotes, rabbits, lizards, and occasionally bears and elk on the land. We are blessed with radical otherness in our midst. On the other hand, I’m terrified of being bitten by a rattlesnake. A snake’s indifference to me and my designs scares me. I’m working on living with the dual dimensions of wildness. It sounds crazy, but doing so is making me more awake to the world and my life and thus, while challenging, I actually invite the chance to rewild my life by making room for others. 

We talked about what I wanted. If I could be prescriptive, I would love people to interact with the world beyond them with more sensitivity to how other things operate. To not see how other people and other things operate as a threat to brace against but as an opportunity to grow more human and more responsible to injustice. My hope would be that people see otherness as that quality of wildness in the world that is inherent to life itself. We squander that quality, the experience of interacting with that element, when we simply try to control it.