Is wilderness real? Is it worth restoring?

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 7/27/2017

Torres de Paine National Park in Patagonia (Argentina) with native vicuña in the foreground. Photo by Betsy Herbert 2016

Torres de Paine National Park in Patagonia (Argentina) with native vicuña in the foreground. Photo by Betsy Herbert 2016

One evening last fall I nearly had a panic attack as I read the now famous 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford. Bostrom’s theory has convinced many physicists and futuristic thinkers like Elon Musk that the natural world — the Universe — is actually a computer simulation created by some advanced post-human civilization. I’m not exactly a sci-fi aficionado and I had to force myself to watch “The Matrix,” but Bostrom made a strong, logical argument that for a brief moment shook my life-long belief that nature is the baseline for everything else that exists.

As an environmentalist, I’ve always held to the notion held by deep ecologists that wild nature, as it evolved through the eons, needs to be preserved as the foundation for life on the planet. Wilderness areas (Earth’s least disturbed places) are a priceless storehouse of our planet’s biodiversity. We need to protect wilderness — or else humans, along with other species that we share the planet with — will perish.

But if wilderness is just part of a computer simulation; i.e., not real, then what are we fighting for? After a few moments, my panic subsided as I realized that philosophers have been debating the nature of reality for thousands of years. That never stopped me from following my chosen path. Maybe we’re living in a computer simulation or maybe we’re not, but all we can do is judge for ourselves which is the right path, based on our own experiences.

My affirmation of wilderness was also momentarily shaken by a group of environmental thinkers who argue that wilderness is just an abstract idea based on an imagined pristine condition that was destroyed long ago. They argue that, because humans have so effectively trashed the planet, we shouldn’t worry about saving wild places. Instead, we should just manage Earth to most effectively meet the unchecked needs of human civilization. Forget about other species.

While I agree with these folks that humans have made a mess of the natural areas of our planet, I certainly don’t believe that we should now assume that wild nature is a passé concept and that our species should now set out to manage the planet exclusively to yield the products that civilization demands. In my view, humans must now instead, manage ourselves to reverse the damage that we’ve done.

Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Photo by Betsy Herbert 2015

Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Photo by Betsy Herbert 2015

Michael Frome, who vehemently opposed the commercialization of U.S. national parks, wrote, “In the beginning, when the planet was new and fresh, all of it was wilderness. It was Earth National Park. ... God as mother of life simply set evolution in motion and watched the emergence and development of different kinds of creatures and loved them all.” — Foreward to Dave Foreman’s 1989 book, “The Big Outside.”

While traveling around the world for a year, I found people everywhere working to protect wild nature in their communities. People are most passionate about preserving nature at the local level. And so, I have rededicated myself to the protection and restoration of wilderness in my community.

While the Santa Cruz Mountains bioregion has no federally designated wilderness areas (the closest one is the Ventana Wilderness south of Monterey), it still has large acreages of unprotected forestland that harbor endangered species like the incredible little acrobatic seabird, the marbled murrelet, which nests only in old-growth trees. We still have coho salmon, though they are hanging on by a thread. And we still have mountain lions. We can and should work locally to restore their wild habitats — for them.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council and the Center for Farmworker Families. You may contact her through her website at