There is no Truly Pristine Nature Anymore

February 9, 2016

The great 19th Century naturalist John Muir often lamented humanity’s widespread desecration of nature. “In the noblest forests of the world, the ground, once divinely beautiful, is desolate and repulsive, like a face ravaged by disease,” he wrote. “The same fate, sooner or later, is awaiting them all, unless awakening public opinion comes forward to stop it.”

Muir’s advocacy helped spur the US Congress into passing the National Park Bill in 1890. The patches of pristine places protected by that bill were meant to be set aside forever, providing generations to come access to nature.

Most scientists today would not claim that the majority of national parks around the world are pristine, however. Rangers and recreation-goers alike regularly crisscross those swaths of wilderness. Their ecological conditions are carefully managed and their animal populations are monitored and even adjusted. Indeed, a major reason national parks exist is “for the benefit and inspiration of all the people,” as one piece of US legislation put it – not to serve as virginal tracts safeguarded from humanity.

So do we need to redefine what we mean when we talk about ‘pristine’ places?

Given the scope of humanity’s seven billion-plus members’ reach, it’s hard to imagine that any spots of wilderness remain completely free from our influence. Climate change, for one, is already having global impacts. “We’re undoubtedly influencing the entire planet,” says Justin Adams, global managing director for lands at the Nature Conservancy. “So on one level there’s nowhere left on Earth that’s not touched by man.”

As this column explored in 2014, there are almost no unpolluted places left either. Air pollution blankets the planet, while debris plagues the deep sea to the Gobi Desert. It’s even difficult to find a spot that remains free from human noise for a mere 15 minutes. Our historic reach also seems quite profound; sophisticated tools like lidar – a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to examine the Earth’s surface – are revealing that even the seemingly remotest patches of tropical rainforest bear millennium-old human scars.

“There is increasing recognition that few places on the planet are actually pristine,” says Richard Hobbs, an ecologist at the University of Western Australia. “Most places are now impacted by human activities, even if this is only indirectly.”

However, if the definition of pristine is relaxed a bit to exclude our indirect, far-reaching influences as well as ancient historical baggage, the outlook improves. “You have to be somewhat pragmatic with this because if not, you’d come up with nothing and say that everything has already been destroyed,” says Lars Laestadius, a senior associate at the World Resource Institute’s Forests Program. “That’s not constructive.”

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