“There’s a part of human experience which is fundamentally unpredictable”

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Paul Wapner *91
Sylvia Renick

Most people in the developed world can control the amount of wildness in their daily lives by simply shutting the door and adjusting the thermostat. But the COVID-19 outbreak has reminded us that the uncertainty and discomfort of the biological world is never completely locked away. Limiting our interactions with nature has consequences, according to professor and author Paul Wapner *91, including a tendency to “put the burden of our comfort … onto the lives of those who are less fortunate.” The use of fossil fuels and destruction of natural habitats has also increased wildness in a global sense through climate change and extinction, and bold scientific interventions aimed at curbing those threats could push us further from the natural world. In his new book, Is Wildness Over?, Wapner advocates for a different path: “re-wilding.” 



Paul Wapner *91’s new book, “Is Wilderness Over?”
Courtesy of Paul Wapner *91

Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to the PAWcast. I’m Brett Tomlinson. Is Wildness Over? That is the title and the central question of a new book by Paul Wapner, a 1991 Princeton Ph.D. grad and professor at American University’s School of International Service. He has written extensively about environmental politics, environmental thought, global and environmental activism, and environmental ethics. And this new book is written for a general audience, and it distills many of the key concepts from these areas of study. Paul, thank you for joining me.

Paul Wapner: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

BT: Before we dive into wildness, I was hoping you could tell me, and tell our listeners, about your path from the politics department at Princeton to your current focus on environmentalism.

PW: Sure. It’s been a nice journey. I was a graduate student at Princeton. I did my Ph.D., as you said, in the politics department. And I was lucky enough to work with professors some of your listeners may know. I worked primarily with Richard Falk in the politics department with Michael Doyle in the politics department, and with Michael Walzer, who was at the Institute for Advanced Study. 

I wrote my dissertation on environmental activism, specifically transnational environmental activism. That is Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund, looking at the work of activists who tried to organize and take action across state boundaries. And that constituted my first book once I got a job at American University. And I’ve just gotten deeper and deeper into environmental issues since then. 

Back then, in 1991, I mean there was mild interest in environmental issues in the politics department. In fact, a fourth reader was in the engineering school. But since then, obviously, the environmental movement has grown. Environmental scholarship has grown, and public interest has grown tremendously. So I am now actually in a department called Global Environmental Politics within the School of International Service at AU. And as you said, I’ve written on quite a number of different issues. And I’m mainly interested in the question of how we’re going to live through this portal of environmental intensification in a way that enhances human dignity and forges a livable and flourishing future. And I’ll just add one more thing. In the moment of COVID-19, I think that question is incredibly poignant.

BT: Your book taps into a number of areas from political science and economics to engineering to sociology. And you observed that for the most affluent people on the planet there has been sort of a long-standing effort to insulate one’s life from wildness. The temperature in our homes doesn’t change very much, season to season. Our food supply seems secure. We don’t worry about predators, we’re kind of sealed off from the discomfort and vulnerability of the natural world. 

And as you mentioned, that — this book was written before the coronavirus pandemic, but this is a rare time when humanity is dealing with uncontrollable factors that are kind of knocking our world off kilter. What do you think COVID-19 tells us about how we as humans respond to wildness?

PW: Well, boy, you jumped right in, huh? Yeah, I wrote the book before the virus. And actually interestingly enough, one of my readers — I had references to pandemics as an example of wildness. And one reader said, “Oh, we’re basically — let’s take that out. It doesn’t seem relevant.” And I took the references out. And lo and behold, COVID is here and rampant. 

As you said though, what we’ve been doing — and mainly those of us who are affluent and part of the quote-unquote developed world — but there’s lots of places that are developed all over the globe. But for generations, we had been pushing uncertainty — not necessarily pushing risk out of our lives but trying to circumscribe the areas where we engage with risk. And defining well-being as predictability, certainty in many ways, stability, security, and so forth, and we’ve done an amazing job of creating a world and an experience in which we have achieved sort of a de-wilding of our lives. I mean if you think back to before, let’s say, the agricultural revolution, I mean human beings lived right next to and sort of in the wild. We lived permanently kind of outside. And over time — and the agricultural revolution had a lot to do with this — we basically started to insulate ourselves and create an indoors or an inside that was in contrast to the outside. And the outside came to represent this threatening, dangerous, at least uncomfortable situation where we had to deal with cold and excessive heat and finding food and so forth. 

And over the centuries, we have mastered, in many ways — and I say we, mainly the affluent, but increasingly many, many people across the world — have mastered an ability to be insulated from a lot of the vicissitudes of nature and the kind of unwieldiness of even human affairs. But COVID is sort of like reminding us that those efforts have limitations. That there is a part of the world and there’s a part of human experience which is fundamentally unpredictable. And while we continue to control the world and put our imprint on more and more aspects of the globe and human experience, that there is this almost inherent quality that keeps escaping our mastery and our controlling grip. The pandemic now, it’s a scramble between how quickly we can kind of try to control this and how quickly we can try to adapt our lives to it. 

Maybe I’m jumping ahead here, but one of the main points of the book is to argue that the battle against wildness is misconceived. I argue that we should develop a different relationship to unpredictability and even danger and open ourselves up to more uncertainty, open ourselves up to more unpredictability because life just has that character to it, and stop bracing against this. But COVID reminds me as well that that’s part of the game, but right now, like many people, I’m gunning for a vaccine, and I’m gunning for some control over this. So I think it’s a complicated relationship we develop with discomfort, with unpredictability, and so forth. And so COVID is testing that in a real way.

BT: Looking at the efforts that we’ve made— as you say, it’s not everyone, but it is a large portion of humanity — the things that we’ve done to seal ourselves off from threats, largely fueled by fossil fuels, controlling our inside climates, and the way that we move about in the world. These paradoxically, as you write, increase wildness in a global sense — the threat of climate change, in particular. Can you explain a bit about the history of this trend? And while it’s very visible in the 21st century, it goes back much farther, I gather.

PW: Right. Climate change is a perfect example of this dynamic that the book tries to express, which is that we turn to fossil fuels in part to master the world around us. In the book, I discuss how in Versailles, in the 18th century, people wore coats, and you couldn’t get warm there. And likewise, Jefferson — Thomas Jefferson wrote his inkwell used to freeze in the winter and so forth. And so life used to be pretty uncomfortable before fossil fuels. And fossil fuels were like a kind of godsend in the sense that they allowed us to heat our homes. And by heating our homes, we could have indoor plumbing, so they created the possibility of public hygiene. We could cook foods with fossil fuels, light our homes and so forth. It was like an amazing tool to control the world around us. And two things resulted from that. As we pushed wildness and unpredictability out of our immediate lives, because of this power that fossil fuels gave us, well, we didn’t get rid of wildness. We did two things. One is — and what most of the book is about — is that we catapulted it up to the global level. 

Right now as I’m sitting in my home here, I’m comfortable. I have lights. I do have an ability to heat the house and so forth, if need be. There’s windows and so forth. I’m sitting on a chair that was manufactured, which fossil fuels made possible. The concrete of my house was made possible by fossil fuels and so forth. And so I’ve bought a lot of comfort and a lot of security, but at a cost that that wildness and that unpredictability has now, again, catapulted up to the global level. So now we have global spasming in the form of climate change.

And I argue in the book that that wasn’t an accident. In fact, some cosmic irony it was a direct consequence of this push to have immediate comfort. I said there’s two things we do. So on the one hand, it goes up to the global level. But on the other hand, that wildness — we displace it out of our own lives, and it doesn’t just move vertically up. But it also moves horizontally out, so that we also put the burden of our comfort or the cost of our comfort onto the lives of those who are less fortunate. 

And what I mean by that is that there’s people right now who are on oil rigs and who are engaged in fracking and live around mining areas and so forth. And they’re paying the price with more dangerous lives, more wildness really in terms of their own vulnerability. And they’re paying that price for us. Likewise, not just the mining of fossil fuels does that, the excavation and the extraction, but the experience of climate change also is affecting the most vulnerable disproportionally to those of us who mostly caused the problem. And, again, what I argue in the book is that’s a displacement of wildness from the affluent to the marginalized. And it’s to suggest that wildness is like energy. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. But when you squeeze it one way, it has to go somewhere, and it goes, again, up to the global level vertically and, horizontally, out into the lives of those who cannot afford to dodge this bullet, which many of us can. 

Final thing, and I know I’m talking a lot, but let me just add one more piece to this which is just that — and COVID is a great example of how this is also changing — is that those of us who have benefitted from the luxury of fossil fuels, say, and other things that have pushed wildness out of our lives — that that’s increasingly changing. And I think we see this in climate change. It’s coming home even to haunt the affluent. And that’s a fundamental shift in the way that global wildness has expressed itself.

BT: One of the potential answers to global wildness is sort of doubling down on science, everything from geoengineering to genetics, the idea that big global challenges can be addressed with big, global, scientific interventions. Why do you see that as problematic? And what are some of the sort of potential unforeseen risks of taking that approach?

PW: Yes, so actually, it’s not surprising that in the face of global — so when we ask ourselves, what do we do about local wildness, wildness in our individual lives, we came up with all these tools — fossil fuels being among them — to sort of control that and manage it and so forth. And so we’ve been doing that for so long that I’m not surprised that now that we’re faced with global wildness, which I would add by the way not just climate change but loss of biological diversity and other environmental issues, which show a world sort of out of control — that the impulse almost in the DNA of our species is, “OK, now how do we control that? And how can we extend our mastering power over the globe itself?” 

And so geoengineering, which is one response to climate change, is an attempt not to ask us to change our behavior and to reduce our consumption and so forth. Rather it’s saying, let’s, for example, shoot sulfates into the atmosphere to block the sun to cool the planet. And we know we can do this. Technologically, it’s possible. It’s actually quite cheap. And there is an important move in this direction. And in fact, many analysts think that we will not be able to get a handle on accelerating temperatures unless we do something like that. There’s a number of other schemes as well including pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and so forth. 

But to me, this is this addiction to this technological fix that to every discomfort, to every challenge, we’re going to just muster up our human ingenuity and technical wizardry and impose it on other people and, in this case, the globe itself. And so my discomfort with that is simply that that’s using the same impulse that created the problem in the first place. 

Climate change came from this overcommitment to comfort at all costs. So now geoengineering and, with regard to loss of biological diversity, there’s something called de-extinction, which people are suggesting, “Well, we don’t really have to worry about species going extinct because we can synthesize DNA from extinct species and kind of cook them up and reintroduce them to the system.” I listen to that stuff, and I go, “Whoa. That’s just human ingenuity on steroids,” when there’s more sensitive, less dramatic, and less higher stakes in us altering our behavior by inviting in a little more — I mean cutting back on our consumption of fossil fuels would ask us to make our lives a little more uncomfortable. You’d have to walk a little more. Take bikes. Ride bikes. Go on public transport. Have to interact with other people, God forbid. And to me, that opening up to a little more uncertainty in the world is, to me, a wiser and more humane way to address these problems than to simply try to take the planet and put it under our thumbprint and so forth. 

We live now in what is known as the Anthropocene. This time where human beings — we are an ecological force in our own right. Our signature is everywhere. And it seems like with global wildness in terms of climate change, loss of biological diversity, and so forth, now we want to take the Anthropocene and simply drive our fingers and our technique deeper and deeper into the world and into the lives of other people. And I feel like, that there’s a different way to go.

BT: I wonder how much your background in political science comes into this, because it seems like if people do make individual changes and kind of welcome in inconvenience and unpredictability, that that may in turn help build the political will to make changes in policy and cut carbon emissions or something like that. Do you think that that is part of why you advocate for that path?

PW: For sure. For sure. But I don’t see it so linearly that necessarily we begin with individual behavior, and it spans out to collective behavior. 

The book argues for re-wilding our lives instead of keep de-wilding them and throwing out uncertainty and so forth. We can re-wild them. But re-wilding is not simply an individual act, but collectivities can do it as well. And I see, in this age of environmental intensification, that we have to work, obviously, in both at an individual level and at the collective level. But re-wilding at the collective level talks about or involves making a commitment to mass transit, for example. It makes a commitment to a transition to a clean-energy economy with infrastructure there. And the difference is, though, that this infrastructure isn’t infrastructure that can be monopolized by a single power or corporate entity. But like solar, wind, and so forth — I mean that stuff is — first of all, it’s free. But it’s also inviting us into energy systems which may not have the same kind of stability and reliability and so forth. But that’s again, kind of a journey into the unknown and into more unpredictability, but with the reward of having a relief valve on the pressure that’s being exerted on the planet as a whole and on other people. 

It’s not simply individual action will create the political will for governments to make a difference, to change their energy strategy and so forth, but to inculcate this notion of rewilding our lives even at the collective level — I mean we see this a little bit in the Green New Deal.

BT: How has rewilding been part of your life? What sorts of things do you hope to incorporate or have you incorporated in your own life as a result of studying this idea?

PW: Well, that’s a brilliant question and a scary question because I always feel like I write books that I need to read. And in this case, it’s very much true. I write books also to work out what I need to kind of figure out in my own life. And I feel like, for all my enthusiasm for re-wilding, when it comes to my individual life, I’m increasingly noticing how I do lean toward comfort. And I lean toward easiness and so forth. And so I have really — in terms of this book, it’s reminded me to commit myself to not taking the easy route toward everything. 

I’m on sabbatical from American University right now. I’m living in Taos, New Mexico. And with my wife, we’re actually trying to resuscitate some of the land around us. We’re bringing back native plants. And we are bringing the land back to health. We’re living in a place where the land was degraded for a long time. And it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re learning our way into it. And it’s a beautiful experience. And it’s forcing me to go beyond sitting in a study and just writing and actually get my hands dirty and so forth. We live with rattlesnakes here. We live with coyote. We live with some bear. And watching my own fears emerge and sort of work on them is part of what I see my own re-wilding curriculum. But I don’t want to pretend that I am Davy Crockett out here or that I am John Muir. I still am sort of drunk with civilizational comforts, and there’s a little bit of hypocrisy in all our lives. And rubbing up against that, though, has been really meaningful to me and I think — and I say this in the book too — I think re-wilding is a root toward addressing global problems. It’s not simply an instrumental activity. But I think it can, and my experience has been that I think it can make us better people in terms of how we comport ourselves toward each other and toward the land more generally. 

I think re-wilding offers many people a meaningful and effective way to live at this moment of environmental experience. Gosh, I feel like I’m preaching, and I apologize for that. 

BT: (laughs) Well, I think it sounds like the work you’re doing could lend itself to another book someday: the personal experience of re-wilding. Do you see elements in the kind of COVID quarantine life that many folks across the world are going through that could also contribute to this? A chance to reconnect with wildness and maybe make some lasting changes.

PW: I think that’s really — that’s, again, another really interesting question. Well, the COVID crisis is a crisis in that sense of having that character of danger and opportunity. And I don’t want to belittle the dangers because I know that I’m living in a privileged position right now. I can use this time to explore parts of my life that I haven’t been able to, but I know that for many people, who are on the edges of paycheck to paycheck or as some people we know on the phone are living with their kids at home and so forth. And it’s just sort of lots of challenges there. I don’t want to suggest that we should look at this just as an opportunity. But I do think, and this speaks to your question that this crisis is offering a chance to kind of whittle down our lives. I remember Thoreau in Walden saying that he wants — how did he put it? He wants to get to the marrow of life. And he wants to kind of let go of the excesses that sort of take him away from what’s most real. I feel like this crisis is calling on us to identify and value that which is most meaningful to us. 

And so I find myself reaching out to people who I might not have been in touch with in a while but who I really care about and doing the kinds of things that I think are most valuable and recognizing the many things I was doing that I thought were sort of essential but actually, in hindsight with a new perspective, they were conveniences and fun but not necessarily getting to the heart of what I think life is about. 

So I think that’s an opportunity. But the other thing I want to say is it’s amazing that the world has shut down in like a month. And that suggests that there is potential to address some of these global wilding problems in a very effective way if we can maintain the political will. I mean, to throw a few trillion dollars at the economy to address this crisis — with climate change that would be partly a game changer. And the idea isn’t that we should shut down in regard to these problems, but it does suggest a collective capacity to coordinate and direct our actions like never before and on a global level. So to me, that’s also an opportunity that as we awaken from this crisis, my hope is we don’t get back to normal, because normal was a time of intense injustice and intense global environmental degradation, but that we actually go through this time and come out on the other side and redefine what normal is and redefine living together cognizant of our impact on the globe and on others and find another way. 

BT: Paul, I think that’s a great place to our conversation. Thank you so much for joining me.

PW: Well, thanks so much, Brett. I really enjoyed it, and I appreciate all that you’re doing with these podcasts and with Princeton Alumni Weekly in general.

BT: Paul Wapner’s book, Is Wildness Over?, was released earlier this month by Polity Press. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. We’re available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and SoundCloud. And for a transcript of this episode, visit our website, paw.princeton.edu.