Benson cover

Roundtable: Wired Wilderness

Benson coverOne of the jarring elements of the blockbuster sci-fi film The Hunger Games was the setting of its quasi-gladiatorial combat.  Rather than enter an arena and fight to the death, kids from all over the land arrived in the woods, in what appeared to be a gorgeous wilderness.  As the characters try to survive, the movie seems poised to take on the classic “human vs. nature” plot characteristics.  But it soon becomes clear that the wilderness is wired.  It is a completely controlled environment, with its contours and “wild” inhabitants manufactured at will by the game managers.  Everyone and everything is tracked, never able to hide, never out of surveillance.  The film draws on familiar Orwellian tropes, but puts even the natural world under the watchful eye and controlling hand of Big Brother.

Is this the future we have wanted – electronic surveillance, control, and management of the natural world? In the latter half of the twentieth century, scientists acquired extraordinary technological tools for tracking.  The idea of putting identifying markers on animals was not new, but using radiotelemetry to keep tabs on them over long distances certainly was.  It allowed for a wired, or rather wireless, wilderness.  For the ambitious scientist, being able to track wildlife across vast terrain had extraordinary appeal, as it moved field sciences ever closer to controlled experiment.  For conservationists it promised a new era of wildlife management, and for animal lovers it seemed to offer a means to find ways to protect favored critters from harm.  It brought lots of people together who shared a singular faith in science and technology.

In Wired Wilderness, Etienne Benson tells the story of wildlife radiotelemetry, and in doing so he tackles the enthronement, as he puts it, of science and technology as keys to mitigating wildlife challenges. In the postwar era, radiotelemetry became the ultimate machine in the garden, a sophisticated tracking tool for the surveillance and study of animals in their habitats. And yet the use of this technology, Benson suggests, highlighted serious points of discord. Radiotelemetry became a focal point for clashes about the meaning and value of wildlife.

I asked Sara Dant to comment on Wired Wilderness for this roundtable because of her insights into the politics of wilderness protection in the United States.  Dant shares with Benson a deep interest in wilderness in the postwar era, and she has written extensively about the political struggles to establish defensible notion of “wild” areas that might receive protective legislation. She shows how politicians such as Idaho Senator Frank Church “made wilderness work” in the political realm through legislative compromise, not by committing to a pure, unchanging definition, but rather by accepting that the definition can and will evolve over time.[1]

Michael Lewis has devoted much of his scholarly attention to the practice of wildlife ecology, particularly in India.  In Inventing Global Ecology, he notes that by the 1970s and 1980s, American-influenced ecology placed so much emphasis on the importance of biodiversity that it had important ramifications for wilderness areas far outside the United States.  Government officials in India began to choose large parks and reserves, relatively free from humans, as a key part of conservation strategy.  He sees the universalizing of conservation practices, whether conceptually or technologically, as a kind of cultural imperialism.[2]

Robert M. Wilson adds the perspective of a historical geographer to this roundtable. Wilson’s book Seeking Refuge starts with a story of wildlife tagging, with bird banding, leading to the identification of a huge area of avian migration in the West: the Pacific “flyway.”  His work reveals the political and legal complexity of trying to ensure the integrity of such a sweeping habitat. Beginning with tracking technology, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to make wildlife legible for conservation practices, including the construction of an ambitious national wildlife refuge system.[3]

Before turning to the comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

All of the H-Environment roundtables are available here.

Or just click here for the PDF of this full roundtable!

[1] Sara Dant, “Making Wilderness Work: Frank Church and the American Wilderness Movement,” Pacific Historical Review 77:2 (2008), 237-272.

[2] Michael L. Lewis, Inventing Global Ecology: Tracking the Biodiversity Ideal in India, 1947-1997 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004).

[3] Robert M. Wilson, Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).

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