Saturday, February 7, 2009

Accessibility and Wilderness

A measure of remoteness (previously discussed at The Map Room):

This map, put together by the World Bank and the European Commission, depicts the distance of every point on the globe from the nearest large city. Specifically, it shows travel time - in hours and days, as per the legend - from any cities of 50,000 or more people.

An inset on the discussion of the map asks, "Wilderness? Only 10% of the land area is remote – more than 48 hours from a large city." Considering that only a couple hundred years ago, we were bopping around, still looking for (and finding!) new continents, that's pretty remarkable. And there's definitely something bittersweet about it; there's something to be said for the romantic desire for there to be unexplored territory, an edge of the map beyond which there is only the unknown. Nowadays it's possible to scan the peaks of Tibet and the islands of the South Pacific on Google Earth, and spend only a moment 'flying' from one to the other. That's pretty cool, but it's another one of those hugely wonderful things about modern life that comes at a huge cost.

Not that the entire world is an inextricable web of interconnectedness, at least not quite yet. The photo at the right was taken just last year; it's an image of members of an un- contacted tribe deep in the Amazon. It's strange and gripping image. But there's a poignancy to the photograph that isn't just a function of the exotic nature of the encounter; it's the sense that something is being recorded just as it is vanishing from Earth and from history. The wilderness depicted here, and the humans who inhabit it, are seen from the perspective of a plane, an icon of technological power and control; the effect is to render those tribespeople exhibits in a zoo. When nearly the entire world is just a baggage check and a cab ride away, that's what wilderness becomes - something to snap photos of from the window of a plane of the deck of a cruise ship.

But of course, the whole romantic impulse that wants wilderness to be more than that is probably mostly just a product of wilderness no longer being that. In other words, when wilderness was real and immediate, it was terrifying, dangerous - something you had to make sacrificies to or ask mercy of. It's only due to its safe, contained quality - its zooification - that it becomes something abstract, an idealized object of nostalgia. And then there are all the benefits that come from an accessible world: the ability to see all of it, for one thing, and to meet people from all over the world.

And increasingly important, maybe, is that accessibility causes us to re-calibrate our sense of the scale of the world. For all intents and purposes, until the satellite era the world seemed basically limitless and bountiful beyond measure. I think. I wasn't around then, but that seems to be the way everyone always talked about it, until images like this one started popping up in the public consciousness. When your frame of reference shifts from the earthbound and the limitless horizon, beyond which there is always more, to a view of the earth as a sphere, an object with limits, then you've probably met at least the first necessary condition for moving towards making the planet a sustainable home, because it's the first necessary condition for acknowledging that there might be limits to the sustainability of civilization. That latter frame of reference is growing increasingly prominent in our conception of the world we live in, and it's a way of seeing the world that wouldn't be possible but for the very sorts of technological change that have caused wilderness to recede into something safe and remote, and almost mythical, in the first place.


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