Q: But what does “wild” mean any longer? Are there any spaces on Earth that are actually untouched by humans and human activity? 

A: I think it’s a matter of degree. Although it’s true that the human fingerprint is visible even in the most remote corners of the planet as a result of anthropogenic climate change, many places and animal populations remain largely uncontrolled and therefore wild in the traditional sense. And of course, wildness can also be found closer to home, including in the midst of cities and subdivisions. Even Leopold, one of our greatest champions of the wild, understood that it was a relative idea, a quality you could find at the edge of a cornfield if you looked closely enough. 

Q: What is going right with conservation? If one reads regularly about conservation, the news is grim. Are there positive changes happening that we can look to for hope and optimism?

A: Plenty of things are going right! And success stories are everywhere, from endangered species pulled back from the brink, to river restoration projects, to ranchers and conservationists working together to mitigate rural sprawl. It’s important to be aware of the challenges, but we also need those stories of hope. I always like to remind my students that you don’t have to take on everything at once — that’s impossible! Find a conservation issue or concern that matters to you, learn all you can about it, and then see how you might make a difference. 

Q: You talk in the book about the techno-environmentalist Stewart Brand’s idea that “We are as gods and we have to get good at it.” You respond with a call for an ethic of collective self-control and ecological restraint.” Could you expand on this idea?

A: Brand and I see this very differently. He’s pushing us to use our technological acumen to revive extinct species and take hold of the ecological and evolutionary reins, to unleash our power for environmental ends. I’m deeply concerned about that power and wary of spurring it even harder, especially in nature conservation. As I write in the book, I think true power resides not in greater control of nature, but in acts of forbearance, especially when our interventions may undermine other environmental values that we care about. I have great respect for Brand, but I just think he’s wrong about this.

Q: What are the two or three main takeaways from “The Fall of the Wild”?

A: Our efforts to conserve, recover and restore species are rightly celebrated as some of the best episodes in our environmental history. At the same time, we’ve shown that we’re capable of going too far in these efforts, especially when the siren call of new technologies and the urgency of global threats such as climate change start to grip us. My book is an attempt to push back against those impulses and remind us of the fallout of these more aggressive pursuits on our environmental ethics.

Q: In the past few years, you’ve published multiple books and articles related to conservation, extinction, the wild, zoos and more. Since you’ve become the Arizona Zoological Society Endowed Chair, what are some of the things you’ve learned? And what’s next?

A: Too many things to list that I’ve learned along the way — and always more to understand. But the vantage point of the chair position has allowed me to get a better handle on the complexities of animal conservation and a clearer view of how it works across institutions.

I’m starting a new project that explores the idea of the wild in zoos and wildlife parks, what it means and how we might enhance it. The book will be a collaborative effort with the distinguished biologist Harry Greene, a good friend and also a sparring partner for many of the issues I tackle in the book. Harry and I probably agree about 90 percent of the time on conservation questions, but de-extinction is definitely part of the other 10 percent! I’m excited about this one.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise