Wilderness law in the anthropocene: Pragmatism and purism

Phillipa C. McCormack, Benjamin J. Richardson, David Takacs, Kees Bastmeijer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientific


Wilderness is vanishing. Despite explicit legislative protection of wilderness values for over half a century, rapid environmental degradation worldwide in recent decades has severely diminished the extent and quality of terrestrial and marine wilderness to the point where we must reassess the fundamental premises and future of wilderness law. With increased human demands on the natural world, and with climate breakdown looming, the very notion of “wilderness” itself may one day be considered meaningless or irrelevant. We examine legal developments in the United States, Australia, and Europe to critically evaluate the state of wilderness law. In this Anthropocene era, when humans control so much of Earth’s resources, we examine whether the law should aim for a “purist” approach, in which wilderness areas are simply left untouched, or a “pragmatic”’ approach, in which wilderness is actively managed to maintain its cherished values in the face of mounting adversity. A variety of intermediary positions are conceivable between these endpoints, and the best approach to wilderness management will likely depend on several considerations including who or what “wilderness” is meant to serve, the geographic and biological features of the landscape, environmental threats the area faces, the presence of Indigenous or other local communities, and the values that the guiding law means to serve. We offer recommendations to improve wilderness law to navigate the Anthropocene. We suggest proceeding with care and humility, staying as close to purism as possible, while acknowledging that sometimes we must take a pragmatic approach and intervene to preserve the wilderness qualities our laws are designed to protect.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)383-435
Number of pages53
JournalEnvironmental Law Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2021


  • Wilderness
  • Anthropocene
  • nature
  • human intervention
  • climate change
  • wilderness law
  • conservation management
  • wilderness management
  • species extinction


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