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Population, Preservation, and Perspective


 Here’s something that will make you stop and think.

The percentage of Africa that is wilderness: 28%. The percentage of the U.S. that is wilderness: 38%. When I came across this factoid, my reaction probably mimicked that of anyone slapped in the face. Amazement wasn’t my immediate response. Absurdity had that position covered.

Incredulity warred with honest surprise. Didn’t everyone know that Africa was HUGE? Didn’t everyone know that two masses the size of the U.S. could fit inside the African continent with room to spare? Didn’t everyone know how much open land with nothing on it but animals existed in that equatorial hothouse called Africa? I guess I was only one of the few who found the entire idea of us having more wilderness than them beyond reckoning.

So, I took a step back and thought about that situation for a long minute. I looked it up, too.

Webster’s definition of wilderness is: a tract or region, uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings. Okay, I can agree with that definition. It’s the one I learned in school. No one has changed it since then. I just had to be certain.

I looked up a few other facts as well. The U.S.A., as of the 2000 census, had a population of 309,402,228 and a land mass, minus Puerto Rico, of 3,537,433.44 sq. miles and a population density of 95.66 on average.

Africa’s numbers suggest something quite different. The latest figures I could find were for 2010: population of continent=841,627,750, approximate area of continent=30,000,000 sq. miles. That’s a density rate of 26.05.

Does anyone else find this just a tad on the disparate side? That means that the U.S. has some 1,344,224.6 sq. miles of wilderness as opposed to Africa’s only an approximate 8,400,000 sq. miles. And they have almost three times our population and nearly ten times the land. Hmmm.

I know, I used to do statistics, too. A person can make numbers mean whatever they want them to. All I’m doing is simple math here.

I think what intrigues me about all of these numbers is the conceptual disparity. We–at least I–tend to think of Africa as endless wide open savannas or jungle or coastline dotted with small fishing villages. We don’t normally think of that continent having very little unused land.

Here we have our national parks where only a few park rangers and workers live during the year. Visitors don’t count in that sense. We have huge swaths of land designated as wilderness, to be kept in trust for the people of the country. We also have states like Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada which don’t have huge populations. Each of those states have tremendous regions of open land used for timber, mining, ranching and the like.

Africa has huge swaths of mostly unused land. They have the Sahara where only the Bedouin tribes travel and live, the animal reserves, the savannas of the sub-Saharan lands, the deserts along the Atlantic coastline, and the like. Except for the larger cities and villages in some of those areas like Libya and Morocco, not to forget South Africa, we think of small villages as being the norm within the continent.

Perception of ourselves versus others sometimes comes back to smack us in the head without warning. This is one of those times. We hare crowded into cities where having to pay millions of dollars for a tiny apartment is considered normal. We have taken quantity over quality to the max. We have our sports, our industries, our interests and spread them around like so many checkers on a board.

We took beautiful land with scenery used for postcards and camera shots, set it aside for part-time use, and then crowd into it each year along with millions of other vacationers and sightseers, so that our exhaust, litter, and noise can destroy that which we’ve come to appreciate. Only our very protected wilderness is safe from us.

I wonder how it works in Africa. Since I’ve not been there, I can’t even guess at how the average person feels about the wilderness areas sharing so much of their space. Do they revere the wilderness as some of our people do? Does their breath catch in their throat when they realize that Mt. Kilimanjaro will be naked of its glacier in only a few years?

As I sit with a world map before me, I try to imagine what it feels like to know that there are so few explored areas within a continent. Where I live, one designated area of 1million+ acres of wilderness beckons the backpacker and wilderness camper. That much forest and mountain with only game trails, accessible by only horse/mule, where one will never hear an engine of any kind lures those who wish to experience what historical pioneering felt like.

Shoot, there are areas of woods in my home state in the mid-west where few people ever venture and a whole village of people could be living there and none would ever know. I grew up with that as a reality. There are plenty of places that have secrets unknown by humankind throughout this country.

I suppose I’m wondering if we revere the wilderness in this country because progress has threatened it for so long that preservation of it is important to us. Do we fear losing that connection to a pioneer past, a past that brought us to where we are today? And I wonder if those, for whom personal progress is measured by how long one lives, ever consider how much they’ve lost of their treasured wilderness–or if they just hope to move beyond it without having to go back for any reason.

 Like I said, something to think about.


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  1. December 2, 2014 at 11:21 am

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