In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Her

Break-up letter for a small island in the Kattegat. Embitterment toward Danish/European conservation objectives. Speculation on potential tensions between consequentialist-oriented conservation goals and “rights of places.” What is it to love a place and what follows therefrom? Aside from heartbreak.

“The present vegetation is a result of human destruction of the original forest ecosystem covering most of Ørkenen and subsequent overexploitation of the organic resources. […] This nature type is of extremely high conservation value, in a Danish as well as in a European context.” – Christensen & Johnsen, “The lichen-rich coastal heath vegetation on the isle of Anholt, Denmark: conservation and management”

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

On a remote island in the Kattegat, three hours by boat from the nearest harbour on the mainland, I nearly found a place of belonging. What I got, in the end, was also a rude awakening to a European fascination with the conservation of heathland, despite open recognition that the “habitat type” has derived from anthropogenic deforestation and overexploitation of the land. 

I imagine that European readers might fail to grasp my agitation, and I expect that readers of all nationalities might find my disquisition on the rights of a landscape to be overwrought. But this is how Denmark’s/Europe’s peculiar love affair with wasteland comes off to me, plus some proto-philosophical speculation inspired by subsequent reflection and introspection.

Let me begin, however, by describing the factors behind my initial addiction to Anholt, Denmark’s most remote island, an island I nearly loved – no, an island I loved despite myself.

Vesterlandet, looking toward Ørkenen, with rainbow.

1. In Praise of Anholt: Nothing I Need, Everything I Need

A friend once asked what was in Anholt that attracted me to the island, to which I replied, “Nothing.”

To be sure, one can find not only nothing on the island but also just the right amount of modern amenities. The island features one small central village, Anholt By, with 135 permanent residents or thereabouts. Homes are usually equipped with running water, electricity, internet, and occasionally even indoor showers. There is one grocery store, Dagli’Brugsen, that operates year-round. Even in the winter, Dagli’Brugsen carries a surprisingly good selection of fresh organic produce and other organic items. Its wine selection is even more impressive, and the delicious local Anholt Gin is always in stock.

During the spring, there are more establishments that come alive on the island, but the point I want to stress is that even in the blissfully quiet and solitudinous low season, a visitor needn’t risk starvation (nor sobriety – which, admittedly, is something one might not want to risk once one learns about the island’s history and conservation status).

Anholt is also not as lonely as I’d originally feared, knowing that the island is famed for its vast lichen heath, Ørkenen (The Desert), an anthropogenically created wasteland (see §2). The inhabited portion of the island, the moraine hills of Vesterlandet, is presently home not only to the island’s people but also to more animals, plants, fungi, and landscape variation than I expected. If you know me, then you know that when I say that a place is “not lonely,” what I mean is that it has birds, especially small passerines that flit about my terrace and sing from my rooftop. It was a relief to me to find that Vesterlandet is as birdy as it is (see Appendix A – accidentally deleted but forthcoming?). By typical Danish standards, Vesterlandet is fairly lush at present (i.e. until sun-seeking sommerhus owners eventually succeed in defoliating the entire place again). For that matter, Anholt is probably highly forested by car-free island standards. It must here be emphasised that neither of these two comparisons is saying much of anything. However, given my special affinity for car-free and car-lite islands, this means that giving up on Anholt may still represent a loss to me.

So, then, Anholt has all the basics: heat, hot water, internet, organic veggies, wine, passerines (for now), and a non-zero acreage of wooded land (for now). But what is truly wonderful about Anholt, especially during the off season, is that it has almost nothing other than these basics. It is as if the island became as developed as it needed to be – and then stopped.

One qualification: there are numerous holiday homes that don’t really need to be there, lying silent and unoccupied, nothing but forest clearings. I never counted them, but according to Wikipedia, there are 300-400 of them – over twice the island’s permanent population. Nonetheless, even the holiday homes are much less obtrusive than those in most areas of mainland Denmark (or, for that matter, in most areas full stop). Most significantly, most holiday homes lack a driveway, featuring only an unpaved footpath to the door. There is scarcely any point to waste space on a driveway, given Anholt’s highly attractive feature that only permanent residents can have cars on the island. Furthermore, “natural plots” are more common than turf lawns – if only for the reason that holiday home owners don’t want to spend six hours aboard a ferry on rough seas simply to maintain a lawn.

Vacant holiday homes aside, Anholt in the off-season offers an impressive amount of nothingness. The population is small, and the population density is low (approximately 7.8 people per km^2 – less dense than the state of Idaho, and especially sparse for an inhabited place that is nearly car-free). A very large portion of the island is undeveloped and uncultivated, with over 80 percent “protected” from development of roads, buildings, and even agricultural uses. Sure, it’s protected for entirely wrongheaded and perverse reasons, but suffice it to note for now that this conservation status greatly constrains the potential development of human enterprise on the island – a welcome result as far as it goes. Anholt’s internal development hasn’t expanded to fill more than a fifth of the island’s land – eat your heart out, Nature Needs Half.

There is little light pollution, noise pollution, or air pollution. On all of these fronts, the island is aided considerably not only by its geographic isolation and small population but also by its “car-lite” status. As mentioned previously, cars are permitted only for permanent residents, and even then many permanent residents choose foot or bicycles to navigate tiny Anholt By. Even Dagli’Brugsen, the island’s sole year-round store, offers ample bicycle parking but no car park. The island experiences so little light pollution that it is aspiring to become Denmark’s – and Europe’s – first certified Dark Sky Sanctuary

Stargazing opportunities aside, there is no nightlife on the island, and there is precious little in the way of daylife. Owing to the ferry schedule, there are no daytrippers on Anholt. There are residents, and there are those few guests who willingly endure an often harsh three-hour ferry ride to stay in a place like Anholt in the off season. If one goes to Anholt, one needs a true commitment and desire to go to Anholt in particular, and that requires a special type.

I’m sure the residents are fine too. I admit that I never socialised much. I chose Anholt as a destination without knowing anyone, and everyone knows it’s challenging to make friends as an adult; I will add that it is especially challenging when you live as a hermit on a foreign island where you can’t even accurately reproduce all of the vowel sounds. I mention my human-wise solitude on the island in part as a disclaimer: I can only draw upon my own sentiments toward the land in what follows; I cannot, and do not, purport to speak for local residents themselves

On Anholt in low season one can find nothing to do, and in my time there I never tired of doing it. The winter nights are long beneath some of the darkest skies – and brightest moonlight – I’ve ever experienced. It is the quietest, calmest place I have lived. It is the place I’ve come closest to feeling at home. I loved the island despite myself.

Here’s the rub: as the opening quote indicates, the state in which Anholt is protected is one of extreme human-caused degradation.

View over Ørkenen from Sønderbjerg.

2. Background: Ecocide and Its Veneration

I imagine that most fellow lay people might defer to the expertise of the conservationists and accept that Ørkenen’s present open landscape is something very special and important that must be conserved as it is, and I really do believe there is something to be said for deference to experts. In fact, I believe that it happens far too little these days (COVID-19 and anthropogenic climate change are both real, btw).

Scientific expertise, however, does not always co-occur with principled moral ground, as can be seen frequently in connection with environmental issues, in which good science commonly accompanies nauseating disregard for the intrinsic value of Nature. I won’t deny that lichenologists and other relevant experts might well be correct that Anholt’s present condition delivers something interesting and unique for their field of study, but that doesn’t bestow moral authority on the decision of conservationists to “protect” Anholt in what all agree is a state of extreme human-caused degradation. 

I take a first pass at some relevant moral issues in §3 and (especially) §4. In giving the following brief summary of Anholt’s exploitation, I just invite the reader to suspend deference and be open to the possibility that Anholt’s present conservation objectives really are as f—ed up as they seem on the surface.

And because I can do what I like on this blog and put references anywhere, here are the main references I cite in this section:

Christensen & Johnsen (2001a) The lichen-rich coastal heath vegetation on the isle of Anholt, Denmark — description, history and development, Journal of Coastal Conservation (7), 1-12.

Christensen & Johnsen (2001b) The lichen-rich coastal heath vegetation on the isle of Anholt, Denmark — conservation and management, Journal of Coastal Conservation (7), 13-22. 

2.1 The Rape of Anholt 

As recently as 5000 ybp, most of what is now Anholt was below the sea. After the waters receded, Anholt developed into a forested island, as it remained until the latter half of the 16th century, when humans happened. 

When the first Danish-speaking humans arrived, they gave the creative name “Skoven” (The Forest) to the 19 km^2 lower-lying part of the island today is a (mostly) treeless expanse called “Ørkenen” (The Desert). Records suggest that Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) was the dominant tree species of Skoven, with oak (Quercus robur) also common.

In 1560, a wood-lit beacon (vippefyr) was built on the island at the order of King Frederik II of Denmark, due to the number of shipwrecks on the reefs surrounding the islands. According to Christensen and Johnsen, as early as 1564 “the king required in a letter the fuel for the beacon to be provided from elsewhere, as the pine forest on Anholt was heavily overcut” (2001a, p 5). However, deforestation continued over subsequent decades, in part due to the islands’ residents “​​ruthlessly cutting the forest for wood tar and for firewood” (ibid), and the forest was finally destroyed during a period of war (against the Swedes) in the early 18th century. Most of the remaining pine stumps were removed a century later. Christensen and Johnsen go on to speculate that, following the deforestation of Anholt, inhabitants “had to change to turf for heating, removing all the organic contents and most of the nutrients of the soil, thereby exposing the sandy subsoil to the wind” (p 6).

TL;DR – “The total clearing of the forest, probably followed by turf cutting, and the heavy exploitation of the vegetation by hay cutting and grazing, resulted in a man-made wasteland” (p 7). Mark that. 

Does this history of devastation imply – as I once thought it might – that Ørkenen might become the subject of conservation efforts aimed at the restoration of native forest? Hmm…

2.2 Redemption Stillborn

Around 1885, reforestation efforts began on Anholt, especially in Vesterlandet, which to this day remains the more interesting portion of the island to those who enjoy the presence of fauna and flora other than lichen (although lichens exist in Vesterlandet too :-o). To be sure, the instigators of these efforts were not worried about habitat loss, biodiversity, or even the profound personal benefits of the company of woodland birds. Instead, their primary motive was to stabilise drift sands, which apparently had developed an annoying tendency to bury the land in the wake of the island’s deforestation and overexploitation.

In 1908, Hermansgave was planted in a 16 hectare portion of Ørkenen. Although this afforestation project was also prompted by the troublesome drift sands, Hermansgave almost sounds like it could’ve been a restoration project, given the choice to plant native Pinus sylvestris and Quercus robur. Nowadays, however, Hermansgave is not regarded as such; instead, it generally just receives slack for the poor growth of the planted trees, before being ignored entirely in favour of the prized open landscape, with no further discussion of its lessons for the reforestation of Anholt (i.e., say, what we could do better to promote the regrowth of native forests beginning with such a depleted landscape).

I might mention, to the plantation’s credit, that one can sometimes actually hear birdsong in the vicinity of Hermansgave, a true rarity in the protected 80 percent of Anholt in Ørkenen. 

And that was about the scope and extent of the stillborn “restoration” of the forest island.

From 1939 onward, Ørkenen has been the subject to a series of conservation ordinances aimed at preserving the “area’s desert-like character,” as it’s put in Overfredningsnævnets afgørelse af 29 august 1980. In 1998 the treeless part of Anholt became protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 programme.

2.3 Because They Are Trees and All Trees Must Die

In Vesterlandet, the non-native Bjergfyr (Pinus mugo) was favoured during the reforestation, perhaps because P. mugo was far and away the most successful tree species at establishing itself in the wasteland. This success would prove fatal – fatal, that is, for many individual trees, which have been aggressively cleared in recent decades, especially in the 1990s. 

I had always been unopposed to the removal of invasive tree species. This is because, prior to Anholt, I had only heard of this in contexts in which the goal was to protect native trees and the rest of the biological communities with which they coevolved. I wasn’t familiar with cases in which invasive trees were persecuted simply because they are TREES and all trees must DIE. Nor is this anything like, say, an ecologically-minded desire to prevent the incursion of forest onto a native grassland ecosystem. Anholt was not naturally a grassland or a desert or a lichen heath but a forest, and a hatred toward the regrowth of trees on an anthropogenically deforested landscape was something entirely novel to me, I must say.  

The motivation for the war against P. mugo on Anholt was never that the invasive was preempting the regeneration of native forests dominated by P. sylvestris. The reason for the fellings is that the incursion of trees – any trees – threatens the integrity of the lichen heath. For example, the Danish conservation organisation Danmarks Naturfredningsforening (DN) states that the growth of pine [“fyr” – so implying either non-native “bjergfyr” or native “skovfyr”?] has prompted conservation action to prevent overgrowth of the open landscape.

And two pages after describing Ørkenen as a “man-made wasteland,” Christensen and Johnsen write of the EU LIFE programme’s clearing self-sown P. mugo trees on the island “due to the high conservation value of the open landscape.” In their follow-up article, after stating that the natural afforestation of Anholt “may well take several hundreds of years,” the authors call P. mugo “a permanent threat to the open heath vegetation” (not, of course, “a permanent threat to the reestablishment of original native flora” or the like), proceeding to recommend, e.g., “If the open heath vegetation is to be maintained, the expansion of Pinus mugo and removal of new growth at regular intervals must be monitored” (2001b, p 20). 

I could give more examples of rhetoric in which Danish conservationists write about clearing foliage from Ørkenen for the sake of protecting the open landscape. But I want to get on to the rest of this post, so just trust me on that. Pinus mugo is hated not because it is non-native but because it is particularly successful in colonising the heathland, and thus it happens to present the biggest threat to Ørkenen’s status as a treeless wasteland – which, as we know, is a landscape of great cultural importance in the Danish and European context.

All conservationists I’ve seen comment on the matter also seem to agree that Ørkenen would revert to Skoven without deliberate tree clearing. Christensen and Johnsen, for example, write that “long-term succession at Anholt is believed to restore a more or less forested ecosystem” (2001b, p 20).

The triumph of Nature against centuries of oppression?


Silent wasteland shall remain; afforestation shall not be. Ørkenen shall remain; Skoven shall not be. Thus hath the conservation industry spoken. So let it be written; so let it be done.

2.4 A Load of Bull 

I can’t resist one more comment on Christensen and Johnsen’s recommendations for the “conservation of the present large expanses of lichen heath,” because it serves further to highlight the strange inconsistencies I’ve encountered in my time wishing I could bring myself to support some Danish conservation effort or other: “Should monitoring of the vegetation dynamics show a progressive expansion of the dwarf-shrub heath areas, management by very extensive husbandry grazing should be considered in the future” (2001b, p 21).

Well, I can tell you that at least this has not happened, not yet. I suppose it is only testament to the slowness of the natural successional processes in Ørkenen that Denmark’s ubiquitous practice of grazing cattle in protected areas – another strange fixture of European conservation that I first discovered in Denmark – has not yet found its way to Anholt.

I’m not going to go there, not now. It is my ill fate, it seems, that I must go there soon enough, given that conservation grazing has become entangled with the dominant use of the word ‘rewilding’ in Denmark and Europe more broadly, and that I am meanwhile involved with a soon-to-launch “Rewilding Success Stories” platform (hosted by The Ecological Citizen, everyone’s favourite open-access ecocentric journal). For now, I can only admonish everyone to read the writings of Mark Fisher (Wildland Research Institute, Leeds), who no doubt has done more than anyone to critique the Dutch concept of nature development (natuurontwikkeling) and its subsumption of the so-called “rewilding” movement in Europe. See his contribution to the Rewilding Earth blog, “Drifting from Rewilding” (2019), related ECOS article “Movement ecology and rewilding (2019), and many relevant posts on his website Self-Willed Land.    

No one (to my knowledge) has ever used the term ‘rewilding’ in connection with the anti-afforestation policies that govern Ørkenen on Anholt, but the underlying ideology seems to be cut from the same cloth. Regarding so-called rewilding in mainland Denmark, all I want to say for now is this: the next time a Dane tells you that large herbivore grazing is essential because it replicates the influence that megaherbivores would’ve had in maintaining an open landscape prior to the Pleistocene megafauna extinction (see, e.g., Jens C. Svenning), remember that Anholt was mostly submerged beneath water as recently as 5000 ybp and thereafter became covered by forest, and yet even for Anholt some advise eventual use of conservation grazing to maintain an open landscape. It’s a load of bull.

Lichen, but in Vesterlandet and on a tree

3. Towards a Charitable Interpretation Anholt’s Conservation Status

Look, I don’t mean to piss on lichen. Sure, I have pissed on lichen; it is sometimes a difficult situation to avoid when hiking, especially when hiking on a lichen heath. But I don’t harbour any ill will toward the symbiosis of fungi and algae, and I don’t mean to imply that lichen is not beautiful, scientifically interesting, or ecologically significant, nor that the conservation of rare lichen species is unimportant. So let’s consider the conservation status of Anholt in a somewhat more charitable and nuanced manner. 

First, though, another disclaimer: I’ll be doing proto-philosophy for the rest of this post, not ecology, lichenology, or any other natural science. There will remain gaps that ecologists and other scientific specialists would need to complete for a full diagnosis of Anholt’s situation. I am sketching a set of possibilities in logical space. One benefit of doing so is that the subsequent moral conjectures ought to generalise more broadly than if I were to focus solely on the present realities concerning Anholt.

For example, I am intrigued by the hypothetical possibility that certain endangered species really do depend on the rare habitats found in Ørkenen for their species’ continuation. This is unlikely. More likely, conservationists value the open landscape of the lichen heath as such (“from a cultural, recreational, educational as well as scientific point of view,” as Christensen and Johnsen state) and not because any species-level biodiversity conservation depends on it.

Philosophers, however, can have a tendency to indulge the opposite of the “straw man” fallacy. Maybe we can call it the steel man fallacy (for those down-to-earth practical types who consider all philosophical excursions “fallacious”): construct the strongest possible opponent for the sake of sharpening your philosophical thesis, even if no such strong opponent exists in our real world of irrationality and stupidity. So for part of the following discussion I let myself pretend that Ørkenen is more important for safeguarding (lichen) biodiversity than it probably really is. Doing so helps me to educe my own intuitions about moral bases for protecting wild land, in the context of emotionally significant case study.

Okay, then, back to the motivating question of this section: what, exactly, do conservationists aim to conserve when they protect? Here are two possibilities: (1) the lichen heath ecosystem itself; (2) specific species that have made their homes in Anholt’s lichen heath.

3.1 A Rare Degree of Ecocide Is No Virtue

Is it the lichen health ecosystem itself that’s rare? This is the claim that pervades the actual rhetoric about the importance of conserving Ørkenen. In my view, however, this does nothing but provide a case in point that rarity per se should not equal conservation priority: if the rarity arises from an exceptional degree of human exploitation, then it’s obscene to think that the resultant landscape ought to be preserved on the basis of rarity alone.

Shockingly to me, many conservationists do appear to think in exactly this way, at least when they speak about Ørkenen, and possibly with regard to heathland more generally. For example, immediately before describing its origin in “centuries of human over-exploitation of the original vegetation cover,” Christensen and Johnsen approvingly state, “Large unbroken areas of undisturbed lichen-rich heath vegetation on acidic, nutrient-poor sandy substrate as found in Ørkenen, are rare in present-day Europe” (2001a, 4). So what? Who cares? The end – a rare type of landscape – doesn’t justify the means and, as such, should not be celebrated. 

Some might claim that I am being facile here, that I have made no attempt to understand the complexities and nuances of heath and dune habitats, including the 17 distinct habitat types protected on Anholt under the EU Habitats Directive (see the island’s Natura 2000 page). Well, okay. Perhaps so. But it is not without purpose. I am being deliberately simplistic because I don’t want to lose sight of the overriding concern: the morally appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the fascination with an anthropogenically degraded landscape, regardless of the specifics of its habitat types. 

No doubt that the corpse of a murder victim could provide a habitat for decomposers. As the Australian Museum points out on what looks like an interesting webpage, “A dead body is […] an ecosystem of its own, in which different fauna arrive and depart from the corpse at different times” (“Corpse fauna,” March 2019). In fact, I am quite deeply appalled by our denial of the natural ecology of death in our customs and norms surrounding our treatment of the dead (something for another post, someday). Be that as it may, no matter how deeply one investigates the nuances of the biological processes, one will find nothing that excuses the murder.

Likewise, no matter how scientifically fascinating one finds the ecology of Anholt’s heaths and dunes, one must confront the fact that Ørkenen exists only as a consequence of ecocide. A cold scientific interest in the habitat types found in Ørkenen strikes me as a bit heartless. It is not as chilling as a cold scientific interest in the findings of Nazi medical experiments, but it is something in that direction; if one takes seriously the intrinsic worth of wild nature, then one must question the moral appropriateness of scientific detachment.

Claims of “cultural value” are worse. This justifies nothing. Some also see “cultural value” in shockingly cruel and barbaric practices of hunting small songbirds in Mediterranean countries like Cyprus and southern France. Culture does not excuse barbarity. If a culture values the consequences of anthropogenic deforestation and overexploitation, then that culture needs to change

3.2 Conservation at the Species-Level: A “Thought Experiment”

But perhaps we can offer a more charitable interpretation of Ørkenen’s (alleged) conservation importance. Maybe conservationists speak badly in emphasising the importance of the open landscape per se. Possibly, the protected habitats found in Ørkenen really do provide room and board for members of rare and threatened species. 

I would be considerably more sympathetic to this rationale for the conservation status – if it were true. But we need to ask whether it actually has any merit and, if it does, whether this is sufficient to justify the anti-afforestation agenda. 

First question: is Ørkenen a sanctuary to rare and threatened species? 

Well, it is said to boast around 300 to 400 species of lichens (see, e.g., Dansk Ornitologisk Forening’s page on Anholt) – or approximately one species of lichen for each sommerhus in Vesterlandet. (Those interested in more details about some of the key lichen species can refer to Christensen and Johnsen, 2001a, pp 13ff.) Ørkenen also provides Denmark’s last breeding ground for the Markpiber (Anthus campestris, not to be confused with Mark Piber, Department Head of Naval Engineering at Base Alameda), a passerine that prefers dry open land for its breeding grounds. (See DOF’s blog post “Yngler kun på Anholt: Danmark mister snart to arter ynglefugle,” 10 November 2020.)

Do any species depend on Ørkenen to persist on Earth? If so, that would at least prima facie be a strong reason for protecting Ørkenen as it is. We might rationalise that although Ørkenen is exploitative in its origins, so is digging up the ground to make room for a captive breeding facility or a zoo exhibit. In each case, the end product may be necessary for “the greater good” – sacrificing a piece of land to provide a space in which a critically endangered species can be offered its best chance to make it through a period of mass extinction.

Well, it seems we can rule out Markpiber in support of this justification, since Anthus campestris is a species of least concern globally. It might be a sentimental loss to Denmark if the species were to cease to breed in the country, but the species as a whole would be imperilled if it lost Ørkenen’s present open landscape.  

But what about Ørkenen’s unique flora? What, especially, about those 300-400 species of lichen? Well, as a general matter, I sceptical-by-default of any claim that it is necessary to preserve Ørkenen as such in order to allow the persistence of any particular species. Presumably, the species in question persisted somewhere prior to the destruction of Anholt’s originally forested landscape. Could it not continue to persist there? And if its original natural habitat has been lost, could our restoration efforts not focus on restoring that habitat? Maybe not, but I would like to see the justification written out and scientifically substantiated.

Perhaps the main reason that I am sceptical is that sometimes conservationists do talk about protected species that rely on Anholt, but these are not species of the heath, but the seals that rest on the north tip of the island (see, e.g., the island’s Natura 2000 and Ramsar pages); their coastal habitat could be protected whilst allowing the afforestation of the central part of Ørkenen. 

That said, 300-400 species of lichen is a lot, and this piece is already far too long, and I am still not to the proto-philosophical section that most intrigues me. Thus, rather than research each one and show (most likely) that none of them strictly rely on Ørkenen, I will let my hypothetical opponent have the best possible case: I will assume for the sake of argument that there are rare and threatened lichen species that really do rely on Anholt’s heath. 

Ørkenen in fog

4. Wherein I Engage in Proto-Philosophical Conjecture

Here is the claim that I will advance in this section: it is possible to deny that there is any right to use Anholt as a sacrifice zone even if Ørkenen currently harbours rare lichens or other species that would be threatened by natural afforestation. 

I find this position alluring, not only as one who loved Anholt, but also as a philosopher who is instinctively attracted to those junctures at the nexus of compelling personal sentiment and unexplored gaps in logical space. So what have we here? We have, I think, a very common objection to utilitarian thinking, but where the subject is not a person or even sentient being but an approximately 19 km^2 expanse of land. 

As a reminder, I am not an ethicist (I took moral semantics to get out of the ethics requirement in grad school for philosophy of language), and I am not as well read as I could be even in environmental ethics. Apologies to any who’ve already made the same claims that feel novel to me – and to those who’ve already discredited them – but, then, this is just catharsis for me, never meant for submission to an academic journal.

4.1 Baby Anti-Utilitarianism in Its Macabre Glory

While I adore J.S. Mill’s seminal writings on the steady state economy (see, e.g., The One in Which I Broach Overpopulation), I am hardly one for utilitarianism. Like most non-psychopaths, I share the concern that utilitarianism is flat-out callously inhumane. 

I assume that most readers are familiar with the trolley problem. While I honestly have no idea who’d read this post, many of these hypothetical readers might also already be aware of the “footbridge” variant: intuitively, it’s wrong to push a fat person off a footbridge in front of a runaway trolley, even if doing so would prevent the trolley from hitting and killing five other people chained to the tracks. (Granted, this is a mere thought experiment, and it doesn’t follow that respondents wouldn’t behave otherwise when they are in real-world situations involving shoving obese individuals onto railtracks whereon captives have been chained.) 

Here is another favourite anti-utilitarian thought experiment: is it morally right to seize a healthy person against their will in order to harvest their organs to distribute to persons on the donor list? Intuitive, no, it’s grossly wrong to do that – even if more human lives can be saved as a result of the “donated” organs. In both the “organ donor” thought experiment and the “footbridge” trolley problem variant, pretty much every non-depraved individual has the intuition that it’s wrong to treat a person as an object of sacrifice for the “greater good.”  

Although it’s far from the only possible explanation, there’s a nice Kantian intuition that’s often invoked in explaining counter-utilitarian intuitions in our much beloved macabre thought experiments: it is wrong to treat other human beings as “mere means” – as mere objects of sacrifice – forcibly depriving them of their right, our right, to live as rational, autonomous, self-determined beings. It is wrong to use other people as “mere means to an end,” even when the “end” is saving other human life.

And this is the analogous moral conjecture that Anholt’s Ørkenen has inspired me to consider: it can be wrong to sacrifice an autonomously evolving, self-willed landscape – say, in the form of imposing a deliberately stultifying management regime – even if the purpose is to save endangered species. Even if there’s no real-world issue about saving endangered species (as there probably isn’t), it is worth thinking about the claim, because it serves to highlight the strength of a particular ethical perspective on the rights of land – a perspective that I come to find strangely alluring in my reminiscences about Anholt.

Saving human life is important. So is saving endangered species. No one denies the former in the “footbridge” and “organ donor” thought experiment. And no one needs to deny the latter in my own “thought experiment” concerning Anholt’s conservation status. Ceteris paribus, it is obviously good to prevent a person from dying or a biological species from ceasing to exist. The question is whether the end always justifies the means. When the means involve murdering a healthy person to harvest their organs, the answer is a resounding no. And my proposed analogue is that it can be wrong to sacrifice the autonomy of a natural landscape even when the goal is the preservation of rare species.

Here is another macabre thought experiment (my own this time). First a truth: vultures are obligate scavengers, and they are the most threatened group of birds globally (see, e.g., Buechley and Şekercioğlu, 2016, “The avian scavenger crisis: Looming extinctions, trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem functions”). Now suppose that a mugger fatally wounds your dear Grandma with a knife, and a critically endangered Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli) begins circling her immobile body (the specification of the murder weapon is relevant: it would be to the detriment of the scavenger if Grandma had been poisoned or shot with a lead bullet).

Two bystanders, who happen to be conservationists, are overjoyed to see that this member of a highly threatened species is about to enjoy a meal. At that moment, however, Grandma raises her head and gasps, “I’m not quite dead yet!” The onlooking conservationists briefly confer as to whether they ought to attempt to rescue Grandma, but both agree that it is important not to deprive the rare Rüppell’s vulture of her meal. Soon enough, Grandma passes away and the vulture enjoys her supper. 

Now, if you are like most people, and if your grandma is not an evil person, then you would be upset if you learned that bystanders allowed her to die – even if her death resulted in nourishment for a critically endangered obligate scavenger. In my view it is much the same to sacrifice Ørkenen – or, more accurately, to sacrifice Skoven and her capacity for regeneration – to the lichen, even if the lichen are rare, threatened, or endangered. 

Something else I might note here: giving a person a helping hand is not, in itself, an insult to their individual autonomy. If the conservationists in the above example had intervened to save the life of your wounded grandma, then surely they would not have disrespected her personhood; much the opposite. Likewise, ecological restoration conducted with the intent of helping a landscape “be what it wants to be” – such as actively promoting the regeneration of pine forest on Anholt – is not necessarily an affront to the autonomy of the wild landscape. The key difference, I wager, is that it strives to remain respectful to what the land wants, as it were, and merely offers a helping hand to Nature’s own chosen end.

4.2 All You Need Is Love… To Ground a Moral Claim?

I have already alluded to one obvious objection, at least insofar as I invoke the Kantian notion of “rights of persons”: land is not a person. Notably, land is not rational. Land itself does not have the mental capacity of reason. There is an important sense in which a natural landscape can be said to be self-directed and autonomous, but it is of course arational. So then, if not rationality, are there any properties of landscapes that can licence treating them as something analogous to persons in a moral theory? 

Well, here is where I decide to do something possibly heretical: I change the topic. That question we just asked? That’s not how we need to play this game. We can stop looking for properties in the land itself that could “objectively” ground a moral obligation to honour the land’s capacity for autonomy and self-direction. As an alternative, I propose to take seriously the way a human can feel towards the land. What sentiments can we feel that inspire us to respect a landscape in some ways that are analogous to our respect for other human beings?

Let’s try it. Just for fun, let’s try it. After all, all moral philosophy eventually bottoms out in arational, pre-theoretic sentiments. And I believe that it is possible – because I have felt it – that a person can experience feelings of love, compassion, sympathy, and even a sense of reciprocal obligation to an expanse of land. To exclude the moral relevance of such sentiments merely because their object is not a person would be to presuppose anthropocentrism from the outset. So I suggest that we don’t.

When I introspect on my own emotional responses to Anholt’s conservation status, I have been led to a conjecture that I honestly didn’t expect starting out: a personal love of the island compels me to wish to defend the “right” of its undeveloped land to be self-determining, in part due to a desire to “give back” in a reciprocal manner. 

Interestingly to me, this is very different from my “usual” stance on the grounding of the moral imperative to conserve wilderness – viz., roughly, that it is appropriate to feel awe, deference, and respect for the creativity of natural evolutionary, and that enacting this respect requires us to preserve arenas for the continuation thereof – but it more accurately captures the peculiar sense of partial obligation I came to feel with respect to the island of Anholt. I continue to maintain that usual stance, and my intuition is that it ultimately remains more interesting, compelling, and defensible theoretically. However, it is very much a theoretical (and quasi-theological) stance, and as such it fails to capture the very personal elements of the antipathy that I developed towards the rhetoric surrounding the conservation of Ørkenen’s denuded landscape.

I said at the outset that Anholt was an island I loved despite myself, but what do I mean in saying that I “loved” Anholt?

Well, in the first instance, Anholt represents the closest I’ve come to feeling a sense of belonging in a place. So often have I felt that I was born too late in a world too crowded, noisy, busy, bright. This hurried claustrophobic world of skyscrapers, freeways, and motorcars – it gives me nothing I deeply want and it takes so much away. Anholt left space and time for, well, nothing. With the attendant sense of calmness and ease, one is better placed to take note whatever elements of wildness still exist in this place – however depleted – and to begin to dream their potential, the land’s potential to thrive once again. And in developing a sense of belonging, one develops care and compassion in turn; one wants to care for the place one cares for. 

It is not possible to love a person without respecting their individuality and autonomy – that would be something else, perhaps obsession or lust. Genuine love recognises the agency of the beloved; it is not controlling or repressive. So too, I believe, with genuine love for a place, which also can enjoy the capacity to be autonomous, self-directing, and self-governing, and which can also be shown respect by being left the hell alone. 

A loving relationship, moreover, is defined by mutualism and reciprocity. Anholt, of course, owes me nothing. But that makes the feeling all the more profound: Anholt gave freely, without obligation. That being so, I could not bear to live in this place without the ability to give freely in return. And that is where the conservation industry thwarts me. 

If I were to attempt to distill this feeling of reciprocity, I might say this: the island of Anholt gave me a space in which I finally felt like I could come of my own, three hours by boat from the overdeveloped and overpopulated world that so long has suffocated me; I have a strong desire to protect the island’s freedom in turn, her freedom to grow and develop on her own terms, unburdened by the excesses of humanity’s heavy hand. The island herself deserves the opportunity that island once seemed to offer me.

We might here mention the notion of value. Experience of love is a way to come to regard the land as having intrinsic value – “value in the philosophical sense,” as Leopold puts it – not merely economic value, nor merely value “from a cultural, recreational, educational as well as scientific point of view,” which is just another kind of anthropocentric instrumentalization of Nature.

Admittedly, this has hardly been a philosophical argument as to why land can be treated as a person. All I can say is: if you have felt the way that I have felt, you too might accept this position as moral bedrock; it might consume you with disgust to imagine letting the land you love be sacrificed and used as a mere means to an human-decided ends – especially where those ends are mere cultural preferences, but perhaps even if it the human-decided end is to protect certain species at the expense of the land’s own autonomy.

Another disclaimer is that I cannot speak for everyone who might truly and deeply love the land, such as long-term permanent residents who might have an attraction to Anholt that is very different from mine, but quite plausibly a relationship of love nonetheless. Notably, I am not rooted in the tight-knit human community of the island. On the contrary, my perceptions are shaped by my starting point of avoidance of human society – or, at least, its excesses and artificiality. It may only be natural, then, that I project my own drive for freedom from the constrictive forces of modern human societies onto the land herself. Ah, well, I can only say that these are thoughts that Anholt has stirred in me.

I could almost long to live here – this remote island of 80 percent protected lands, this sanctuary of dark skies – where I could thrive in isolation from the worst excesses of the civilised world and its delusion of perpetual growth. But how could I, when the unfairness is so palpable, when the island herself is managed as a monument to humanity’s rapacious plundering and parasitism?

4.3 A Caveat on Partiality

I believe that it is the sense of partial obligation to an island I nearly loved – no, an island I loved despite myself – that explains the strength of my attitude about the conservation objectives for Anholt, as well as its particular flavour. (By partial obligation, I mean the type of special obligation one holds toward a loved one, as opposed to a mere stranger.) 

What I don’t believe, however, is that partiality is necessary to ground the basic moral premise that it can be wrong to sacrifice self-willed land even for “the greater good of the greater number of species.” By analogy, you probably share my intuition that it is wrong to sacrifice anyone to harvest their organs, stop a trolley with their physical mass, or donate their corpse to feed endangered vultures. If the object of sacrifice happens to be a loved one, you might reserve a special hatred to those who decree the sacrificial act, and you might despair in a special powerlessness when you realise that you can do nothing to stop it. But that is tangential to the basic moral intuition: the object of sacrifice doesn’t need to be a loved one to make clear that the imagined action would be wrong

When we speak about forcibly killing people, as philosophers so love to do, it’s obvious that we’re talking about something that’s flat-out wrong to do to anyone. (Okay, sure, there’s always that freshman who raises her hand and says “What if it’s Hilter we push in front of the trolley,” but leaving such complications aside…) In the case of respecting the autonomy of land,  the ultimate moral grounding should be no different, if such a moral obligation exists at all. It should also be an impartial obligation. 

But a big difference, I think, is this: for most of us, our default disposition is one of detachment from any feeling of empathy for the land – even the very landscapes we inhabit and traverse – and with no personal experiences of love and compassion to which to relate, proffered moral absolutes won’t gain a grip.

If we have ever felt love or compassion toward another human being, even just a little bit, it is easy to see the wrong in abusing, manipulating, controlling, or sacrificing a person, and it’s easy then to extrapolate this to strangers. My contention is that it’s possible to come to feel towards a place in a way that is analogous in its ability to reveal moral commitment. The revealed moral commitments may themselves be universal, not partial, but they are revealed through moral sentiments that arise in us through personal experience with specific places.

Maybe this is also why A Sand County Almanac consists almost entirely of Aldo Leopold’s intimate personal observations and anecdotes, and why it thereby works. The classic statement of the land ethic is a universal, impartial principle – “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise” – but the intimacy of Leopold’s own relationship to the land, and the sheer beauty of the words by which he conveys it, is what ultimately makes A Sand County Almanac so compelling.  

I have none of Leopold’s talent as a nature writer, but even if I did, how would I express my love of a place – Skoven – that is not even a memory? I have only these words to offer, a requiem, in memory of Anholt as I never knew her.

Skull in Ørkenen

5. The Antidote to Despair? 

A major takeaway lesson from my time on Anholt is that it is naïve to expect – as I did setting out – that one can participate in ecological restoration anywhere. 

There was a time when I believed that I could choose where to live – or, say, where to stay on extended retreats on tourist visa – based on demographic factors and then engage in conservation and restoration efforts wherever that would be. After all, no matter where one goes in the world, if there’s not nature to conserve, there’s nature to restore, right? With 95 percent of Earth’s land on track to be degraded by 2050, one might think as much.

Early on, Anholt’s desertification even appeared an exciting opportunity – perhaps something like Iceland or the Scottish Highlands – precisely because it was such a degraded landscape with so much need for restoration, however much effort, however much time. LMAO. 

Around the same time that I last left Anholt, disillusioned and demoralised, the Rewilding Earth Podcast released its Episode 90: “The Importance of Ecological Restoration at All Scales” with Bethanie Walder, Executive Director of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). It is a good interview, and I encourage all to listen. At the time, however, it was also a punch in the gut. The focus was reforestation, and at several points Walder states that “restoration is the antidote to despair.” Of course, Walder was not addressing me directly, but if she had been, saying “restoration is the antidote to despair” would have been akin to telling an ailing person in a food desert that “healthy eating is key to good health” or a desperately lonely person in quarantine being told that “face-to-face human interaction is the antidote to loneliness.”

The sad fact is that it’s simply not true that an individual can become involved in restoration efforts anywhere in the world, no matter how much restoration is necessary. And what elicits even more despair than a lack of restoration efforts? Why, the presence of anti-restoration efforts, that’s what. I can only assume that Walder has never lived on Anholt. 

Long before my first trip to Anholt, I had already become disillusioned with mainstream environmentalism – its almost exclusive focus on climate change and technological “solutions,” its willful blindness to the ecological destruction caused by its favourite tech solutions, its anthropocentrism, its economization of Nature, its political correctness (including the bizarre popularity of overpopulation denialism), and so forth and so on. Ah, well, I know now that there are yet more enemies from within: protectors of degraded landscapes; enemies of natural regeneration, let alone assisted restoration.

* * *

Sometimes I wonder how our relationship would be – mine and Anholt’s – if I could unknow what I know now. What if I naïvely held to the false belief that Ørkenen was protected for the sake of allowing natural succession, slow as it may be, an long-running observational study of the ability of Nature to reassert herself in the wake of ecocide most foul. Active restoration is nice, but I’ve always had a special affinity for long timescales as well as a trust and respect for Nature’s own creative forces when left the hell alone. It would not be beyond me to respect such a laissez-faire approach to Ørkenen’s eventual reforestation – if that’s what I falsely believed this all to be about. 

What if I never knew the esteem with which conservationists regard the open landscape? What if I never knew the nonchalant disregard of the lichen heath’s destructive origins – the absence of the least intimation of sorrow for the loss of Skoven before? Perhaps in my lifetime everything would look much the same; uninhibited successional processes may take centuries to bring about Anholt’s afforestation. It is the rhetoric of the conservationists that I have come to find so appalling – but perhaps, on the ground, all would look, sound, and smell much the same.

But this is all beside the point, since I can’t unknow the bizarre and eviscerating reality (unless I develop early-onset Alzheimer’s, which I don’t want to do, and for which point I already have, uh, let’s just say alternate plans). It is not enough, in the end, to have nothing. It is not even enough to have nothing in conjunction with organic produce, wine, wifi, and the company of passerines. One would do well also to have hope and a sense of efficacy. One would do well also to have the ability to act upon love. That is what Anholt cannot provide.

And so I take my space and leave only these words, in memory of Anholt as I never knew her.

Kate M, July 2022, off-island