Wilderness vs Civilization – harrynatureblog
The relationship between wilderness and civilization in the science fiction genre Custom paper Service. Instead, it's a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by wilderness can be the solution to our culture's problematic relationships with the . What I meant was don't list aspects of infrastructure as a definition of civilization. The difference between the wilderness and civilization is.
We must open our minds to images of this idyllic past, and to mature concepts that are oriented toward the fulfillment of these images. We must ensure that the eagle flying overhead is not primarily a symbolic, aesthetic, or economic value, but an existential value - that is, having to do with the plan and purpose of our existence. Radical openness or human living beyond the wall means our participation in the larger patterns and processes of creative evolution established over the last 4 billion years, including floods, fire, and other disturbing forces of nature.
Jared Diamond reports that traditional New Guineans live "so close to the forest that they can hear fifty bird species while still lying in bed". In contrast, National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and designated Wilderness Areas - even if enlarged, diversified, and interconnected - make us visitors and spectators of wild nature.
In short, I am proposing through the dual criteria that we recapture the vernacular paradigm, with its proper balance and interaction between humans and the rest of nature. This is basically a matter of adapting the modern economy to the structure, function, and composition of the former, pre-civilized whole.
- 'The Wolf Border' explores the relationship between civilization and wilderness
There are ways of growing food other than as wall to wall fields of wheat, barley and rice. Hopi cultivators, for example, were part of the wilderness, like Pleistocene hunters, because their shifting gardens did not separate or alienate wilderness and village; they did not zone the landscape into fundamentally different and isolated domains - such as wild, rural, and urban. New technologies can be incorporated into our ancient milieu through miniaturization and localization.
Technology does not need to be used as a weapon against wild nature. Self-sufficient for the most part human communities are capable of adopting various methods and innovations selectively, while immersed in the evolutionary continuum of wilderness and its vital flows of life.
Technical capacities have outgrown the framework of exploitation and ruination of wilderness and suggest options beyond anything envisaged by civilization so far; they raise the specter of our living continuously in the wild.
The possibility of completely re-organizing and transforming modern society so as to preserve some of its benefits within a wilderness setting has been obscured by a monstrous agricultural and industrial apparatus that imposes itself as sole source of the good life for humans.
A paradigmatic shift, in keeping with Paleolithic reality, would drastically decentralize civilization. Roads, pollution, extinctions, human overpopulation, for examples, are unavoidably anti-wilderness, and would not survive devolutionary change, but science and technology, released from their service in the enslavement of nature, promise us new forms of freedom. A post-technological wilderness world haunts the now obsolete productive process of contemporary civilization.
His idea of a "Nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty,"4 is conceptually right, for it does not discount wilderness-dwelling peoples. All of Pre-Columbian North America was, and can be again, a National Park in Catlin's sense, if we live as just one species among many species, and give back to the Earth more than we take. In the United States the intellectual and material resources already exist and they are quantifiable and calculable to a high degree for re-storing the Central Valley of California, the Ohio River Valley, and Missouri Bottomlands to the great wilderness areas they were on the eve of European conquest - and the direction to attain this goal can be identified and projected.
Removing people and their activities from these places will not bring back the world that was lost, with its oneness between people and land. However, by changing the nature and extent of our occupation and modification of these areas, we could recapture this essential unified world.
The tantalizing possibility is not merely peaceful co-existence or mutual tolerance between humans and wild nature, but rather intimate association and involvement of one with the other - interspecies history. In Africa, it was wrong to remove the Ik, for example, from what became Kidepo National Park, not because Third World people are too poor to afford the luxury of wilderness preservation, but because the Ik already had a culture that preserved wilderness.
Kidepo Valley - about 36 miles across - is almost completely hemmed in by mountains, with an opening in the southeast corner. When the rains came, large intelligent mammals such as Ik and elephants moved from the valley floor into the mountains. The Ik, elephants, mountains and valley belonged to each other and the entire ecosystem was wilderness. Call it aboriginal wilderness, as distinct from nonhuman wilderness, but the decisive point is that the Ik literally inhabited wild nature for thousands of years.
They point us toward the idea of a postmodern wild culture. He states, "when they [Ik] were imprisoned in one tiny corner, the world became something cruel and hostile, and in their lives cruelty took the place of love. What it Would Look Like! The ideal situation is a wild matrix, in which anthropogenic habitats exist as patches within a mosaic of older, nonhuman countryside that remains relatively constant over time. This system would resemble that which would occur over large areas in the absence of human alteration because the practice of our intervening in nature on a grand scale would be replaced by simple human reproduction, where village life is the germ cell or basic unit of a new social network that is connected by a labyrinth of meandering footpaths.
I mean a human way of life to match the patchwork of the prehuman terrain - with tremendous diversity within the compass of a few square miles; not a human-dominated environment, but a land where all life-forms depend on a wild landscape mosaic. We have a rightful place and role in wilderness, as a "keystone species," that enriches the diversity of life on Earth, if we nestle our social units into a self-managing natural order, and acknowledge that we can only positively affect a tiny fraction of wild nature.
A well-integrated human-island system, arranged almost randomly, and dispersed through wild nature, could preserve all existing species in their natural patterns of abundance and distribution.
Human wilderness resettlement integrates humans and nonhumans within a single, extended community, and nothing else will achieve this end. It is a vision of the future that looks a lot like the past, but one that allows for significant human change and progress.
Wilderness works - that is to say, it sustains, diversifies, and elaborates the whole of life. No other form of land-protection and many substitutes are now being offered has been time-tested and proven. Notably, as wilderness declines around the world, the biodiversity crisis worsens.
We would be wise to turn away from the ecological ideal of a human-controlled landscape, and, instead, seek to re-enter the ordered pattern of wild nature. The principle of human power over nature has been extended past the point where evolution, by itself, can force a constellation of natural human settlements. What traditional peoples did spontaneously, by the will of nature, we must do deliberately, which means that the emergence of a future rational society must proceed and endure according to an overall wilderness plan.
Some coordination at the continental level, among local units of human self-determination, is a precondition for achieving and maintaining human balance on the land. Central authority is rational inasmuch as it permits a free interplay between humans and the rest of nature that prevailed in the landscape of perpetual youth.
As the poet Baudelaire said: This utopian possibility is becoming evermore realistic by new discoveries in science and technology. Solar energy, for example, could be the primary energy source for lightweight and portable cultures. The libertarian possibilities of science and technology are effectively contained within the framework of modernism, but there is nothing stopping us, theoretically, from treading evermore lightly, and finally wildly, on the Earth - except our own lack of imagination and will-power.
The issue of whether or not we must move, and how far and how often, depends in part on the pre-given and unique characteristics of the land wherein we dwell. Wilson, in his book, The Domestication Of The Human Species, argues that the practice of living in permanent homes and settlements which predates agriculture is the major event in hominid evolution that shifted Homo sapiens from a wilderness environment to civilized life.
He states, "the domestication of plants and animals follows the domestication of human beings and is inspired by it. He notes that sedentarists form a social order founded on the boundary, rather than on a focus, and as a result they do not sustain the intimate and open societies that revolve around camps and hearth sites.
In contrast, for nomadic people, the landscape is a spectrum where humans move gradually out of one district into another - the faintest line divides their living space from nature - and it is a way of life that emphasizes openness, independence, self-sufficiency, and sharing.
According to Chatwin, without compulsion no permanent settlement could be founded. He points out that in Middle English, the word progress meant a journey, and that men of the Golden Age are always remembered as migratory, without possessions, houses or war. Chatwin argues that the wandering life is not an aberrant form of behavior, but re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between humans and the universe. He finds support for an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn in the works of great philosophers and poets: Aborigines put "all their mental energy into keeping the land the way it was.
They were poets in the original sense of poesis, meaning creation, because the rhythmic phases of their lifeway made it impossible for them to become anything else. The American Wilderness Act defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain. Could it be that they are at home everywhere because they remain permanently nowhere, i.
If we stop thinking of human places as fixed geographical entities, and start conceiving of them as villages that are capable of breaking up and reassembling as ecological needs require, then the wilderness idea is enlarged and enriched by people.
Real wilderness is dynamic enough and resilient enough to incorporate human residence and economic activity, if we to become nomads in a shifting mosaic of wildlands, in which abandoned human sites resemble areas after natural fires with robust self-restoration more than they resemble clearcuts - that is the way traditional Indians lived.
As William Cronon has documented, it was "English fixity"12 - fixed features of the landscape, such as permanent settlements, cleared fields, pastures, buildings, and fences that destroyed the incredible abundance of North American plant and animal life. Admittedly, the idea of postmodern nomadism is faraway from matters of political negotiation and bio-crisis intervention and manipulation, but are we searching for how human presence can be a positive enhancement of natural communities, or are we content to limit the deleterious effects of human presence on the environment?
Beyond the quick fix and stimulus to immediate action, there is the philosophical question of the best of all possible lives. Certainly, an adventurous human lifeway of seasonal renewal, woven into the beauty and mystery of wild nature, is an ideal worthy of serious consideration, but unfortunately we are not wondering about it.
This is a betrayal of the task of the intellectual to recall possibilities which seem to have become unrealistic possibilities,i. What if freedom requires the attainment of what is today called utopia? The Wildlands Project Until the time when we are ready and able once again to inhabit a river, prairie, or other ecosystem type without disrupting the harmony of its life, The Wildlands Project will and should continue its effective conservation program of saving biodiversity by carving out an interconnected system of large wilderness reserves within civilization.
Integrating ourselves into a single wilderness whole is the only way to overcome our estrangement from wildness because recreation, aesthetic enjoyment, and other forms of wilderness visitation will not satisfy the species-being of Homo sapiens, which is not a product of history but of prehistory.
The ultimate wilderness plan, in my view - that corresponds fully to human nature and that includes the human economy - entails the emergence of a free association of bioregional wilderness groups, a broad eco-commune movement, where human places are so integrated into the hills and bluffs that the inhabitants of one locality impact little on those at a distance, and where the vast and lonely landscape is without roads, dams, mines, cattle, and permanent human habitats.
Transcending the dualism between civilization and wilderness, as I propose, is not the focus of The Wildlands Project, not because its supporters do no share this fundamental goal, but rather because, as David Johns says, "In the near and medium term, if not the long term, the essential nature of civilization is not likely to change, and life on this planet needs to be protected from it. Although critics of The Wildlands Project portray it as extreme and unfeasible, it is actually a bare minimum strategy for securing North American wildlife - that is to say, it is merely linking up minimum dynamic land areas, determined by the science of conservation biology, for sustaining viable populations of large mammals such as Black Bears, Grizzlies, Wolves, Wolverines, Mountain Lions, Elk, Bighorn sheep, Bison, Moose, etc.
The unrealistic sound of The Wildlands Project is indicative of the political forces which prevent it from being put on the ground. The status quo continues to resist the consequences of hard scientific data, but the best minds already see beyond the minimum program of The Wildlands Project to the desideratum of the full realization of biological reality, which presupposes social revolution, or massive economic conversion, or the end of the intensive activities associated with civilization.
This is why good science is a radical protest against the modern lifestyle. As Reed Noss Science Director for The Wildlands Project and Allen Cooperrider have said, "Only a spectacular reduction in the scale of human activities on earth will allow biodiversity to recover, The North American Wilderness Recovery Strategy another name for The Wildlands Project is identifying and protecting individual wildlands, and linking them together, without the need to wait for radical changes in modern society.
The two converged to remake wilderness in their own image, freighting it with moral values and cultural symbols that it carries to this day. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create.
Although wilderness may today seem to be just one environmental concern among many, it in fact serves as the foundation for a long list of other such concerns that on their face seem quite remote from it.
That is why its influence is so pervasive and, potentially, so insidious. To gain such remarkable influence, the concept of wilderness had to become loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created and idealized it: This possibility had been present in wilderness even in the days when it had been a place of spiritual danger and moral temptation. If Satan was there, then so was Christ, who had found angels as well as wild beasts during His sojourn in the desert.
Wilderness vs Civilization by Katie Freeman on Prezi
In the wilderness the boundaries between human and nonhuman, between natural and supernatural, had always seemed less certain than elsewhere. For some that possibility was worth almost any price. By the eighteenth century this sense of the wilderness as a landscape where the supernatural lay just beneath the surface was expressed in the doctrine of the sublime, a word whose modern usage has been so watered down by commercial hype and tourist advertising that it retains only a dim echo of its former power.
Where were these sublime places? The eighteenth century catalog of their locations feels very familiar, for we still see and value landscapes as it taught us to do. God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset. One has only to think of the sites that Americans chose for their first national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, Zion—to realize that virtually all of them fit one or more of these categories.
Less sublime landscapes simply did not appear worthy of such protection; not until the s, for instance, would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park, and to this day there is no national park in the grasslands. For the early romantic writers and artists who first began to celebrate it, the sublime was far from being a pleasurable experience. The immeasurable height Of woods decaying, never to be decayed, The stationary blasts of waterfalls, And in the narrow rent at every turn Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn, The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky, The rocks that muttered close upon our ears, Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side As if a voice were in them, the sick sight And giddy prospect of the raving stream, The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens, Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light Were all like workings of one mind, the features Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree; Characters of the great Apocalypse, The types and symbols of Eternity, Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.
What Wordsworth described was nothing less than a religious experience, akin to that of the Old Testament prophets as they conversed with their wrathful God.
The symbols he detected in this wilderness landscape were more supernatural than natural, and they inspired more awe and dismay than joy or pleasure.
No mere mortal was meant to linger long in such a place, so it was with considerable relief that Wordsworth and his companion made their way back down from the peaks to the sheltering valleys.
It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits.
Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more lone than you can imagine …. Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains.
She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time?21 years of life in a mountain wilderness
This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind.
Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? His words took the physical mountain on which he stood and transmuted it into an icon of the sublime: The power and the glory of that icon were such that only a prophet might gaze on it for long.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the terrible awe that Wordsworth and Thoreau regarded as the appropriately pious stance to adopt in the presence of their mountaintop God was giving way to a much more comfortable, almost sentimental demeanor.
The relationship between wilderness and civilization in the science fiction genre
As more and more tourists sought out the wilderness as a spectacle to be looked at and enjoyed for its great beauty, the sublime in effect became domesticated.
The wilderness was still sacred, but the religious sentiments it evoked were more those of a pleasant parish church than those of a grand cathedral or a harsh desert retreat. The writer who best captures this late romantic sense of a domesticated sublime is undoubtedly John Muir, whose descriptions of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada reflect none of the anxiety or terror one finds in earlier writers.
Here he is, for instance, sketching on North Dome in Yosemite Valley: No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. Yet all three men are participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth—the mountain as cathedral. The three may differ in the way they choose to express their piety—Wordsworth favoring an awe-filled bewilderment, Thoreau a stern loneliness, Muir a welcome ecstasy—but they agree completely about the church in which they prefer to worship.
The sublime wilderness had ceased to be place of satanic temptation and become instead a sacred temple, much as it continues to be for those who love it today. But the romantic sublime was not the only cultural movement that helped transform wilderness into a sacred American icon during the nineteenth century. No less important was the powerful romantic attraction of primitivism, dating back at least to of that the best antidote to the ills of an overly refined and civilized modern world was a return to simpler, more primitive living.
In the United States, this was embodied most strikingly in the national myth of the frontier. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in the classic academic statement of this myth, but it had been part of American cultural traditions for well over a century. As Turner described the process, easterners and European immigrants, in moving to the wild unsettled lands of the frontier, shed the trappings of civilization, rediscovered their primitive racial energies, reinvented direct democratic institutions, and by reinfused themselves with a vigor, an independence, and a creativity that the source of American democracy and national character.
Seen in this way, wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.
What distinguishes Civilization and Wilderness?
Those who have celebrated the frontier have almost always looked backward as they did so, mourning an older, simpler, truer world that is about to disappear, forever.
That world and all of its attractions, Turner said, depended on free land—on wilderness. Thus, in the myth of the vanishing frontier lay the seeds of wilderness preservation in the United States, for if wild land had been so crucial in the making of the nation, then surely one must save its last remnants as monuments to the American past—and as an insurance policy to protect its future.
It is no accident that the movement to set aside national parks and wilderness areas began to gain real momentum at precisely the time that laments about the passing frontier reached their peak.
Among the core elements of the frontier myth was the powerful sense among certain groups of Americans that wilderness was the last bastion of rugged individualism.
Turner tended to stress communitarian themes when writing frontier history, asserting that Americans in primitive conditions had been forced to band together with their neighbors to form communities and democratic institutions. For other writers, however, frontier democracy for communities was less compelling than frontier freedom for individuals. The mood among writers who celebrated frontier individualism was almost always nostalgic; they lamented not just a lost way of life but the passing of the heroic men who had embodied that life.
There he passes his days, there he does his life-work, there, when he meets death, he faces it as he has faced many other evils, with quiet, uncomplaining fortitude. Brave, hospitable, hardy, and adventurous, he is the grim pioneer of our race; he prepares the way for the civilization from before whose face he must himself disappear. Hard and dangerous though his existence is, it has yet a wild attraction that strongly draws to it his bold, free spirit. If one saw the wild lands of the frontier as freer, truer, and more natural than other, more modern places, then one was also inclined to see the cities and factories of urban-industrial civilization as confining, false, and artificial.
For all of its troubles and dangers, and despite the fact that it must pass away, the frontier had been a better place. If civilization was to be redeemed, it would be by men like the Virginian who could retain their frontier virtues even as they made the transition to post-frontier life.
The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender: More often than not, men who felt this way came, like Wister and Roosevelt, from elite class backgrounds.
The curious result was that frontier nostalgia became an important vehicle for expressing a peculiarly bourgeois form of antimodernism. The very men who most benefited from urban-industrial capitalism were among those who believed they must escape its debilitating effects. If the frontier was passing, then men who had the means to do so should preserve for themselves some remnant of its wild landscape so that they might enjoy the regeneration and renewal that came from sleeping under the stars, participating in blood sports, and living off the land.
The frontier might be gone, but the frontier experience could still be had if only wilderness were preserved. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation.
One went to the wilderness not as a producer but as a consumer, hiring guides and other backcountry residents who could serve as romantic surrogates for the rough riders and hunters of the frontier if one was willing to overlook their new status as employees and servants of the rich.
The irony, of course, was that in the process wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape. Ever since the nineteenth century, celebrating wilderness has been an activity mainly for well-to-do city folks. Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.
There were other ironies as well, The movement to set aside national parks and wilderness areas followed hard on the heels of the final Indian wars, in which the prior human inhabitants of these areas were rounded up and moved onto reservations.
The actual frontier had often been a place of conflict, in which invaders and invaded fought for control of land and resources. Once set aside within the fixed and carefully policed boundaries of the modern bureaucratic state, the wilderness lost its savage image and became safe: Meanwhile, its original inhabitants were kept out by dint of force, their earlier uses of the land redefined as inappropriate or even illegal.
To return to my opening argument: It is entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny.
Indeed, one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang. In virtually all of its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history. Seen as the original garden, it is a place outside of time, from which human beings had to be ejected before the fallen world of history could properly begin. Seen as the frontier, it is a savage world at the dawn of civilization, whose transformation represents the very beginning of the national historical epic.
Seen as the bold landscape of frontier heroism, it is the place of youth and childhood, into which men escape by abandoning their pasts and entering a world of freedom where the constraints of civilization fade into memory. No matter what the angle from which we regard it, wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us.
Many environmentalists who reject traditional notions of the Godhead and who regard themselves as agnostics or even atheists nonetheless express feelings tantamount to religious awe when in the presence of wilderness—a fact that testifies to the success of the romantic project. Those who have no difficulty seeing God as the expression of our human dreams and desires nonetheless have trouble recognizing that in a secular age Nature can offer precisely the same sort of mirror.
Thus it is that wilderness serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be.
But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. The flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world.
The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die.
Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.
This, then, is the central paradox: If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.
We inhabit civilization while holding some part of ourselves—what we imagine to be the most precious part—aloof from its entanglements. We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars not least to reach the wildernesswe benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are.
By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit. In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature—in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.
By now I hope it is clear that my criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness. It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem—for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection—but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.
Lest one doubt how pervasive these habits of thought actually are in contemporary environmentalism, let me list some of the places where wilderness serves as the ideological underpinning for environmental concerns that might otherwise seem quite remote from it.
There is a paradox here, of course. To the extent that biological diversity indeed, even wilderness itself is likely to survive in the future only by the most vigilant and self-conscious management of the ecosystems that sustain it, the ideology of wilderness is potentially in direct conflict with the very thing it encourages us to protect.
The terms of the Endangered Species Act in the United States have often meant that those hoping to defend pristine wilderness have had to rely on a single endangered species like the spotted owl to gain legal standing for their case—thereby making the full power of the sacred land inhere in a single numinous organism whose habitat then becomes the object of intense debate about appropriate management and use.
The classic example is the tropical rain forest, which since the s has become the most powerful modern icon of unfallen, sacred land—a veritable Garden of Eden—for many Americans and Europeans. And yet protecting the rain forest in the eyes of First World environmentalists all too often means protecting it from the people who live there. At its worst, as environmentalists are beginning to realize, exporting American notions of wilderness in this way can become an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism.
We and our children will henceforth live in a biosphere completely altered by our own activity, a planet in which the human and the natural can no longer be distinguished, because the one has overwhelmed the other. In fact, everything we know about environmental history suggests that people have been manipulating the natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing.
To do so is merely to take to a logical extreme the paradox that was built into wilderness from the beginning: The absurdity of this proposition flows from the underlying dualism it expresses.
Not only does it ascribe greater power to humanity that we in fact possess—physical and biological nature will surely survive in some form or another long after we ourselves have gone the way of all flesh—but in the end it offers us little more than a self-defeating counsel of despair.
The tautology gives us no way out: It is not a proposition that seems likely to produce very positive or practical results. And yet radical environmentalists and deep ecologists all too frequently come close to accepting this premise as a first principle.
When they express, for instance, the popular notion that our environmental problems began with the invention of agriculture, they push the human fall from natural grace so far back into the past that all of civilized history becomes a tale of ecological declension. But with irrigation ditches, crop surpluses, and permanent villages, we became apart from the natural world….
Between the wilderness that created us and the civilization created by us grew an ever-widening rift. From such a starting place, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us. It may indeed turn out that civilization will end in ecological collapse or nuclear disaster, whereupon one might expect to find any human survivors returning to a way of life closer to that celebrated by Foreman and his followers.
For most of us, though, such a debacle would be cause for regret, a sign that humanity had failed to fulfill its own promise and failed to honor its own highest values—including those of the deep ecologists. In offering wilderness as the ultimate hunter-gatherer alternative to civilization, Foreman reproduces an extreme but still easily recognizable version of the myth of frontier primitivism.
However much one may be attracted to such a vision, it entails problematic consequences. For one, it makes wilderness the locus for an epic struggle between malign civilization and benign nature, compared with which all other social, political, and moral concerns seem trivial.
Issues directly affecting only humans pale in comparison. If we set too high a stock on wilderness, too many other corners of the earth become less than natural and too many other people become less than human, thereby giving us permission not to care much about their suffering or their fate. It is no accident that these supposedly inconsequential environmental problems affect mainly poor people, for the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth means that the only poor people who count when wilderness is the issue are hunter-gatherers, who presumably do not consider themselves to be poor in the first place.
This in turn tempts one to ignore crucial differences among humans and the complex cultural and historical reasons why different peoples may feel very differently about the meaning of wilderness. But the most troubling cultural baggage that accompanies the celebration of wilderness has less to do with remote rain forests and peoples than with the ways we think about ourselves—we American environmentalists who quite rightly worry about the future of the earth and the threats we pose to the natural world.
Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home. Most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it. The wilderness dualism tends to cast any use as abuse, and thereby denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship.
My own belief is that only by exploring this middle ground will we learn ways of imagining a better world for all of us: The middle ground is where we actually live. It is where we—all of us, in our different places and ways—make our homes.