Problems with the “wilderness myth”

Adam Kranz

In 1995, the University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental historian William Cronon announced that “the time [had] come to rethink wilderness.”

The preservation of wilderness has been a central goal of the environmental movement throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The imagery of undeveloped landscapes has helped environmentalists sell the idea that nature has inherent value to the global public.

The idea itself is intuitive to people of our culture and most especially to radical environmentalists like myself. Civilization is a radical, psychotic mode of human ecology, one that almost by definition degrades or destroys everything it touches.

The concept of wilderness, however, is not merely the assertion that the planet should be preserved from the destructive impacts of civilization. It is a much more complex idea that is wrapped up with, and not fundamentally opposed to, the system it often seems to be fighting.

Cronon’s essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” delves into the cultural roots of the Western wilderness concept. He traces it to two historical ideas: the Romantic idea that majestic landscapes were sublime places where God was close; and Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier myth, which claims that so-called wild land was the foil against which the American spirit was forged.

As the American leisure class emerged, tourism and outdoor recreation became prominent. To some extent, this was a boon for the environmental preservation movement, since it gave much of America an emotional stake in the protection of non-human nature.

The gains are illusory. Personal engagement with nature, the kind of experience that can sometimes be had through camping and hiking, is a prerequisite for a sane relationship with our planet. However, the tourist and outdoor recreation industries didn’t provide these experiences to alienated industrial humans.

Instead, it simply represents one more way to commodify nature. Rather than taking a parcel of land and selling it as wood, metals or industrial farm produce, you could now make more money — in certain particularly unique places — by selling the idea of the place.

There are several reasons that this practice isn’t the return to ecological consciousness that we desperately need.

While it preserves some natural spaces, the practice does so only because there is profit to be made by doing so. It never questions the idea that land should be used to make money, and therefore it never questions the vastly-more-destructive land uses that we apply in less charismatic places.

The tourist industry sells us the idea of certain landscapes. Buying into such a concept doesn’t open your mind to the things the land is experiencing and saying. Instead, it adds new kinds of blinders.

We see certain ecologies as majestic and worthy of token preservation, but we don’t see the entire planet dying in front of our eyes.

Every major Western culture has launched itself to glory by deforesting its land base, as John Perlin describes in his book “A Forest Journey.”

Near the end, as each culture nears collapse due to soil loss and timber scarcity, people always start attaching unusually strong spiritual and aesthetic values to trees. This never keeps them from finishing their ecological suicide. The resonance with our present global situation couldn’t be clearer.

Most importantly, the concept of wilderness teaches us that humans cannot be part of a healthy, beautiful natural system. This erases the living legacy of indigenous, pre-agricultural peoples around the world — sometimes literally — when natives are forced from their land to create “wild” parks.

It belies the ancient traditional truth that science has recently brought us back to: Humans are inextricably part of nature.

This particular false dichotomy is one of the swiftest arguments I know to prove civilization is unsustainable. Our particular version of civilization believes that healthy land can only exist where society does not.

It’s right, but not because humans are an ecological matricide, burdened with some original sin that compels them to kill the planet that created them. It’s civilization that’s the problem, not Homo sapiens.

This is by far the most serious consequence of the wilderness concept. It is a tremendous insult to indigenous peoples who have been “preserving wilderness” for ages. As long as we buy into this myth, it will prevent us from returning to such a dignified, sustainable way of life.