Wilderness and culture.

Author:Freyfogle, Eric T.
Position:Normative and constructuralist understandings of what constitutes wilderness
  1. INTRODUCTION II. THE USE AND ABUSE OF NATURE III. OBJECTIVITY AND THE MURKINESS OF VALUES IV. A CRISIS OF CULTURE A. Wilderness as Word, Idea, and Place B. The Values of Wilderness C. Creating Value for Wilderness V. EXERCISING OUR POWERS TO DEFINE AND VALUE A. Putting Science in Its Place B. The Many Possible Definitions VI. WILDERNESS AND GOOD LAND USE A. Valuing Wilderness Areas in Isolation B. The Landscape-Scale Benefits C. A Normative Standard at the Landscape Scale D. Two Land Use Goals VII. WILDERNESS AND CULTURE I. INTRODUCTION

    The term "wilderness" is one of the more mischievous, elusive, and conflict-laden words in the English language. For many people, wilderness shines as a yearned-for garden and a spiritual retreat. For others, it lingers on as a foe to oppose and dominate. In one view, wilderness is an embodiment of nature's time-tested ecological wisdom, worthy of respect and study. In another, it is a warehouse of resources that only the well-fed and misanthropic would forswear. Do wilderness areas really exist, or is wilderness merely a socially constructed ideal? This question is a much-discussed issue for academics. Do wilderness reserves reflect a mistaken view that humans exist apart from nature or are they, instead, a prudent form of survival insurance: places where we might, post collapse, begin the search for a more enduring way to live?

    If not wilderness in the material sense, certainly the ways we think and talk about wilderness, are embedded in modern culture. And the debates that surround it have more to do with meaning, values, and human perception than they do with the ever-changing physical world itself. It is useful to take time to bring sense to the questions that surround wilderness--or to try to; it is useful to explore the complex ways that wilderness and contemporary culture are linked. The cultural clashes surrounding wilderness have much to reveal about how we comprehend the world and our place in it. They reflect how we think about ourselves as distinct beings, our understanding of normative values and their origins and legitimacy, and how we interpret the limits nature imposes on us. These cultural and cognitive elements of our culture are important ones, and we have reason to conclude that they play key causal roles in our ongoing patterns of misusing the natural order. (1)

    More than we commonly recognize, our ecological crisis is a crisis in modern culture. Wilderness is drawn into that expanding crisis, both as a tangible place and as an ideal of human absence. For us to think clearly about wilderness, we need to reconsider the fundamental building blocks of our place within the planet's integrated web of life and how we go about understanding and making sense of that place. Or to reverse this intellectual task: If we can learn to think clearly and sensibly about wilderness--as a place and as an ideal--then we might become better able to diagnose and improve our larger cultural ills. We might recognize better the important cultural changes required if we are to succeed at what wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold once termed the "oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it." (2)

    This Essay explores several of the complex links between wilderness and contemporary culture. Its chief message--to look ahead--is that the cultural clashes surrounding wilderness arise out of, and reflect, not just larger cultural currents, but fundamental confusions or deficiencies in the ways that we comprehend the world and our place in it. They reflect deficiencies in the ways we think about ourselves as distinct beings, in our understandings of normative values and their origins and legitimacy, and in the limits nature imposes on our modes of living. These intellectual shortcomings play key causal roles in our ongoing patterns of misusing the natural order. They also help explain why we struggle so much to see the errors in our ways and to improve them, even when we have the facts and technology to do better.

    The Essay's first two Parts introduce the normative distinction between the legitimate use of nature and the abuse of it, a fundamental distinction that we vaguely sense but do not talk about with the clarity it requires. (3) These opening Parts also present, in skeletal form, the basic difficulties we have in gaining a solid intellectual ground for normative values. In the public realm we are too committed to objectivity; in both private and public spheres we give undue weight to liberal individualism and human exceptionalism. The short, third Part of the Essay presents more fully the claim that our ecological crisis stems in important part from cultural deficiencies, and it shows how these deficiencies play out in wilderness. (4) The final two Parts sketch and then build upon a reformed cultural foundation, one that pushes us to act more humbly and to accept greater responsibility for our language and chosen values. (5) The Essay concludes with mixed comments on a hope that Leopold embraced at the end of his life, that wildness and the shared work of protecting it could help stimulate our moral imaginations and nurture a healthier, more enduring social order. (6)


    A sensible place to begin is with the basics of our earthly plight. Like all living creatures, humans need to interact with the surrounding natural world in order to live. As we go about doing this, we inevitably change the natural order around us, just as other species do. It is thus not inherently wrong for us to change the physical world; we cannot do otherwise. What is wrong-- what is imprudent or immoral--is to use nature in ways that seem foolish or bad.

    More so than other species, people have the capacity to make nature better from their perspective--to improve upon it. This is most plainly true when it comes to gaining food and protection from harsh elements. Nature itself, of course, constrains this kind of ameliorative work. Oftentimes we successfully relax these constraints. But in important ways the Earth operates as it does, and it is our evolutionary charge and challenge to find ways of living that respect the planet's ways and means. For the most part, we need to dwell on Earth in ways that respect the planet's integrity and functioning.

    When we think clearly, we realize that the kinds of physical conditions on the planet that we refer to as environmental problems are, at bottom, unwanted conditions that people have caused. Nature's dynamic processes alter the world around us, sometimes in ways we find favorable, sometimes not. Nature itself causes problems for us--its storms, tidal waves, volcanoes, droughts, and so on. An environmental problem, though, is something else-- something other than nature acting or changing on its own. An environmental problem is a physical change caused by human conduct that we evaluate, in some sense, as wrongful or stupid. It is a condition that stems, not from our legitimate use of nature, but from our misuse of it. And the problem is, when we get to the root of it, not the changed natural condition--like the polluted air or the eroded soil--so much as it is the human behavior that causes it.

    This definition of an environmental problem--as human activity that degrades nature--is a useful one, even though, and in part because, it is so plainly incomplete. When we define an environmental problem in terms of human conduct, we draw attention to the conduct that is involved, if not to the particular people engaged in it. The definition helps also by highlighting our essential need to distinguish between the legitimate use of nature and the abuse of it, which is to say it emphasizes our need to draw a line between fair use and misuse. Without such a line how can we know which of the changes we make to nature are acceptable or good, and which are not? More generally, how can we know whether we are inhabiting the planet sensibly, in ways that can endure?

    We have long had trouble drawing this essential line between legitimate use and abuse, and, indeed, trouble even in appreciating the need for the line and the complexity of generating it. Decades into the environmental era, we still have no clear sense about all of the factors and elements that would likely seem pertinent to this line drawing--pertinent, that is, to an all-things-considered normative assessment of how we ought to live in relation to nature. Instead, we throw around the vague term, "sustainability," which lacks much meaning even when bolstered by the adjective "ecological." (7) Sustainability is fine enough, but what are we sustaining in a world where nature itself changes and human numbers and needs change, as well?

    We can expose this intellectual murkiness by imagining a drive around an expansive farm landscape in central Illinois. Are the people here making good use of this naturally fertile place? Are they engaged only in the legitimate use of nature, or have they in some respects crossed the line to misuse it? Simply by driving around we would not gather nearly enough factual data to answer this question; there would be too much to learn, and the ecological effects would be challenging if not impossible to trace. But we would stumble on this question also because we do not have, in hand, a sound normative standard to use in evaluating these rural Illinois land use practices. In truth, we lack anything like a clear overall standard for separating legitimate use from abuse at large scales. Of course we need food to eat, as farmland defenders point out, and farms provide it. But we need much more than that. A fully developed vision of good land use would reflect many relevant needs, values, and hopes, in addition to our basic need for something to eat.

    To offer this intellectual criticism is to point to a rather distinct failing in the environmental movement. The movement has had decades to compose a standard for evaluating modes of...

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