I found the Cronon essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness” fascinating. It really delves deeply into our culture notion of “wilderness” and all the term implies. I especially like how he moves through historical attitudes toward wilderness, how they represent ingrained ideologies (especially Judeo-Christian) and how these ideologies changed over time. Most interesting to me was how the U.S. identified with “wilderness” and the frontier and thus attached much cultural value to it. Even today there is still a cultural draw to move “out west,” even I fall victim to its romantic connotations.
He addresses how European societies have effectively created and have stuck with binary ideologies. We (as an outgrowth of Europe) seek simplicity and black-or-white distinctions in lofty abstract concepts, such as our relationship with our surroundings. Cronon looks specifically at the human-nature binary. This ideology leads us to believe that we are the antithesis to “wilderness” or what is wild. For example, the human-animal binary is another ideology along these lines. It doesn’t take much critical thought to realize that these ideologies (human-animal and human-nature) are hyperbolic and contain a fair amount of ignorance. For example, with regards to human v. animal, humans are in fact animals (primates to be exact.) The thought that we are somehow separated from our other fellow Earth inhabitants is simply not true. In fact, we are highly dependent on these non-human animals as are they upon us (at least with regards to domesticated animals.) There is this belief that we are separate from something that we in fact are inextricably tied to. It seems silly to assume that human beings arose independently of wilderness, though we seem somewhat detached from it presently. We actively avoid wilderness yet value it so. With this assumption, that we are the antithesis to “wilderness,” there follows the belief that we are not capable of living in it, and that our mere presence in it causes its downfall.
The most important point I got out of the essay was regarding this binary ethic and how it in itself is preventing us from reaching a sustainable balance with nature and wilderness. Cronon says it best on p.80 in Uncommon Ground, “Wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in it represents its fall . . . we thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”
These concepts discussed by Cronon can be nicely linked to stories discussed in The Meadowlands. The area, as described by Sullivan, has been vastly over exploited for various economic ventures. All of these profit driven efforts have seemed to somehow negatively affect the land in the long run. More importantly there seems to a theme of a severe decoupling of knowledge, on the capitalist’s side, regarding ecology and other natural phenomena, which has resulted in some catastrophic consequences. For example after many mine shafts built in the 17 and 1800’s were abandoned, filled in with concrete and buildings and homes were built on top of them. Then in 1989 sick holes began to develop all over town and when the location of these sink holes were mapped and compared to mining maps from over a hundred year ago they seemed to match up perfectly. This decoupling of knowledge seems to be a long standing feature in the development of the state, which for Europeans happened too long ago to be reassessed. Another example of the schism in knowledge occurs between politicians and scientists. For example, efforts to eradicate pests such as mosquitoes have been overwhelmingly supported by the public. Yet in reality, population dynamics and the realized niche of mosquito populations are often disregarded. The use of DDT as a pesticide worked initially in WWII to lower rates of mosquito diseases. After its overuse and resulting entrance into water ways it underwent biomagnification which was causing a severe decline in bald eagle populations, a bird we feel represents us as Americans. This example also encapsulates our paradoxical relationship with nature we treat it poorly yet value it immensely. DDT levels have since dropped and eagle populations are rising.
We, as products of western-culture, seem to feel as though we have “succeeded” in technology and are capable of accomplishing anything we put our minds to. This is true in many respects, but these technological efforts tend to be driven by short-term profit and/or immediate public safety, neither of which is sustainable in the long run. Even if we really do not know much about tampering with, we tend to do it anyway. We have the technology to move a forest around like a living room, yet we often pay little attention to why the forest was the way it was before we got there (i.e. how it functions ecologically, what features do this particular type of forest need to survive in the long-run?) These are types of questions capitalists do not feel they need to concern themselves with. After all from the classic economist Alan Keynes’ stand point, we are all dead in the long-run. This profit driven environmental tampering is something tied closely to capitalism which is closely tied to us as Americans. Yet while it has produced great wealth, capitalism has also irreversibly taken priceless wealth from many of the once beautiful and life filled ecosystems of North America. There is a central paradox in American culture: our insatiable appetite for “more” (whether its clothes, money, or land) is met by another seemingly opposing core value of a romantic identification with “wilderness” and the frontier. This presents a recurring theme in American conflict. We as American feel the need to have our cake and eat it too. Why is that? Are there any benefits to these contradictions?
Link to site on Eagles and DDT:
I believe this popular environmental issue is a great example of how Americans inadvertently and indirectly affect “wilderness.” It also shows a central duality existing in the U.S. between environmental conservation and the tendency to find short-term economically viable solutions to our problem, representing the decoupling or incompleteness in our knowledge base.