The Trouble With Wilderness

In William Cronon’s book, Uncommon Ground, he discusses how the way we view the natural world poses as a fundamental problem in our current conservation efforts.  In the quote below, Cronon addresses American’s view of wilderness.  It is scene as a separate entity, and the “antidote” of human civilization.

For many Americans wilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth. It is an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness. Seen in this way, wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet.

What’s interesting is that he actually questions this duality.  Is Nature (notice the capital “N”…we do seem to apply this supernatural and untouchable quality to the unhuman world) really separate? Or is it a product of civilization, teaming with our own desires to fix the problems with the civilized world?

The definitions of Wilderness itself imply a strong human influence.  Depending on the time period or the source, the definition of wilderness will change.  For example, European settlers described wilderness as “savage”, “unknown”, and “dangerous”.  The bible described it as a place “in its raw state [that had]…little or nothing to offer civilized men and women”.  In the end of the 19th century, this definition changed to romanticize wilderness as a place as beautiful as Heaven.  The concept of wilderness has always been influenced by humans.  It contains values and ideals that Cronon argues shouldn’t be included in environmentalist action.  “The trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject.”  The very definition of it is socially constructed by the society it is claimed to be the opposite of.

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