January 24, 2007 | By:

#3 Around the Campfire; Wilderness Areas and Human/Nature Dualism

Dave Foreman’s Around the Campfire
“Wilderness Areas and Human/Nature Dualism”
The Rewilding Institute www.rewilding.org
Issue 3 January 21, 2007

The beating heart of the 1964 Wilderness Act is the definition of Wilderness Areas as places “where man is a visitor who does not remain.” This idea of uninhabited solitudes upsets some intellectual critics of the Wilderness Idea – the so-called wilderness deconstructionists – and their resource exploitation allies. Strangely, they are troubled that the standard of visitors-only separates humans from Nature and leads to “environmental” harm.
In 1994, for example, a top environmental philosopher referred to “the received wilderness idea, that is, the idea that wilderness is ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain.'”[1] He further wrote that “the wilderness idea perpetuates the pre-Darwinian myth that ‘man’ exists apart from nature.”[2]

And, in 1996 an environmental historian wrote that “wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural.”[3] He also claimed, “Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature – as wilderness tends to do – is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.” [4] (I acknowledge that these specific quotations are ten years old or more. I use them because they so well sum up the matter in question, and because such notions are still used by wilderness foes.)

This arms-crossed antiwilderness stand has drawn support from some sustainable-development boosters in the Third World as well as from some enviro-resourcists in the United States. For example, in their late-2004 blast, “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus glommed onto this notion. [5]

I am baffled by the logic here.

Wilderness does not say that humans exist apart from Nature. Wilderness says that Nature can exist apart from humans. These are very different things.

Contrary to the wilderness deconstructionists’ beliefs, it is not wilderness areas but agriculture and civilization that have caused a Nature-human dualism. If we can get out of the realm of disembodied theory and go outside to researchers who get dirt under their fingernails (sometimes very, very old dirt), we can get somewhere with this question about the cleaving of humans from Nature. Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History is one of the world’s leading thinkers on evolution and on extinction. His chapter, “Cretaceous Meteor Showers, the Human Ecological ‘Niche,’ and the Sixth Extinction,” in the valuable anthology Extinctions in Near Time is a bright gift to the question of whether humans are part of Nature or not. Unfortunately, I doubt if many have carefully read Eldredge’s chapter, or have even heard of it, despite its mind-opening importance.

Let’s be very clear: this human/Nature question is not a deconstructionist toy with which to play in the coffeehouse or academic lounge; it is a matter of life and death since those who are trying to squeeze more dollars out of Nature have long argued that because humans are part of Nature, everything we do is natural – so, why worry? Therefore, this question becomes central to our battle to stop the Sixth Great Extinction. And it is why I bring it to you now.

Eldredge very effectively shows that with the development of agriculture we ceased being just another animal. He writes that “the invention of agriculture was much more like a declaration of independence from – or even war on – local ecosystems . . . Agriculture – the human culturally mediated control of food production – removes local bands of people from the local ecosystem.” [6] This is a bedrock understanding. The great British-Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in 1928 likewise saw the impact of agriculture, though in a positive way. To him, agriculture was a “revolution whereby man ceased to be purely a parasite and . . . became a creator emancipated from the whims of his environment.” [7] Human ecologist Paul Shepard also saw the invention of agriculture as the beginning of our estrangement from Nature. [8]

Rapid human population growth after agriculture was a proof of our removal from ecosystems. Eldredge writes, “The stunning growth of human population after the invention of agriculture can mean only one thing, namely, that the primordial limits to such growth were demolished. We did not simply get better at wresting a living from ecosystems: We actually stopped doing that . . . in favor of agriculture.” [9]

By freeing ourselves from local ecosystems and becoming a rootless economic entity throughout the whole planet, we have come “to resemble Cretaceous comets in our devastating impact on the global ecosystem.” [10] Ernst Mayr, one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, explained, “Biological causes and natural selection are dominant in background extinction, whereas physical factors and chance are dominant in mass extinction.” [11] Human beings have become a physical factor instead of a biological cause. We have done this by alienating ourselves from Nature through agriculture. This is not something done to us, it is something we have done to Nature.

I think the issue is settled. There is a rift between humans and Nature. Humans caused the breach, through permanent settlement and agriculture.

The question now becomes, “How do we try to heal that breach?” And heal it we must if we are to keep the living diversity of Nature from evaporating away in our hot breath. From the wilderness deconstructionists, resourcists, and landscalpers, the answer seems to be that we continue to modify, domesticate, and conquer Nature in order to replace it with an artificial, human-created Earth. A garden. Our Will. Uber alles.

Wilderness champions, true conservationists, have a better answer. Wilderness areas are the best idea we have had for healing that breach, for remembering the inherent value of wild Nature, for putting people back into Nature in a humble, respectful, and harmless way. We must understand that we can love something to death, that in possessing a place we can harm it. Indeed, love and the sickness of possessing are mutually exclusive. Wilderness areas, where we are visitors who do not remain, bring us back into Nature, Nature back into us, without the wounding that permanent habitation would cause.

By enslaving fire, developing agriculture, and founding permanent settlements, we humans domesticated ourselves. [12] Where domesticated animals stop, plant their flag, and stay, they domesticate the living community around them. Our will floods in, and the self-will of the land erodes away.

The absence of permanent human presence is a bone that really sticks in the craw of people-worshipping critics of wilderness. Their notion that wilderness areas alienate humans from Nature is spectacularly odd. Am I alienated from Nature because I am perfectly at ease spending three weeks in deep wilderness in rotten weather far from any human settlement? Am I alienated from Nature because I thrill to be near big wild animals  – wildeors? I am utterly baffled that someone would suggest this.

Most of Earth’s surface has been without permanent human habitation for most of our time here, despite what we hear from some champions of the Noble Savage Myth. [13] Recognizing that we behaviorally modern Homo sapiens have only very recently arrived in most ecosystems is not misanthropic. Nor is it misanthropic to acknowledge that effective conservation strategies must be based on large protected areas where humans do not have permanent habitations. [14] Vast landscapes where people are visitors who do not remain are normal. They are even – (why not say it?) – natural.

Again, humans need Nature; Nature does not need humans. (Except to clean up our mess.)

On this point of alienation, I am dumbfounded, as I am sure many other wilderness visitors are. Loving unpeopled Nature means you are alienated from Nature. Desiring a Nature that has been reshaped and tamed by humans means that you are in harmony with Nature. Very strange, indeed.

I have spent many, many days and nights in wilderness, from the Arctic coastal plain to the southern Andes. I have not found that these landscapes where I am only a visitor separate me from Nature. When I am backpacking or canoeing in a wilderness, I am at ease.

It is those who feel ill at ease in uninhabited wilderness who are alienated from Nature. I believe that some foes of wilderness are so afraid of wild Nature that they can only face the out-of-doors where the permanent presence and work of humans has domesticated it. Many people are so cut off from Nature that they fear or even loathe the wildeors that flourish where humans do not live.

Wilderness areas where humans are visitors who do not remain test us as nothing else can. No other places teach us humility so well as do wilderness areas­whether we go to them or not. Wilderness asks: Can humans show the self-restraint to leave some places alone? Can we consciously choose to share the land with those species that do not tolerate us well? Can we have the generosity of spirit, the greatness of heart to not be everywhere?

No other challenge calls for self-restraint, generosity, and humility more than does wilderness area protection. Can we measure up? Or in our arrogance will we turn the whole Earth into a barnyard or cityscape?

Dave Foreman
Bosque del Apache

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[1] J. Baird Callicott, “A Critique of and an Alternative to the Wilderness Idea,” Wild Earth, Winter 1994/95, 54.
[2] Callicott, “Critique and Alternative,” 56.
[3] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996), 80.
[4] Cronon, “Trouble with Wilderness,” 87.
[5] Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics In A Post-Environmental World,” September 29, 2004.
[6] Niles Eldredge, “Cretaceous Meteor Showers, the Human Ecological ‘Niche,’ and the Sixth Extinction,” in Ross D. E. MacPhee, editor, Extinctions in Near Time: Causes, Contexts, and Consequences (Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York, 1999), 12. Although this is a damn expensive book, I recommend it highly, not just for Eldredge’s seminal chapter, but also for a number of excellent chapters about the last 50,000 years of extinctions. I would hope that most serious libraries would have a copy.
[7] William Ryan and Walter Pittman, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (Touchstone, New York, 2000), 167.
[8] Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness (University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998 (1982)).
[9] Eldredge, “Cretaceous Meteor Showers,” 13.
[10] Eldredge, “Cretaceous Meteor Showers,” 14.
[11] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is ( Basic Books, New York, 2001), 203.
[12] John A. Livingston, Rogue Primate: An exploration of human domestication (Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1994).
[13] We – behaviorally modern humans – have existed for not much more than 50,000 years. For much of those fifty millennia, however, the Americas remained free of humans. Even on those continents where we existed, vast tracts remained unoccupied because of our tiny population.
[14] Michael E. Soule and John Terborgh, editors, Continental Conservation (Island Press, Washington, D.C., 1999).

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17 years ago

Dave, in my daily travels around the old, worn-out anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, the very idea of “wildness” seems as far away as the Moon. Or President Bush’s long-forgotten “mission to Mars” photo op. Conservationists have much work to do when a co-worker tells me that he’d never take his kids out to the nearest state park until it has been “developed.” There might be snakes, he pointed out.

17 years ago

Our track record so far looks incredibly bad— one might be tempted to despairingly conclude that I am part of an alien species that cares nothing for its own home (the planet) and that we well deserve to be eliminated from the scene, before the scene itself is soiled beyond repair.
It is not my nature to be gloomy — but I am tempted.
Raised in near wilderness (Alberta, near the dinosaur excavations), I mourn the quiet- empty landscape that as a kid I found so boring. Now that I am a little saner (took nearly 70 years) I see that it is the wilderness which is endlessly exciting, and the cities are not just boring but crazy-making.
Did our genes get mixed up with some ant species somewhere? What we call civilization is NOT really us.

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