In 1995, William Cronon published an earthshaking essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness.”
In a nutshell, Cronon argues that wilderness is wholly a human creation, not an exemplar of primordial nature. Cronon knew his claim would be received as “heretical” to
many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet–indeed, a passion–of the environmental movement, especially in the United States.
And, boy was he right. Leading environmentalists of the day, from Dave Foreman to Terry Tempest Williams, pounced. Without rehashing the furor, suffice to say that Cronon was widely vilified as an egghead academic who probably wouldn’t recognize an old-growth redwood tree if it fell on him.
Not since Murray Bookchin challenged the self-loathing Deep Ecologists had environmentalists been compelled to eat one of their own. For Cronon, a prominent environmental historian, is actually quite a passionate nature writer. One of the highlights of my editoral tenture at Audubon Magazine was convincing him to write this essay in the issue following 9/11. Like everyone else at the time, we magazine editors experienced an existential crisis in the days and weeks afterward, which translated into: what the hell does it matter what we do?
So we devised a special section for the 2001 Nov/Dec issue, called, Why Nature Still Matters, and I lobbied for Cronon to write the introductory essay. He turned in a a gem.
Before I explain why Cronon’s shabby treatment in the mid-1990s is reminiscent of the hazing Andy Revkin is enduring today, let me say that most of Cronon’s critics missed the main point of his essay, which was to show that wilderness was a false idol for environmentalists, an outdated religion that should no longer serve as a main tenet of contemporary environmentalism:
In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature””in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.
In vain, Cronon also tried to inure himself from the attacks he surely must have anticipated:
By now I hope it is clear that my criticism in this essay is not directed at wild nature per se, or even at efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land, but rather at the specific habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction called wilderness. It is not the things we label as wilderness that are the problem””for nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world do deserve protection””but rather what we ourselves mean when we use the label.
I encourage anyone who wants to think deeply about this to read his essay in its entirety, or better yet, check out the book where it appears with other essays by scholars exploring the meaning of nature in other socio/cultural contexts.
Now, criticism against Cronon took two tracks: he was offending the Church of Wilderness, and that was just sacrilegious. Secondly, he was providing succor and ammunition to the enemy–anti-environmentalists in Congress who during the Gingrich years were quite determined to roll back environmental protections. (This gang has proved to be pikers compared to wrecking crew under George W. Bush.) That was also unforgivable.
After Cronon’s essay was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, some astute readers immediately recognized how tempting it would be for conservative Republicans to hijack Cronon’s essay. Alas, as David Foreman chronicles here, attempts to pervert Cronon’s thesis were made by the likes of Helen Chenowith.
I have never talked to Bill Cronon about this episode during his career, but I have heard secondhand that he was disturbed and hurt by the efforts of Greens to caricature him as some kind of Ivory Tower anti-environmentalist.
So what does this have to do with Andy Revkin, and to a lesser extent, Roger Pielke Jr?
Consider that a similar vitriolic campaign by climate advocates is now being waged against both invidividuals. See Joe Romm latest screech here, calling on Revkin to apologize to Al Gore for this article. As Romm says,
I have written multiple emails to Andy in an effort to get him to clear Gore’s name in print, and he refuses. If he won’t, I feel that someone must for the record and the search engines.
Romm has also made a point, in multiple posts during the past week, of calling on Andy to apologize to Al Gore. I have ridiculed this childish tactic here.
The same offense, on Gore’s behalf, has been amply registered by Michael Tobis, most recently here, where the bulk of the vile is aimed at Roger Pielke Jr., For those of you new to the controversy, check out this excellent dissection of Tobis and Romm by Tom Yulsman, and this broader overview of the whole ruckus at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.
As best as I can tell, the frothing by the likes of Romm and Tobis is now being sustained by some pathological desire to get Andy Revkin to cry uncle. Thus the endless calls for Revkin to apologize to Gore. I didn’t really understand what was motivating this until I thought back to Cronon’s ordeal.
It’s the Church of Al Gore. Revkin and Pielke Jr. have committed blasphemy by somehow besmirching Al Gore’s good name. Cronon did the same with wilderness and environmentalists were outraged, largely, I believe, because he struck a nerve.
To climate advocates, Gore serves as a similar and singular oracle. He is the man, the one person who has done more than anyone to elevate climate change as a leading issue in the world. As such, he is revered and ready for sainthood. If you are perceived to sully his reputation–especially on matters related to climate change–you are sullying the Church of Gore.
Clearly that won’t be tolerated in some quarters.