Nature, Redefined

By Keith Kloor | July 29, 2011 11:29 am

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote:

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Since the late 1800s, the notion of wilderness as nature incarnate has been an animating force in American culture. A host of seminal, hugely influential environmental writers and activists, from John Muir and Aldo Leopold to David Brower and Edward Abbey, have idealized and championed wilderness.

In the 20th century, the wilderness ethos gave rise to the Sierra Club and the first wave of nature-centric environmentalism, energized the nascent conservation movement and influenced the emergent science of ecology.

The ideal of nature as undisturbed by humans and civilization was codified in the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined the characteristics of wilderness as

an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain; an area of underdeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation and which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.

Before going any further, let me just say that I’m as big a fan of wilderness protection as anyone. So is environmental historian William Cronon, who sits on The Wilderness Society’s Governing Council, but who also published this provocative 1995 essay. Here’s his thunderclap of an opener:

The time has come to rethink wilderness.

This will seem a heretical claim 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 indeed, such a claim was treated as heresy of the highest order. Cronon argued that wilderness, while intrinsically valuable, was nonetheless a cultural construction that encouraged a romanticized view of nature.

The blowback at the time was fierce (which Cronon responded to here), foreshadowing a similar outcry that followed ten years later, after this larger critique of environmentalism appeared. To me, the respective environmentalist tantrums of 1995 and 2005 exhibited a green movement stuck in a state of arrested development. (For more on why this is still the case, look for a follow-up post later today that will serve as a bookend to this one.) Alas, in the uproar over Cronon’s demythologizing of wilderness, this other important point he made in his essay got lost:

…the convergence of wilderness values with concerns about biological diversity and endangered species has helped produce a deep fascination for remote ecosystems, where it is easier to imagine that nature might somehow be “left alone” to flourish by its own pristine devices.

What’s the problem with this, you ask? Later on in his piece, Cronon writes:

Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others.

Fortunately ecologists have matured, as I noted last year in a discussion of this article on urban ecology. More evidence of an important paradigm shift underway comes in this NYT piece on Emma Marris and her newly published book: The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.

In the NYT interview, Marris says:

We’re at a moment in ecological and conservation thinking where this notion of the “wild pristine” gets pulled apart, and we see that wild and pristine are almost opposite. You can never have 100 percent pristine, you can only approach the pristine. It’s a little bit of any empty concept in some ways because it presupposes that there was some sort of magical moment when everything was right.

And because everything has been a moving target forever, there was no real magical moment. So “pristine” is a word that we use when we mean things looking like they did at the beginning of our cultural memory, which tends to be very short.

I’m thrilled that we’ve finally arrived at this moment in time, where our ideas of nature and ecological restoration have become more sophisticated. I just wish there was more public discussion accompanying this shift in cultural and ecological consciousness.

Because as ecologist Daniel Botkin writes in the postscript to his pioneering book, Discordant Harmonies:

Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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