20 The Great Wilderness Debate, Again

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Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let

the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last

virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette

cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild

species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air

and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads

through the last of the silence, so that never again . . . can we

have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical, and

individual in the world part of the environment of trees and

rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural

world and competent to belong in it.

—Wallace Stegner

It is odd that attacks on the idea of wilderness have multiplied as the

thing itself has all but vanished. Even alert sadists will at some point

stop beating a dead horse. In the lower 48 states, federally designated

wilderness accounts for only 1.8 percent of the total land area.

Including Alaskan wilderness, the total is only 4.6 percent. This is less

than the land we’ve paved over for highways and parking lots. For

perspective, Disney World is larger than one-third of our wilderness

areas (Turner 1998, 619). Outside the United States there is little or

no protection for the 11 percent of the earth that remains wild. It is to

be expected that attacks on the last remaining wild areas would come

from those with one predatory interest or another, but it is disconcerting

that in the final minutes of the 11th hour they come from

those who count themselves as environmentalists. Each of these critics

claims to be for wilderness, but against the idea of wilderness. This

fault line deserves careful scrutiny.1

In a recent article, for example, novelist Marilynne Robinson concludes

that “we must surrender the idea of wilderness, accept the fact

that the consequences of human presence in the world are universal

and ineluctable, and invest our care and hope in civilization” (1998,

64). She arrives at this position not with joy, but with resignation. She

describes her love of her native state of Idaho as an “unnameable

yearning.” But wilderness, however loved, “is where things can be hidden

. . . things can be done that would be intolerable in a populous

landscape.” Has Robinson not been to New York, Los Angeles, Mexico

City, or Calcutta, where intolerable things are the norm? But she

continues: “The very idea of wilderness permits . . . those who have

isolation at their disposal [to do] as they will” (ibid.). Presumably

there would be no nuclear waste sites and no weapons laboratories

without wilderness in which to hide them. She ignores the fact that

the decisions to desecrate rural areas are mostly made by urban people

or support one urban interest or another.

Robinson then comes to the recognition that history is not an uninterrupted

triumphal march. There have been, she notes, a few dips

along the way. The end of slavery in the United States produced a

subsequent condition “very much resembling bondage” (Robinson

1998, 63). Now “those who are concerned about the world environment

are the abolitionists of this era” whose “successes quite exactly

resemble failure.” So with a few successes under their belt, unnamed

conservationists propose to establish a global “environmental policing

system” and serve in the role of “missionary and schoolmaster” to the

1. The title of this chapter was borrowed from a book edited by Baird Callicott

and Michael Nelson (1998).

rest of the world. But we cannot legitimately serve in that role because

we, in the developed world,“have ransacked the world for these

ornaments and privileges and we all know it” (ibid.). Accordingly,

Robinson concludes that wilderness has “for a long time figured as an

escape from civilization,” so “we must surrender the idea of wilderness”

(ibid., 64).

I have omitted some details, but her argument is clear enough.

Robinson is against the idea of wilderness, but she does not tell us

whether she is for or against preserving, say, the Bob Marshall or

Gates of the Arctic, or whether she would give them away to AMAX

or Mitsubishi. She is against the idea of wilderness because it seems to

her that it has diverted our attention from the fact that “every environmental

problem is a human problem” and we ought to solve

human problems first. Whether environmental problems and human

problems might be related, Robinson does not say.

The environmental movement certainly has its shortcomings.

There are, in fact, good reasons to be suspicious of movements of any

kind. But there is more at issue in Robinson’s argument. The recognition

that governments sometimes use less-populated areas for military

purposes hardly constitutes a reason to fill up what’s left of Idaho

with shopping malls and freeways. Her assertion that abolition and

environmentalism have produced ironic results is worth noting. But

does she mean to say that we ought to ignore slavery, human rights

abuses, toxic waste dumps, biotic impoverishment, or human actions

that are changing the climate because we might otherwise incur unexpected

and ironic consequences? Yes, rich countries have “ransacked

the world,” but virtually the only voices of protest have been

those of conservationists aware of the limits of the earth. And what

could she possibly mean by saying that “we are desperately in need of

a new, chastened, self-distrusting vision of the world, an austere vision

that can postpone the outdoor pleasures of cherishing exotica . . . and

the debilitating pleasures of imagining that our own impulses are reliably

good” (Robinson 1993, 64)? Are we to take no joy in the creation

or find no solace or refuge in a few wild places? Who among us imagines

their impulses to be reliably good? Would she confine us to shopping

malls and a kind of indoor, air-conditioned introspection? Finally,

Robinson seems not to have noticed that the same civilization in need

of rehabilitation has done a poor job of protecting its land and natural

endowment. Is it possible that human problems and environmental

problems are reverse sides of the same coin of indifference and that

we do not have the option of presuming to solve one without dealing

with the other?

Robinson’s broadside is only the latest salvo in a battle that began

years earlier with articles by Ramachandra Guha (1998 a, 1998b),

Baird Callicott (1991), and William Cronon (1995). The issues they

raised were, to some extent, predictable. Guha, for example, believes

that the designation of wilderness in many parts of the world has led

to “the displacement and harsh treatment of the human communities

who dwelt in these forests” (1998a, 273). His sensible conclusion is

simply that “the export and expansion [of wilderness] must be done

with caution, care, and above all, with humility” (ibid., 277).

Callicott’s views and their subsequent restatement raise more

complex and arcane issues. Callicott begins, as do most wilderness

critics, by asserting that he is “as ardent an advocate” of wilderness as

anyone and believes bird-watching to be “morally superior to dirtbiking”

(1991, 339). The idea of wilderness may be wrong-headed, he

thinks, “but there’s nothing whatever wrong with the places that we

call wilderness” (ibid., 587). He is discomforted by what he terms “the

received concept of wilderness” inherited from our forebears who

were all white males like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David

Thoreau, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold. Callicott

is unhappy with “what passes for civilization and its mechanical

motif” that can conserve nature only by protecting a few fragments.

He proposes, instead, to rescue civilization by “shift[ing] the burden

of conservation from wilderness preservation to sustainable development”

(ibid., 340). He proposes to “integrate wildlife sanctuaries into

a broader philosophy of conservation that generalizes Leopold’s vision

of a mutually beneficial and mutually enhancing integration of

the human economy with the economy of nature” (ibid., 346). This

does not mean, however, “that we open the remaining wild remnants

to development” (ibid.).

The heart of Callicott’s argument, however, has to do with three

deeper problems he finds in the idea of wilderness. Wilderness continues,

he thinks, the division between humankind and nature. It is

ethnocentric and causes us to overlook the effects tribal peoples had

on the land. And, third, the very attempt to preserve wilderness is

misplaced given the change characteristic of dynamic ecosystems.

Callicott’s critics, including philosopher Holmes Rolston, have re-

sponded by refuting these premises. Humans are not natural in the

way Callicott supposes. There are “radical discontinuities between

culture and nature” (Rolston 1991, 370). The 8 million or so tribal

people living without horses, wheels, and metal axes had a relatively

limited effect on the ecology of North America. After the initial colonization

10,000 or more years ago, the effects they did have, such as

burning particular landscapes, did not differ much from natural disturbances

such as fires ignited by lightning. As for the charge that conservationists

are trying to preserve some idealized and unchanging

landscape, Rolston asserts that “Callicott writes as if wilderness advocates

had studied ecology and never heard of evolution. . . . Wilderness

advocates do not seek to prevent natural change” (ibid., 375). To

his critics, Callicott’s dichotomy between wilderness preservation and

sustainable development, as if these are mutually exclusive, makes little


The dispute over wilderness went public in 1995 with the publication

of William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness, or

Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in the New York Times Magazine.

Cronon did not add much that had not already been said, but he did

give the debate a postmodern spin and the kind of visibility that lent

considerable aid and comfort to the “wise use” movement and rightwing

opponents of wilderness. Remove the scholarly embellishments,

and Cronon’s piece is a long admonition to the effect that “we

can(not) flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation

to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably

entails. Most of all, it means practicing remembrance and

gratitude for thanksgiving is the simplest and most basic of ways for

us to recollect the nature, the culture, and the history that have come

together to make the world as we know it” (1995a, 90).

Like Callicott, Cronon hopes that his readers understand that his

criticism is “not directed at wild nature per se . . . but rather at the specific

habits of thinking that flow from this complex cultural construction

called wilderness” (1995a, 81). In other words, 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 that label.” That

caveat notwithstanding, he proceeds to argue that “the trouble with

wilderness is that it . . . reproduces the very values its devotees seek to

reject.” It represents a “flight from history” and “the false hope of an

escape from responsibility.” Wilderness is “very much the fantasy of

people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a

living” (ibid., 80). It “can offer no solution to the environmental and

other problems that confront us.” Instead, by “imagining that our true

home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually

inhabit” which poses a “serious threat to responsible environmentalism.”

The attention given to wilderness, according to Cronon, comes

at the expense of environmental justice. Further, advocacy of wilderness

“devalues productive labor and the very concrete knowledge that

comes from working the land with one’s own hands” (ibid., 85). But

Cronon’s principle objection is “that it may teach us to be dismissive

or even contemptuous of . . . humble places and experiences,” including

our own homes.

Cronon concludes the essay by describing why the “cultural traditions

of wilderness remain so important” (1995a, 88). He asserts that

“wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience

of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the

planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves

do not inhabit” (ibid.). He admonishes us to pay attention to

the wildness inherent in our own gardens, backyards, and landscapes.

“The Trouble with Wilderness” later appeared as the lead chapter

in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (Cronon 1995b).

The authors’ collective intention was to describe the many ways the

concept of nature is socially constructed and to ask: “Can our concern

for the environment survive our realization that its authority flows as

much from human values as from anything in nature that might

ground those values?” (ibid., 26). The book is a collage of the obvious,

the fanciful, the “occulted,”2 and disconnected postmodernism contrived

as part of a University of California–Irvine conference titled

“Reinventing Nature.” The contributors were asked to summarize

their thoughts in an addendum at the end of the volume titled “Toward

a Conclusion,” suggesting that they had not reached one. In an

insightful retrospective, landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn,

author of the best chapter in the book, lamented the fact that the discussions

were “so abstracted from the ‘nature’ in which we were liv-

2. The word is one used by Gary Snyder describing the same conference, “an

odd exercise” he thought. See Gary Snyder, A Place in Space. (Washington:

Counterpoint, 1995), p. 250.

ing . . . the talk seemed so disembodied” (ibid., 448). She wondered

“how different our conversations might have been if they had not

taken place under fluorescent lights, in a windowless room, against

the whistling whoosh of the building’s ventilation system” (ibid.). Indeed,

the entire exercise of “reinventing nature” had the aroma of an

indoor, academic, resume-building exercise. And the key assumption

of the exercise—that nature can be reinvented—works only if one

first conceives it as an ephemeral social construction. If nature is so

unhitched from its moorings in hard physical realities, it can be recast

as anything one fancies.

Not surprisingly, wilderness critics have received a great deal of

criticism (Foreman 1994, 1996, 1998; Rolston 1991; Sessions 1995;

Snyder 1995, 1996; Soule and Lease 1995; Willers 1996–1997).

After the dust has settled a bit, what can be said of “the great new

wilderness debate”? First, on the positive side, I think it can be said

that, under provocation from Callicott, Cronon, and others, a

stronger and more useful case for wilderness protection emerged

(Foreman 1994, 1996, 1998; Grumbine 1996–1997; Noss 1998a,

1998b). The conjunction of older ideas about wilderness providing

spiritual renewal and primitive recreation with newer ones concerning

ecological restoration and the preservation of biodiversity offers a

better and more scientifically grounded basis to protect and expand

remaining wilderness areas in the twenty-first century. It is clear that

we will need to fit the concept and the reality of wilderness into a

larger concept of land use that includes wildlife corridors, sustainable

development, and the mixed-use zones surrounding designated

wilderness. But the origin of these ideas owes as much to Aldo

Leopold as to any contemporary wilderness proponent. And, yes, environmentalists

and academics alike need to make these ideas work

for indigenous people, farmers, ranchers, and loggers. Development of

conservation biology, low-impact forestry methods, and sustainable

agriculture suggest that this is beginning to happen. For these advances,

wilderness advocates can be grateful for their critics.

On a less positive note, the debate over wilderness resembles the

internecine, hair-splitting squabbles of European socialists between

1850 and 1914. Often the differences between the various positions

of that time were neither great nor consequential. Nonetheless, positions

hardened, factions and parties formed around minutiae, and

contentiousness and conspiracy became the norm on the political

Left. As a result, by 1914 the Left had coalesced into ideologically

based factions, firmly and irrevocably committed to one impractical

doctrine or another. It was a great tragedy that when the world

needed far better ideas about the organization of property, government,

and capital, in the early decades of the twentieth century, it had

few from the Left. Instead, socialists of whatever stripe gave the

strong impression to mainstream society that they had nothing coherent

or reasonable to offer. Their language was obscure, their proposed

solutions often entailed violence, their public manners were uncivil,

and their tone was absolutist. It was in this environment that Lenin

and his Bolsheviks concocted the odd brew of socialism, intolerance,

brutality, messianic pretensions, and ancient czarist autocracy that became

known as Marxism-Leninism. And the rest of the story, as they

say, is history.

Like that of the early twentieth century, the world now more

than ever needs better ideas about how to meld society, economy, and

ecology into a coherent, fair, and sustainable whole. The question is

whether environmentalists can offer practical, workable, and sensible

ideas, not abstractions, arcane ideology, spurious dissent, and ideological

hair-splitting reminiscent of nineteenth-century socialists. In this

regard, the most striking aspect of the ongoing great wilderness debate

is the similarity that exists between positions that were initially

cast as mutually exclusive. There is no necessary divide, for example,

between protecting wilderness and sustainable development. On the

contrary, these are complementary ideas. And there are some issues,

such as the old and unresolvable question about whether and to what

degree humans are part of or separate from nature, that are hardly

worth arguing about over and over again. Nor do we need to hear truisms

that wilderness must be adapted to the circumstances, culture,

and needs of particular places. These are obvious facts that deserve to

be treated as such. Finally, since all participants profess support for

the thing called wilderness, as distinct from the idea of it, we are entitled

to ask, What is the point of the great wilderness debate? If we intend

to influence our age in the little time we have, we must focus

more clearly and effectively on the large battles that we dare not lose.

The time and energy invested in our great debates should be judged

against the sure knowledge that, while we argue among ourselves,

others are busy bulldozing, clear-cutting, mining, building roads, and,

above all, lobbying the powers that be.

Third, the effort to find common ground by “reinventing nature”

along postmodernist lines seems to me to have the same foundational

perspicacity as, say, the effort to extract sunbeams from cucumbers

for subsequent use in inclement summers—a project of the great

academy of Lagado, described by Jonathan Swift. Most surely we see

nature through the lens of culture, class, and circumstance. Even so, it

is remarkable how similarly nature is, in fact, “constructed” across different

classes, cultures, times, and circumstances. This is so because

gravity, sunlight, geology, soils, animals, and the biogeochemical cycles

of the earth are the hard physical realities in which we live, move, and

have our being.We are free to describe them in different symbols and

wrap them in different cultural frameworks, but we do not thereby

diminish their reality.

The idea that we are free to reinvent nature is, I think, an indulgence

made possible because we have temporarily created an artificial

world based on the extravagant use of fossil fuels. But that idea will

not be particularly useful for helping us create a sustainable and sustaining

civilization, however useful it may be as a reason to organize

conferences in exotic places and for keeping postmodernists employed

at high-paying, indoor jobs. “Reckless deconstructionism,” in

the words of Peter Coates, “cuts the ground from under the argument

for the preservation of endangered species” (1998, 185). More

broadly, it prevents us from taking any constructive action whatsoever.

The postmodern contribution to environmentalism has privileged

(in their word) an arcane, indoor, and ivory tower kind of environmentalism

with more than a passing similarity to views otherwise

found only on the extreme political right. Separated as it is from both

physical and political realities, as well as the folks down at the truck

stop, postmodernism provides no realistic foundation for a workable

or intellectually robust environmentalism.

Looking ahead to the twenty-first century, the debate over

wilderness has illuminated the fact that we will need larger, not

smaller, ideas about land, nature, and ourselves. We will need more,

not less, ecological imagination. We certainly need to be mindful of

the “otherness” in our backyards, as Bill Cronon reminds us, but that

reminder is a small idea that comes at a time when we must cope

with global problems of species extinction, climatic change, emerging

diseases, and the breakdown of entire ecosystems. We need a larger

view of land and landscape than is possible where “It’s mine and I’ll

do with it as I damn well please” is the prevailing philosophy. As Aldo

Leopold pointed out decades ago, we need well-kept farms and

homeplaces, well-managed forests, and large wilderness areas. None

of these needs to compete with any other. Of the four, wilderness

protection is by far the hardest to achieve. It is a societal choice that

requires an ecologically literate public, political leadership, economic

interests with a long-term view, and above all, the humility necessary

to place limits on what we do. Until we have created a more farsighted

culture, the conjunction of these forces will always be rare,

fragile, and temporary.

The battle over wilderness will grow in coming decades as the pressures

of population growth and alleged economic necessity mount.

There will be, someday soon, urgent calls to undo the Wilderness Act

of 1964 and release much of the land it now protects to mining, economic

expansion, and recreation facilities. At the same time it is entirely

possible that much of our affection for wilderness, rural areas,

and wildness will decline if we continue to become a tamer and more

indoor people. In Brave New World (1932), Aldous Huxley described

the effort to “condition the masses to hate the country” while conditioning

them “to love all country sports.” This process is already well

under way, and we are the less for it. As D. H. Lawrence put it: “Oh,

what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm

of the year, from his unison with the sun and the earth. Oh, what a catastrophe,

what a maiming of love when it was made a personal,

merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the

sun, and cut off from the magical connection of the solstice and equinox.

This is what is wrong with us.We are bleeding at the roots” (Bass

1996, 21).

In the century ahead, the battle over wilderness will become a

part of a much larger struggle.We have entered a new wilderness of

sorts, one of our own making, consisting of technology that will offer

us a virtual reality (an oxymoron if there ever was one), fun, excitement,

and convenience. Caught between the ugliness that accompanies

ecological decline and the siren call of a phony reality cut off

from soils, forests, wildlife, and each other, we will be hard pressed to

maintain our sanity and the best parts of our humanity. The struggle

for wilderness and wildness in all of its forms is no less than a struggle

over what we are to make of ourselves. I believe we need more

wilderness and wildness, not less. We need more wildlands, wildlife,

wildlife corridors, mixed-use zones, wild and scenic rivers, and, even

urban wilderness. But above all, we need people who know in their

bones that these things are important because they are the substrate

of our humanity and an anchor for our sanity.