Nature, Redefined

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.

13 Responses to “Nature, Redefined”

  1. Menth says:

    Interesting post Keith. Thanks.

  2. Dean says:

    The book 1491 demonstrated that native / indigenous impacts on the ecosystem were far greater than the idealized version previously believed (as was their population). The separation between “wilderness” and human lives is fundamentally foreign to the indigenous viewpoint.
    Otoh, while they modified nature more than we imagined, it was still enormously less than modern technological society. The connection between their then recent arrival and the extinction of megafauna in the Americas remains controversial, but that one possibility aside, their impacts do not seem to have fundamentally lessened biodiversity as we clearly are now.
    So while a new and evolve version of wilderness may make more sense, the old one did make sense wrt the broader impacts, and in fact probably stemmed most from Christian religious ideology, which separates man from nature in a way that religions of indigenous cultures do not. Whether the nuance in all this can survive the politics of wilderness remains to be seen.

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    Dean, 1491 is a great book. Highly recommended for those interested in the subject. For something more ecologically relevant (but on the scholarly side), I also recommend Emily Russell’s, People and the Land through Time: Linking Ecology and History.

  4. edG says:

    #2. Dean, and Keith – Agree. 1491 is a great eye opener for starters. So is anything written by Dr. Charles E. Kay.

    The Wilderness Act is based on the First Big Myth (Lie) of the Enviro Movement, as stated here:

    “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”

    That deliberately ignores the existence of Native North Americans. And following this Myth, the junk science of Conservation Biology has built assumptions and models and false histories based on the false premise that Native North Americans had no impacts on anything. Complete nonsense.

    And Keith, Botkin followed the Myth in his firsty book about Lewis and Clark when he came up with the most absurd and ridiculous historic population estimate for grizzly bears. On top of his blindness to human impacts, the whole thing is a joke. He even calls it a ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculation – to which I would add, one done by a six-year old who doesn’t have a clue about habitat or ecology.

    Botkin later revised that estimate downward by almost 60% to a still impossible number. In the meantime the Green Liars keep going on about 100,000 grizzly bears in the historic western US, which is beyond ridiculous and was just invented – for political purposes – in the late 1960s. There is NO scientific calculation or other evidence to support that famous number, of course, because it is impossible. 

    The so-called ‘wilderness’ movement cannot handle the historical truth because that does not show what they want it to.

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    Your sweeping declarative statements (“junk science of Conservation Biology”; “green liars”) are a mirror version of the sweeping denunciations that people on the other side of the spectrum make of climate skeptics, and make it hard to take you seriously.

    I’ve worked with many conservation biologists on stories and also have read the journal “Conservation Biology” for years–my impressions couldn’t be farther from yours.

  6. Dean says:

    That the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act goes against native traditions doesn’t make it a lie. It is an accurate portrayal of wilderness in the western / Christian tradition. Prior to environmentalism, going back to the Middle Ages at least, wilderness was a bad thing, but it still was a place that humanity only visited but did not really live, at least in a way that was interpreted as civilized at the time. The Wilderness Act sticks with a traditional definition, but switches it from a negative or bad thing to a positive or good thing to be preserved – in limited quantities.
    What would be a lie is for us to adopt an indigenous definition of wilderness while sticking with our techno-centric lifestyle. That doesn’t mean that our definition can’t be updated in some form. But the view of wilderness for pre-Columbia populations of the Americas makes no sense for most of us now.

  7. edG says:

    5. Keith – Sweeping statements are a necessary evil in blogs. I am retired from a career in the conservation field and I watched, with increasing disappointment and delusionment, at what happened when the Conservation Biology gang took over. Unbelievable… until you know what the definition of that pseudoscience is.

    And the Big Lie about 100,000 historic grizzly bears is and began as a deliberate Big Lie, so that label seems appropriate.

    And you might want to check out Botkin’s pathetic effort at manufacturing numbers to support that historic grizzly bear Big Lie… even though he could only come up with only 55,000 on his first ‘back-of-the-envelope’ ecologically blind, statistically fraudulent, and historically unsubstantiated effort.

    Look who started the journal Conservation Biology. That says it all.

  8. edG says:

    6. Dean – I get your point. But unfortunately the junk models used by Conservation Biology to compare the ‘natural’ baseline to anything is based on the false concept of the ‘pristine wilderness’ which, in turn, is based on the Big Lie that Native North Americans had no impacts.

    This myth of rare and primitive indigenous people was actually created back when that served the purpose of explaining why it was OK to remove them so ‘superior’ white cultures could ‘improve’ the land for ‘God’ an all that. Since that is integral to the myth of the birth of the US it is deeply entrenched – conveniently for the greenies who want to use it to create false and misleading comparisons.

    Thus the so-called ‘natural’ areas now – like national parks – are not natural at all. They are manufactured ‘wilderness’ created because people wanted big game farms where they could see wildlife. That’s a good enough reason to create and maintain them. No lies required. 

  9. I’ve worked with many conservation biologists on stories and also have read the journal “Conservation Biology” for years”“my impressions couldn’t be farther from yours.”

    I know what you mean form similar experiences with really fine climate scientists. Unfortunately that sort of thing, however bad it feels, doesn’t carry as much weight as you might wish. 

    are a mirror version of the sweeping denunciations that people on the other side of the spectrum make of climate skeptics, “ 

    Huh? You’re putting me on, right?
    Check what the denier crowd says about Cronon himself, then.


  10. Eli Rabett says:

    A lot of this goes back to Olmstead and his invention of park design.  For examples local to you go to Central and Prospect park and then look at Dutch 16th and 17th century painting.
    In short, nothing new to this argument except your use of it to bash hippies.

  11. Leo G says:

    “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.”

    and again, I sincerly ask, what date precisely did humans leave nature? We do not mold nature, we do as nature intended us to do. 

  12. Leo G says:

    We, ARE MOLDED by Nature.

  13. Thanks for Yet Another thought-provoking post, Keith.
    Quote of the day:
    “It’s not what we don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
    — Mark Twain (probably)
    Cheers — Pete Tillman

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