The Meaning of Wilderness

17 June 2019

The word ‘wilderness’ conjures images of towering trees, forest paths, bubbling brooks and open skies. There are no buildings, no signs of human habitation, and there is a stillness or silence punctuated only by the wind, birdsong or animals scampering over leaf litter. This form of wilderness is linked to a longing for a life that is more in touch with the natural world. At the same time, this wilderness, in its emphasis on pristine, untouched nature, excludes human beings. How can we exist in wilderness if our very presence alters it and makes it less wild?

The concept of wilderness is important because it affects environmental legislation and conservation efforts across the globe. If human presence destroys wilderness then the only way we can truly ‘save’ or preserve wilderness is to eliminate ourselves.

This flaw in the concept of wilderness has been recognised. The IUCN’s most recent definition of wilderness areas emphasises that they “…do not exclude people. Rather, they exclude certain human uses, in particular industrial uses”. The IUCN also acknowledges “a fundamental human relationship” with wilderness. This development is linked to a shift away from the modern, Western idea of wilderness. It is a response to post- modernism and the growing demand for the inclusion and consideration of non-Western perspectives.

The contradictions in the modern idea of wilderness originate from several movements in Western philosophy. One of the earliest of these is a nature- culture dualism. This is the idea that nature is the opposite of culture. Nature is defined by what culture
is not, and vice versa. Since culture is supposedly uniquely human, nature becomes anything not-human. This dualism has its roots in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy which, according to Peter Coates, “endorsed the righteousness of human control” over nature.

Seemingly in contradiction to this, nature and wilderness were also romanticised. The ideal, pastoral, bountiful landscape has taken several forms in Western philosophy, including the Garden of Eden and Arcadia. The idea of the sublime evolved in parallel to this. The sublime encompasses the feelings of awe and wonder that often border on terror when one experiences isolated untouched nature. Through this lens, pristine nature became a place for soul-searching or finding oneself; a place to escape to. However, this still positions human civilisation in opposition to wilderness. In order for human beings to live in wilderness we must not leave our mark on it, instead giving up a ‘civilised’ life and reverting to a Spartan, low-impact lifestyle.

The result is that we glorify the areas that fulfil this idea of wilderness and, more significantly, disregard regions that do not meet these conditions. This has serious consequences for environmentalism. We prioritise the protection and preservation of areas that fulfil the romanticised image of wilderness. Management practices also become fixated on maintaining wilderness in this state, regardless of whether it is a product of natural, ecological processes. This completely contradicts the IUCN’s statement that wilderness areas should be “unmodified or slightly modified”. Similar contradictions appear in the US Wilderness Act in which wilderness areas should be “untrammelled by man” but, at the same time, are “preserved and managed” by human beings.

In restricting wilderness to these pockets of grand, non-human landscapes, we exclude ourselves from wilderness. Excluding ourselves from wilderness prevents us from treating our human-made environments as a part of Earth’s biome and our existence as ecologically significant. Environmental historian William Cronon believes that this prevents
us from “discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honourable human place in nature might actually look like”. By disregarding the wilderness of our own, citified environments we ignore our impact on our environment and what we can do to maintain its health.

The need for a new definition of wilderness grows as sublime, untouched wilderness inevitably disappears. As the human population increases, it becomes increasingly unrealistic to try and preserve pockets of untouched land. Redefining wilderness is essential to changing environmental legislation, preserving biodiversity and preserving the environments that human beings depend on.

Outside of Western philosophy, many cultures do not consider nature and wilderness as separate and outside of human beings and culture. Indigenous Australians, for example, have a relationship with country that is diametrically opposed to Western approaches to nature. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service described this relationship as “a system of kinship with the natural world” as well as “a worldview…in which the natural world and humans are participants in life processes”. There is a belief in “ecological connectivity” which manifests as respect and “care for country”. Whereas Western approaches to wilderness have been defined by a nature-culture dualism, the Indigenous Australia framework is one of “connectivities between humanity and nature”. This approach avoids the dualisms which exclude human beings from nature and recognises that human communities are also ecological communities.

Additionally, the modern Western idea of wilderness, which excludes human beings, has been used to justify the removal of Indigenous peoples from their land. Seeking to minimise human presence and modification in so-called wilderness areas has led to the dispossession of indigenous lands from Native North Americans.

Thus, the modern, Western idea of wilderness is also racist, excluding specific groups of human beings from wilderness. Besides being used to aid colonisation and the destruction of indigenous cultures, this perspective dismisses indigenous knowledge of ecosystems.
With the emergence of ecology, accompanied by a rapid and continually accelerating loss of biodiversity, the idea of wilderness has recently undergone necessary changes. The nature-culture dualism of Western philosophy promoted an anthropocentric worldview. Twentieth-century ecologists Aldo Leopold and John Stanley Rowe argued that “ecocentrism, defined as a value-shift from Homo sapiens to planet earth”, is necessary to remedy the environmental crisis. Ecocentrism places human beings within the biosphere: it “expands the moral community” so that ethical practices are extended to ecosystems themselves.

The development of new ideas in ecology, such as urban ecology, also reflect a breakdown of the modern, Western idea of wilderness. John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science, defines urban ecology as “the study of ecosystems that include humans living in cities and urbanising landscapes”. Previously, ecology prioritised the study of untouched, pristine ecosystems – or wilderness. In contrast, urban ecology challenges the nature-culture dualism as it “aims to understand how human and ecological processes can coexist in human- dominated systems”.

This movement within ecology may suggest that the modern idea of wilderness should be abandoned entirely. Post-modern criticism argues that wilderness no longer exists because there are no more pristine natural spaces. However, the IUCN believes that wilderness is still significant to human culture and calls for “a new view of the human relationship to nature: one of respect, reciprocity and partnership, a philosophy and practice far more familiar to most Indigenous Peoples”. By re-fashioning their definition of wilderness, which underpins environmental legislation across the globe, the IUCN has provided a guide for a more sustainable approach to conservation.

The resulting new idea of wilderness, drawing on indigenous philosophies and new movements in science, counters the nature-culture dualism, Arcadian vision and the sublime of Western philosophy. In this post-modern wilderness, human beings do not exist separately from wilderness but inhabit it. In redefining wilderness to include ourselves, we are laying the foundations for a sustainable future.


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