Wilderness and Class

William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History, 1996.

Cronon says the popular reaction to the idea of wilderness owes much to the two related concepts of “the sublime and the frontier.” (9) The sublime is “one of the most important expressions of that broad transatlantic movement we today label as romanticism,” (9-10) but maybe we should unpack it a little and separate the elements that go into it. Cronon does not, and this leaves him only a vague ground to stand on, when he wants to talk about
secular responses to the “sublime.” He observes that in order to gain the power it has “the concept of wilderness had to become loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created and idealized it: it had to become sacred.” (10) This is true in more than just a metaphorical way, but Cronon doesn’t go far enough unpacking these ideas. A closer look at them might help us understand some of the problems carried over from this religious frame of mind, that get in the way of straightforward responses to environmental issues.

The frontier myth, Cronon says, allows Americans to believe that because they were pioneers in a “virgin” land, white Europeans “reinvented direct democratic institutions” and “reinfused themselves with vigor, an independence and a creativity that were the source of American democracy and national character.” (13) We’re squarely in the territory of myth, here; it would be easy to argue that these famous results of frontier life were as mythical as the life itself. But it’s easy to agree that “to protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin” in the minds of many conservationists.

Cronon says nostalgic conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister (author of
The Virginian) showed an “ambivalence, if not downright hostility, toward modernity.” (14) But it was a modernity that had served them both very well. Politician and popular author warned men against emasculation by the “feminizing tendencies of civilization,” but their status as wealthy, elite intellectuals probably put them in more danger than the fact they lived in cities. Only men like them had the leisure time or the inclination to worry about their masculinity, which is why only the “wealthiest citizens” were found “seeking out wilderness for themselves.” (15)

The fact that most early enthusiasts were rich men might also help explain the otherworldliness of the wilderness ethic. The “quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism” rest on a “flight from history.” (16) Unlike the experience of farmers, miners, or other workers whose jobs or lives gave them contact with the natural world, for these men “wilderness embodie[d] a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural.” (17) Extending this idea to the present, Cronon suggests that our supposed isolation from nature retards environmental progress. To the “extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our
real home is in the wilderness...we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead.”

Worse yet, Cronon says modern deep ecologists’ “wilderness premise that nature, to be natural, must also be pristine,” actually distracts society from important issues and opportunities for change. “We need an environmental ethic,” he says, “that will teach us as much about
using nature as about not using it.” (21) Otherwise, the “long affiliation between wilderness and wealth” will be continued. (20) Only the wealthy are able to see wilderness, and then retreat to another place where they can be separate from it. Everywhere else, “too many other corners of the earth become less than natural and too many other people become less than human, thereby giving us permission not to care much about their suffering or their fate.”

Cronon argues that humanity must abandon environmental dualism and “bipolar moral scales” (nice allusion!). The myth of wilderness, “that we can somehow leave nature untouched by our passage” or that we can wall off pieces of the environment and save them from human contamination, is absurd. “The dilemma we face,” Cronon concludes, “is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.” This is a more realistic choice, and one that is open to everyone.