My last post dealt with reasons the image of pristine nature or wilderness, regardless of its basis in reality, is essential to our well-being (and why even determining its “basis in reality” is problematic). Here I’ll wrap up this particular set of foundational ideas, at least for now.
As I brought up before, a number of writers and designers see wilderness as having limited value and interest because it’s only an idea. At best it’s boring and simplistic, not worthy of our intellectual or aesthetic attention. At worst it misleads people into thinking that “real” wilderness completely apart from humanity actually exists, moving them to treat it as an exotic “other” to be either defeated and exploited as the enemy (as has generally been the case historically) or idolized as a collection of increasingly small and precious objects at the expense of the much more needy remainder of the planet. It’s true that this concept of the exotic other has unfortunate cultural parallels, driving the double-edged sword of colonization and (think “the noble savage”) glorification. And it’s a valid concern that heavily-impacted environments, like agricultural areas and urban ecosystems, are undervalued or written off. Yet focusing on the heavily-impacted at the expense of the least-impacted is like letting our museums deteriorate while we devote attention to troubled neighborhoods; I doubt anyone would argue with humanity’s entire tradition of venerating objects, or that we can’t value the museum and the neighborhood at the same time. Yes there are very valid arguments over degrees of preservation and the best allocation of resources: we may decide that saving a rainforest from invasive species (let alone a drying climate) isn’t worth the economic cost compared to restoring an artwork or a monument. But, that still reflects a weighing of cultural values. The view that wilderness as a cultural construct isn’t worth valuing or thinking about at all seems to ignore, a bit ridiculously, the fact that a cultural construct by definition has cultural meaning.
Note that I don’t advocate freezing a natural environment in time, like a painting, against non-human changes and cycles (where it would even be possible). Ecological and geological change is actually used to illustrate the artificiality and superficiality of the wilderness image, and yes that image usually doesn’t include something like hurricane devastation (setting aside for now the issue of climate change’s role in hurricanes). But, though catastrophic change does happen, the contemporary understanding that environments are always in flux (as opposed to older conceptions of stable “climax communities”) doesn’t imply that nature is always unpredictable, never reaching states of equilibrium or exhibiting cyclical patterns. And as with the decaying hut that doesn’t destroy the image of the primeval forest, the idea of wilderness isn’t so fragile as not to survive some degree of physical variability. If a natural fire regime were (re-)introduced into a western national park, and people were educated about its importance to the ecosystem, the environment’s existence wouldn’t lose its value even though it might get fewer visitors. Nature’s dynamism isn’t an earth-shattering idea to anyone who knows that trees sometimes fall and leaves move in the wind, and it doesn’t make nature not worth preserving in its own dynamic state. (Plus again, even without the image, the physical reality matters too. Just because a forest goes through processes of death and regeneration doesn’t mean we’re automatically justified in inserting our own processes, as if the very changeabilty of both nature and culture supported their inseparability. Yet I have seen that argument made.)
Getting back to my assertion that cultural meaning has meaning—in other words, that it should have a say in how we treat the environment—I shouldn’t have to argue that it’s common sense. But since there are those who don’t seem to think it is (or to be more generous, who don’t seem to have given it much thought), I’ll go ahead and do so based on one of their own arguments. If our inseparability from nature is in part based on the fact that nature produced us, then cultural meaning and values—and our ability to make conscious decisions about our future based on them—must themselves (as products of evolution) be “natural.” And that includes how we choose to define or treat nature, even if it’s as a wide and diverse continuum of human impacts, with little basis in physical reality, that incorporates places we view as sufficiently untouched that we try to keep them that way. In other words, if that continuum is in fact mostly in our heads, then the wide and diverse continuum between us and microbes also collapses—everything we are and do is just as natural as they are. Either neither continuum is real, or they both are.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. As you can see, the debate over whether or not we’re part of nature becomes tedious, and in fact we don’t really need to resolve it in order to demonstrate that cultural meaning means something. Either culture is part of nature and therefore deciding to protect nature is at least as natural and justifiable as impacting it, or it isn’t part of nature and so we can preserve nature as something separate from us. It’s really all semantics—what does “separate” actually mean?
Again, it depends on whether we’re talking about physical reality or mental reality—I won’t rehash all of that mostly because honestly by now I’ve gotten myself a little confused about the whole thing. But, I’ll bring in McKibbin’s view (in The End of Nature) that collapsing the human-nature continuum into an everything-is-natural perspective just seems intuitively wrong. True, no one can argue that we and everything we do and make don’t operate within the same natural rules of physics and chemistry as everything else, but how many of us would actually consider that relevant to our day-to-day lives? Maybe some would (and again I’m egregiously ignoring what many traditional societies believe regarding these issues), but I’d predict that more likely they say it to justify some destructive action rather than feeling it. I think the point here is that denying the value of that mental reality—what “separate” feels like to us—is denying that humanity means anything at all.
In one sense at least, though, I’d agree that we can’t separate ourselves from the rest of the planet: all of “us” now share a common fate. It’s less a philosophical human-nature relationship than a functional one, and Nash (Wilderness and the American Mind) asserts that it’s this realization that has recently convinced us (though not enough of us apparently) to think of nature as something separate, or in fact something that we need to now think of as separate if it and its psychological benefits are to be kept anything close to intact on any meaningful scale. The desire for separation is as functional as the current planetary situation driving it. It doesn’t grow out of a particular belief in the naturalness of that separation due a belief in the naturalness of everything; it’s just what we feel we need to do. In any case, though, we’re just back again to the recognition that all this philosophizing isn’t very useful in guiding our ideas and actions on conservation or preservation: we should do what we decide is best for humanity, and hopefully the people making the decisions are the ones who agree with you (or me) about what that best thing is.
So, I may have just succeeded in showing that most of this and the last two posts just went in a big circle. But I think that turned out to be the point: arguments that humans aren’t somehow special (and that nature isn’t therefore distinct and special too) won’t lead us anywhere useful or good.
I will be doing some more philosophizing later on, but it’ll be more spatially grounded—to the worldviews on paper and to patterns of design and development in the real world. First though, back to imaginary islands for a little while, since I need a break too.