This post will go into more depth on the topics I introduced last time dealing with “nature” or “wilderness” as an idea vs. a reality—or more accurately I’d say, different types of realities. I realize that this gets far into the weeds, but more than anything else it’s a way to help me get some foundational ideas (mine and others’) organized and in writing before I move into more spatially-oriented thoughts on human-nature relationships in the worldviews and in real life. Thanks as always for coming along for the ride, and a reminder that comments are welcome!
Also, a note that these ideas reflect a mostly Western, if not American, perspective. Global attitudes toward nature might be converging in some ways, but the reality is complex, and ethnicity and socio-economics certainly factor in as well. While I have some general knowledge of this diversity, currently I’m not in a position to go into any depth. At some point I may, but for now the Western perspective is most relevant to my own experiences out in the world and to creating the worldviews, so it’ll remain my focus.
Is “pristine” nature as a physical reality truly gone? Did it ever exist? Does it matter?
As I introduced in the last post, nature apart from humanity has more reality today as an idea than as a physical state given the degree to which we’ve transformed the planet. My take (not original, but far from universally held) is that this doesn’t make it any less “real,” or any less worthy of attention and at least some degree of protection.
Before I get into the reasons why pristine nature has value as an idea, I’m going to argue that even if it didn’t, in fact it isn’t only “in our heads.” To claim that it’s gone from the physical world isn’t technically in dispute, but only if we use an all-or-nothing concept of “pristine” that could never have any practical meaning as long as humans have existed. By any definition the earth before humans was pristine (if we’d been around to call it such), but after that, where did pristine end and not-pristine begin, in both space and time? What about when the very first humans started breathing and changing the composition of the atmosphere, on a level that was obviously negligible but also not zero? (And which primates do we even count as being the “very first humans”?) What about the Americas, or even the other side of Africa, when those early humans were hunting and gathering? What about Hawaii when it was first discovered by the Polynesians but not settled? The rest of Hawaii when part of it was settled? Mt. Everest right after it was first climbed? After the first hundred people climbed it? After the first discarded oxygen tank, but from a spot where it wasn’t visible? Mt. Everest today?
The point is that either all of these places were still pristine (and all places now still are too), none of them were, or there’s a continuum of meaning. Neither of the first two options makes any intuitive sense—there’s little or nothing pristine about Manhattan (unless it’s just all natural; more on that later), and the entire world wasn’t suddenly human-dominated at the dawn of our species. So that leaves the continuum option: there’s no such thing as pristine or not-pristine, only more or less so. Pristine nature today may indeed be a cultural construct—even just by virtue of our delineating it—but to say that construct is never coupled with any degree of physical reality, and therefore deserves no special status, is using a meaningless definition of “pristine.”
Of course climate change sheds a new light on this continuum. I’d argue that it doesn’t change it qualitatively in the physical sense; Bill McKibben in The End of Nature claims that it does, given that until now our impacts always had a boundary of sorts, but I’ve tried to show that the physical reality of that boundary was itself always a matter of degree. (The psychological boundary is a different story, and I’ll get to that below.) But there’s no question that the quantitative change in the definition of pristine will be profound, if it isn’t already in certain places. If a purist definition doesn’t make sense given that it’s impossible to say where it begins and ends in time and space, it’s quickly becoming much easier to say where it ends, and so that purist definition is no longer quite as useless. From a strictly ecological perspective, protecting let alone talking about nature apart from humanity is still a matter of degree, but those degrees are dropping away as they climb on the thermometer.
The psychological continuum
Regardless of how we interpret the range of real human impacts on the environment, needless to say they aren’t all perceptually the same. Plenty of altered or even entirely artificial landscapes and ecosystems are considered untouched, either because we think they actually are (like in a remote and mature second-growth forest) or because we want to overlook the knowledge that they aren’t (as might be the case with invasive species). “Pristine” exists on a continuum in our minds just like it does on the ground, but it also incorporates the literal meaning of the word that most of us can envision for certain places. McKibben notes that our image of untouched is “durable”—a boardwalk or an abandoned, decaying hut might not ruin that image (though interestingly a discarded coke bottle might. Maybe this is because the hut symbolizes nature “prevailing” but the bottle is a harbinger of the opposite?)
There are a number of reasons the image itself, whether based on something close to or not so close to physical reality, is worth our consideration. In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash discusses the importance of just knowing something out there exists that’s “not us”—whether or not we’re actually there. E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia suggests that our connection to the biological component of that something is innate, evolved, and essential to our well-being. Even more broadly Nash writes that nature perceptually apart from us, as the source of humanity and the “baseline” for evaluating it, gives meaning to civilization as a whole. Just as wilderness has no meaning outside of us (as no “idea” can), civilization would have none without the continuing existence of “pre-civilization.” Nature isn’t just beyond us but also bigger than us. Above all, even though it makes us feel small and precarious, it also gives us consolation to know that we’re not “on our own”—and if this sounds akin to religion, McKibben does make that analogy.
Again, climate change distorts all of this, or at least it will. In terms of nature’s meaning and relation to us, I agree with McKibben’s claim that there’s been a qualitative shift. We could always at least imagine somewhere completely beyond human influence, regardless of how small or how far away, but now we can’t. Since the purist definition of “pristine” does have some psychological reality, that realization doesn’t just knock a few degrees off the continuum—now everything is human, and we are on our own. Only denial in some form (whether it’s “climate change doesn’t exist” or “it does exist but I can’t come to terms with it yet”) is keeping that realization from dawning on all of us; I’m still somewhat guilty of the second type of denial but that’s quickly changing. As that happens, I’m not sure how much and how fast it’ll change my own views on what I consider natural and worth preserving—honestly I prefer not to give it much thought yet. Hopefully the relevance of the ideas I’m exploring here won’t be completely obliterated.
It looks like I’ll need one more post to wrap up this set of background concepts, so stay tuned. After that, I’ll return to the worldviews for a bit before spending some time connecting them to these larger ideas.