William Cronon

"The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature"



1.      Wilderness definition: (According to the Wilderness Act of 1964)

         a.      “A place untrammeled by man; where man is a visitor who does not remain”

2.      Cronon attacks “wilderness environmentalism” (W.E.)

         a.      W.E. = The idea that preserving wilderness is the way to save the planet

         b.      Idea of wilderness has been central to environmentalism and it’s harmful

         c.      Wilderness poses a threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the 20th century”

3.      Criticizing concept of wilderness not wild nature itself, or even efforts to set aside large tracks of land (if properly contextualized)

         a.      Nonhuman nature and large tracts of the natural world deserve protection

         b.      Rather, Cronon is criticizing habits of thought that flow from complex cultural construction called “wilderness”

         c.      Wilderness can’t be solution to our culture’s problematic relation to nature, for the ideas involved are a large part of the problem

                   i.       E.g., Human/nature dualism

4.      Wilderness idea is a culturally and historically-relative human creation

         a.      Creation of a particular culture, at particular moment in history

         b.      A product of the modern civilization (which it is suppose to criticize)

         c.      Nothing natural about the CONCEPT of wilderness

         d.      Entirely a creation of the culture that loves it

         e.      That the idea of wilderness was created by modern western culture doesn’t mean it’s an invalid notion or that the ideas and values involved can’t apply to other cultures

         f.       That it took specific events in progress of human civilization for people to find value in wilderness doesn’t provide evidence that wilderness is not valuable

5.      A trip to the wilderness is a trip into our own cultural presuppositions

         a.      Wilderness experience is not a mere encounter with nonhuman other, but a mirror where we see our own unexamined longings and desires

         b.      Wilderness not pristine, natural sanctuary, where remnant, endangered nature untouched by civilization can be encountered, for we encounter our own ideas about nature there

         c.      One of Cronon’s suggestions about the ideas we find in wilderness:

                   i.       “Elite urban tourists/wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and created wilderness in their own image”

6.      Of course, the nonhuman world in wilderness is not merely our own invention

         a.      One is in presence of irreducibly nonhuman, profoundly other to oneself; this is part of wilderness too

         b.      So wilderness is mixture of the nonhuman other and a human projection


7.      Human attitudes toward wilderness have changed from negative to positive

         a.      250 years ago, wilderness was viewed as a deserted, savage, desolate, barren waste; a good for nothing place, valuable only if developed

         b.      John Donne’s (17th century preacher/poet) claimed that mountains and valleys were “warts and pock-holes in the face of the earth”

8.      Modern environmental attitude toward wilderness was created by two intellectual movements:

         a.      One: Romantic, Spiritual Sublime

         b.      Two: Nostalgic, Post-Frontier, Primitivist Ideology

9.      One: Romantic Spiritual Sublime: Wilderness as a manifestation of God’s presence on earth

         a.      Wilderness went from place of satanic temptation to sacred temple

                   i.       Mountain as cathedral; Many modern environmentalists think of wilderness as a sacred place

         b.      With Wordsworth, Thoreau and Muir, wilderness became a landscape where the supernatural lay just beneath surface

         c.      Romantics believed God most often found in vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant (and was reminded of one’s mortality)

                   i.       Mountaintop, waterfall, thundercloud, rainbow, sunset

                            (1)    Rare places on earth more likely to see God’s face

                   ii.      These areas, and not swamps or prairies, were thus protected

         d.      These are sublime landscapes

                   i.       Aesthetic response that involves terror, awe, dismay, not joy or pleasure

                   ii.      An emotional response similar to being in the presence of the divine

         e.      Sublime became “domesticated”, as more tourists came to look at nature’s beauty

                   i.       Wilderness became a spectacle and was sentimentalized

10.    Two: Nostalgic, Romantic Primitivism of the National Myth of the Frontier

         a.      Wilderness as a way to preserve the passing frontier

                   i.       Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that by 1890s the frontier was passing away and with it American identity

                   ii.      Wilderness idealization was a response to nostalgia for passing frontier

                   iii.     The vanishing frontier fueled the preservation movement

                            (1)    To preserve an older, simpler truer world that was disappearing forever (wilderness)

         b.      Wild country becomes a place for national renewal, a place to experience what it means to be American

                   i.       Confrontation with frontier, taming of wilderness, made America what it was

                            (1)    “White man by moving to wild unsettled lands of frontier, shed trappings of civilization, rediscovered their primitive racial energies, reinvented direct democratic institutions and reinfused themselves with vigor, independence and creativity that is source of American democracy and national character”

         c.      Wilderness as last bastion of rugged frontier individualism

                   i.       A nostalgic for passing of heroic men who embodied that life (cowboy, horseman, the mountain man)

         d.      “To protect wilderness was to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin”


11.    Wilderness is elitist; a landscape for rich tourists

         a.      Wealthiest Americans had passion for wild land

                   i.       “Camps” in Adirondacks, cattle ranches in great plains, big game hunting in Rockies, resort hotels serviced by railroads in National Parks

         b.      Frontier nostalgia was a bourgeois form of anti-modernism

         c.      Men who felt this way came from elite class background

         d.      Very men who benefitted from urban-industrial capitalism most needed to escape its debilitating effects

         e.      Rich men who had means could preserve a remnant of wild landscape in order to be regenerated/renewed by sleeping under stars

         f.       Celebrating wilderness has been an activity of mainly of well-to-do city folks

         g.      Worries: Is it true that wilderness is elitist?

                   i.       Don’t poor and middle class folk like wild land too (hunting, fishing and camping)

                   ii.      Dave Foreman: “Kibab squirrel doesn’t think wilderness is elitist” (not elitist from a nonanthropocentric perspective)

12.    Wilderness is only an ideal for those who are ignorant of how people do and must use the land

         a.      Wildland not a place for productive labor, not a permanent home, but a place of recreation

                   i.       “Country people know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal”

         b.      Dream of unworked natural landscape is fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living

         c.      Fantasy of urban folk for whom food comes from supermarket/restaurant and not field

                   i.       For whom the wooden houses they live and work in have no connection to forests

13.    Wilderness creation involved the removal of the native peoples

         a.      National park and wilderness movement came right after final Indian wars; prior human inhabitants of these areas were rounded up and put on reservations

         b.      Native Americans once called this land home

         c.      Forcibly removed so tourists could safely enjoy illusion they were seeing nation in pristine original state

         d.      Removal of Indians (to created an “uninhabited wilderness”) is one way in which wilderness is literally, causally a product of modern civilization

                   i.       Shows how invented, how constructed American wilderness really is

         e.      Worry: Is wilderness preservation the reason Native Americans were removed from their lands?

14.    Exporting wilderness conception to third world is a form of cultural imperialism (and is self-defeating)

         a.      The developed world treats the developing world’s rainforests as an icon of sacred land

         b.      Preserving it means protecting it from the people who live there

         c.      Protecting the rainforest from the native peoples is to reproduce same tragedy of American Indians: forceable removal

                   i.       “The notion of wilderness as a conservation goal has often been considered a classic result of imperialist practices, whereby a colonial power comes up with a goal for land use and inflicts it on the local population. The construction of wilderness areas in the developing world could involve as much relocation and human resettlement as a large dam project! The third world offers far more examples of human cultures integrated with the natural world than in the North, so the approach that separates humanity from nature, wilderness vs civilization, may be less appropriate.” David Rothenberg & Ramachandra Guha

         d.      3rd world countries have massive environmental problems but not likely to be solved by cultural myth that encourages us to preserve peopleless landscapes in places they have not existed for thousands of years

         e.      Consider: Douglas Tompkins’ attempt to create a National Park in Chile

                   i.       https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/international/americas/07patagonia.html

15.    Wilderness is historically ignorant idea: False myth that wilderness was a “virgin, uninhabited land”

         a.      “Uninhabited wilderness” has always been inhabited by native peoples

         b.      Env. history shows us that people been manipulating natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record

16.    Central paradox: Wilderness embodies an unfortunate dualism in which humans are seen as entirely outside nature

         a.      Crucial that people always be conscious that they are part of natural world, tied to ecosystems that sustain their lives

         b.      By encouraging us to think we are separate from nature, wilderness is likely to reenforce environmentally irresponsible behavior

         c.      If nature to be real/true nature must be wild (separate from humanity), then human’s presence in nature degrades it

                   i.       The place where humans are is where nature is not

                   ii.      This is McKibben’s absolutely pristine view of nature (a problematic view)

17.    Wilderness environmentalism is profoundly misanthropic

         a.      If nature dies because we enter it, only way to save nature is to kill off humans

                   i.       If wild nature is only thing worth saving and if our presence destroys it, then the sole solution to protect sacred nature from profane humanity is to commit suicide

         b.       A self-defeating council of despair

18.    Wilderness environmentalism involves hostility toward modern life sees civilization as a disease

         a.      Wilderness only place humans have not “fully infected the earth”

         b.      Wilderness is an island in polluted sea of urban-industrial civilization

         c.      Cities and factories of urban industrial civilization as confining, false and artificial

         d.      Civilization contaminates its inhabitants

19.    Wilderness environmentalism leads to primitivism as ideal for humans

         a.      Primitivism:      A belief that best antidote to ills of overly refined and civilized modern world is a return to simpler more primitive living

         b.      Popular idea that our enviromental problems began with agriculture, suggests that we need to jettison civilization to treat nature properly and become our true selves

         c.      We need to become hunter-gatherers again

20.    Wilderness environmentalism today fails to properly value civilization

         a.      Ending civilization would be to accept humanity as a failure; to fail to fulfill our highest promise and values

21.    Wilderness ideal doesn’t allow humans to be a positive part of nature and offers no recommendations for how humans should be a part of nature

         a.      Leaves little hope of finding an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature

         b.      All it says is leave nature alone

         c.      But we have to use nature

22.    We need an environmental ethic that tells us as much about using nature as about not using it

         a.      Wilderness dualism tends to cast any use as abuse

         b.      Denies a middle ground where responsible use might be possible

         c.      Need to explore this middle ground to solve env. problems

         d.      A most persistent and dangerous assumption is that some parts of the world can be preserved while others are abused or destroyed. As necessary as it obviously is, the effort of "wilderness preservation" has too often implied that it is enough to save a series of islands of pristine and uninhabited wilderness in an otherwise exploited, damaged, and polluted land. And, further, that the pristine wilderness is the only alternative to exploitation and abuse. So far, the moral landscape of the conservation movement has tended to be a landscape of extremes, which you can see pictured in any number of expensive books of what I suppose must be called "conservation photography." On the one hand we have the unspoiled wilderness, and on the other hand we have scenes of utter devastation--strip mines, clearcuts, industrially polluted wastelands, and so on. We wish, say the conservationists, to have more of the one, and less of the other. To which, of course, one must say amen. But it must be a qualified amen, for the conservationists program has been embarrassingly incomplete. Its picture of the world as either deserted landscape or desertified landscape has misrepresented both the world and humanity. If we are to have an accurate picture of the world, even in its present diseased condition, we must interpose between the unused landscape and the misused landscape a landscape that humans have used well.” Wendell Berry, Sierra (Sept-Oct 1995)

23.    The belief that human’s real home is wilderness, allows us to avoiding taking responsibility for the home in civilization we actually have

         a.      It undermines “re-envisioning civilization”

         b.      It allows us to evade responsibility for lives we actually lead

         c.      Work 9-5 jobs in civilization, we eat its food, drive its cars and benefit from its network that shelters us

         d.      We pretend that this is not a part of who we really are

24.    Wilderness environmentalism idealizes and seeks to protect distant wildernesses (Arctic Refuge, Amazon Rainforest) and ignores threats to our local, less than completely pristine nature, the place we call home

         a.      We need to celebrate and protect local nature

                   i.       The roadsides, trees, backyards of our neighborhood

                   ii.      Plenty of nature there worth valuing and protecting

         b.      Wilderness teaches us to be contemptuous and dismissive of humble places of local nature

                   i.       If it isn’t hundreds of square miles big, it isn’t natural; its too small, plain, crowded to be authentically wild

25.    Wilderness environmentalism is not only wilderness preservation first, but suggests wilderness is the only important value, thus ignoring environmental justice and other serious dimensions of human and environmental problems

         a.      Ignores problems of occupational health and safety in industrial settings, problems of toxic waste on unnatural agricultural and industrial sites, problem of lead poisoning in poor children, problem of famine and poverty and human suffering in overpopulated places of earth

         b.      Social ecology (i.e., idea that environmental and social problems are closely linked)as the response


26.    Crucial for us to recognized and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with own independent, nonhuman reasons for being

27.    Wilderness as a place for nonhuman other; helps us to avoid human arrogance and self-absorption: Place to escape from our own “too-muchness”

         a.      Autonomy of nonhumans nature is indispensable corrective to human arrogance

         b.      Wilderness helps us see that people’s interests are not necessarily identical with those of other creatures

         c.      This will foster responsible behavior

         d.      To extent wilderness served as vehicle for articulating deep moral values concerning obligations and responsibilities to nonhuman world it has helped us think about nature

28.    Wilderness is one of environmentalism’s great contributions is a critique of modernity (of the failings of the human world)

Study questions for Cronon


1.         Why does Cronon believe that “wilderness poses a threat to responsible environmentalism?” Do you agree? Why or why not?

2.         Explain Cronon’s account of how the perception of wilderness has changed and explain the two major factors he identifies as causing this change.

3.         Explain and evaluate Cronon claim that “wilderness environmentalism” fails to properly value human civilization (and is even misanthropic) and involves advocating “primitivism.”

4.         Explain and evaluate Cronon’s claim that wilderness environmentalism is an elitist, urban idea.

5.         In what way does Cronon think wilderness was actually causally, physically created by white European settlers?

6.         What does Cronon think about the idea that we should “export our notion of wilderness” to the developing world. Do you agree with him?

7.         Explain and evaluate Cronon’s reasons for claiming wilderness is a historically ignorant idea.

8.         Explain and evaluate Cronon’s claim that wilderness involves a harmful human/nature dichotomy.

9.         Explain and evaluate Cronon’s claim that wilderness environmentalism encourages us to ignore the protection of local, less that pristine nature.

10.       What does Cronon think wrong with a “wilderness environmentalism” that thinks solving env. problems involves setting aside wilderness areas?

11.       What does Cronon think are the virtues of the wilderness idea?