The Trouble With Wilderness

Riley —  March 4, 2010 — 4 Comments

In my opinion, William Cronon’s, The Trouble With Wilderness, is one of the most insightful works of environmental philosophy ever produced.  It has profound impacts for anyone concerned with the environment, and will almost certainly cause you to reevaluate your views in some way or another.  What Cronon argues is that we need to change the way we think about wilderness.

One of the fundamental tenets of environmentalism is the holiness of wilderness.  It is considered a pure, pristine environment, “an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity,” a landscape untouched by humanity.  This concept is very much a human construct, however, and it is merely the latest version of an evolving human relationship to the wild.  Just a few centuries ago, people’s idea of wilderness was of a hostile and terrifying wasteland.  Wilderness has biblical connotations, and in one literal sense it used to mean the darkness on the other side of the wall of the Garden of Eden.  But more recently, we have seen it transformed into the very garden itself.

Cronon argues that there are two primary ideas that account for this transition: the sublime, and the frontier.  The sublime is the Romantic conception of an awesome landscape that evokes visceral emotions.  Sublime landscapes were places where “one might meet devils and run the risk of losing one’s soul…but one might also meet God.”  Even this religious notion of wilderness was an evolving idea: William Wordsworth was terrified when confronted by the jagged sublimity of the Alps; later, Thoreau was awestruck by the lonely solemnity of Mt. Katahdin; and John Muir finally found rapture and peace in the Sierras.  Wilderness maintains a religious aura to this day, whether or not it is influenced by God’s perceived place within it.

The second component of our wilderness philosophy, Cronon continues, is its relationship to the American frontier.  Rousseau’s ideas of virtuous primitivism and the noble savage were born out to some extent in American frontier life, and helped to create the idea that wild lands and people were “freer, truer, and more natural” than those civilized.  The closing of the frontier then led to a national nostalgia for this more rugged lifestyle, and a shift in which virtue came to be associated with those who could maintain frontier qualities in their lives, even in a post-frontier life.  The remaining wild places in the United States became seen as vestiges of this original frontier, and so protecting them became ways of sustaining not only the possibility of frontier experiences, but also “the nation’s most sacred myth of origin.”

The people most able to take advantage of these new national parks and wilderness areas, and who advocated for their creation, were almost exclusively “elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen [who] projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape, and so created wilderness in their own image.”  Furthermore, many of these places were already inhabited by native people, who were removed from the land to make it more pristine.  In this way, Cronon argues, we can see that there is nothing “natural” about the concept of wilderness.

But what all of these ways of looking at wilderness have in common – the “sacred sublime”, the original garden, the frontier landscape, the savage land – is a notion of escape and distance.  Wilderness is a spiritual concept that “serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest.”  Environmentalism’s most solemn critique is that “wilderness is the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world.”

The “central paradox,” as Cronon calls it, is that “wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural.”  This leads to several problems in the way that we understand our place in the world.  Perhaps the most important is that “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.”  By subconsciously identifying more with wilderness than with the consumer, mechanical world in which we live, we deny that we are culpable for the consequences of these actions and ways of life.  Our current escapist conception of wilderness is thereby self-defeating, fostering the unchecked growth and unattended byproducts of the industrial world.

Perhaps the most poignant part of Cronon’s argument comes when he takes the argument to its logical extreme: “if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.”  This misguided conception clearly does not offer positive or practical results.  The problem is that we have identified humans and nature as incompatible opposites without room for coexistence.  “The wilderness dualism denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some sort of balanced, sustainable relationship.”

Cronon doesn’t have a problem with protecting wild places, he has a problem with the way that we culturally conceive of these places.  Instead of viewing wilderness as remote and massive, we need to focus on the wilderness and nature in our own backyards.  Our current idea of wilderness “teaches us to be dismissive, or even contemptuous of such humble places and experiences.”  There is nothing different between the tree atop a remote mountaintop and the tree next door except the way we perceive them.  The power that wilderness has is to remind us of this fact.  “By seeing the otherness in that which is most unfamiliar, we can learn to see it too in that which at first seemed merely ordinary. If wilderness can do this – if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural – then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem.”

But in order to do this we must abandon the wilderness dualism that sets what is human in opposition to that which is perceived as natural.  If we want to successfully exist with nature, we have to recognize that we are a part of it.  Cronon also points out that we must not then fall into the trap of forgetting that it is also more than us – that there really is something wild and other about nature – and that we must respect and tend to that, as well as to the human.

All organisms affect their environments, and we are no different.  To live well in the world, we need to recognize the synthesis of nature and humanity, not set nature apart.  We need to let wilderness into our daily lives, and learn to live with (and lessen) the effects we have on our landscape.

What Cronon is describing seems to be the central function of the architect.  Architecture isn’t, on it’s most fundamental level, about beauty or originality, it’s about establishing a human relationship to the landscape.  Buildings are how people put down roots in a place, and as architects, it’s our responsibility to facilitate this union between humanity and nature.  In a practical sense, buildings are about insulation, but conceptually they must be about openness and interaction.  The architect’s job is expanding to include not just individual buildings, but neighborhoods and cities as well.  By working with, or becoming neighborhood and city planners, we can create synergy in our built environment, and achieve things beyond the capability of isolated structures.

Wilderness is worth protecting, and it will be protected.  But we mustn’t project false lives into the wild, we instead need to create a way of living that we are comfortable with within the urban framework we have become reliant upon.  Successful architecture can help reconcile the wilderness dualism and bring focus (as well as nature) back to where we really live.



Riley MacPhee is a recent graduate of Pomona College with a B.A. in Environmental Design and a minor in Philosophy, and has been writing for the JA blog for the last 3 years. He is passionate about architecture and design, and will be applying to M.Arch programs in the fall.

4 responses to The Trouble With Wilderness


    Nice! Exactly what I was looking for! Thank you.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. The Trouble With Wilderness « The Wasteland - March 4, 2010

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