Power of the Wild


by Roderick Frazier Nash

Reprinted from New Scientist, no. 2336, 30th March 2002, pp. 42-45.

My purpose is to persuade you that wilderness is a moral resource, Human cultures have seen an extraordinary intellectual revolution in recent centuries that has transformed their view of wilderness from a liability to an asset. That transformation has largely been promoted by anthropocentric arguments emphasising the value of wilderness to civilisation: recreational, scenic and spiritual values use man as the measure. But, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, the point of wilderness is that it is the home of ‘civilisations other than our own’. Or, as children’s author Maurice Sendak put it more recently, it is ‘where the wild things are’. Conceived as the habitat of other species, not as a human playground, wilderness is the best environment in which to learn that humans are members in, and not masters of, the community of life. And this ethical idea, working as a restraint in our relations with the environment, may be the starting point for saving this planet.

In the beginning, civilisation created wilderness. For nomadic hunters and gatherers, who have represented our species for most of its existence, everything natural is simply habitat, and people understood themselves to be part of a seamless living community. Lines began to be drawn with the advent of herding, agriculture and settlement. Distinctions between controlled and uncontrolled animals and plants became meaningful, as did the concept of controlled space: corrals, fields and towns.

The unmastered lands – the habitat of hunter-gatherers – came to seem threatening to settled folk. Ancient Greeks who had to pass through forest or mountain dreaded an encounter with Pan, the lord of the woods – who combined gross sensuality with boundless sportive energy. Indeed, the word ‘panic’ originated from the blinding fear that seized travellers on hearing strange cries in the wilderness and assuming them to signify Pan’s approach.

The origins of the English word ‘wilderness’ reflect this trepidation. In the early Teutonic and Norse languages, the root seems to have been ‘will’ with a descriptive meaning of self-willed, wilful or uncontrolled. From ‘willed’ came the adjective ‘wild’. By the eighth century, the Beowulf epic was populated by wildeor – a compound of ‘wild’ and ‘deor’, meaning beast – savage and fantastic beasts inhabiting a dismal region of forests, crags and cliffs.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition constituted another powerful formative influence on Europeans’ attitude to wilderness, perhaps especially those who colonised the New World. When the Lord of the Old Testament desired to threaten or punish a sinful people, he found the wilderness condition to be his most powerful weapon.

So the dawn of civilisation created powerful biases. We settled down, developed an ecological superiority complex and bet our evolutionary future on the control of nature. Now there were survival-related reasons to understand, order and transform the environment. The largest part of the energy of early civilisation was directed at conquering wildness in nature and disciplining it in human nature.

For the first time humans saw themselves as distinct from – and, they reasoned, better than the rest of nature. They began to think of themselves as masters, not members, of the community of life.

Civilisation severed the web of life as humans distanced themselves from the rest of nature. Behind fenced pastures, village walls and, later, gated condominiums, it was hard to imagine other living things as relatives, or nature as sacred. The remaining hunters and gatherers became ‘savages’. The community concepts, and attendant ethical respect, that had worked to curb human self-interest in dealings with nature declined in direct proportion to the ‘rise’ of civilisation. Nature lost its significance as something to which people belonged and became something they possessed: an adversary, a target, an object for exploitation.

The resulting war against the wilderness was astonishingly successful. Today we have fragments of a once-wild world, and with the wholesale disappearance of species. The ark is sinking – and on our watch.

Of course humans remain ‘natural’. But somewhere along the evolutionary way from spears to spaceships humanity dropped off the biotic team and, as author and naturalist Henry Beston recognised, became a ‘cosmic outlaw’. The point is that we are no longer thinking and acting like a part of nature. Or, if we are a part, it is a cancerous one, growing so rapidly as to endanger the larger environmental organism. Our species has become a terrible neighbour to the 30 million and more other species sharing space on this planet. Our numbers and our technology are wreaking ecological havoc. We have become the latter-day ‘death star’, with the same potential for destruction as the asteroid that ended the days of the dinosaurs.

This is not really an ‘environmental problem’. It’s a human problem. What needs to be conquered now is not the wilderness, but ourselves. We need to understand that it is civilisation that is out of control.

Mind-pollution is more serious than chemical pollution. It is time to understand that there is no ‘good life’ without a good environment and that it is a false prosperity that cannot be sustained over the long ecological haul. Growth must be dissociated from progress. Bigger is not better if the system is destroyed. As the deep ecologists recognise, we must now emphasise wholes over parts, and pursue justice at the level of entire ecosystems. A new valuation of wilderness is an excellent place to start.

The transformation that led some to view wilderness as an asset probably began with the Romantics. For example, Byron wrote in 1817 in the fourth canto of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: ‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is a rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society, where none intrudes, / By the deep sea, and music in its roar: / I love not man the less, but Nature more…’

But this insight developed into a largely anthropocentric justification of wilderness, as something to be valued and preserved for people. Recreational, spiritual and scenic values all used man as the measure. And so did the early ecological arguments for wilderness, with their utilitarian emphasis on protecting species that possibly held the cure for cancer. More recently, wild ecosystems have been praised as resources capable of providing environmental ‘services’ and sup porting human health. These are the arguments that, sometimes, sell nature protection on the political stage. But wilderness is not for people at all. It is where the wild things, the willed things, are. From this eco-centric perspective, wilderness preservation becomes a gesture of planetary modesty and a badly needed exercise in restraint on the part of a species intoxicated with its power. Seen this way, wilderness preservation expresses a belief in the rights of nature. Rightly seen, wilderness is the best demonstration that we are not the only, or even the primary, members of the biotic team. It is a living reminder of the gross limitations of our definitions of ‘society’ and ‘morality’. Our real society is coterminous with life on this planet, a fact that our ethical sensibilities have as yet failed to recognise.

In the biblical past people went to the wilderness to receive the commandments with which to restructure society. We need to do so again. Right now we desperately need a ‘time out’ to learn how to be team players in the biosphere. We need to learn – or, perhaps, to relearn – how to live responsibly in the larger community called the ecosystem. The first requirement for this is to respect our neighbours’ need for habitat.

We should try to define an ‘ecological contract’ that widens the circle of morality beyond the limits of the ‘social contract’ proposed by the 17th century philosopher John Locke. Aldo Leopold, a founder of conservationism in America, would have understood this to give priority to what he called the ‘land community’. The challenge is to advance morality from natural rights to the rights of nature. And this is where wilderness assumes critical importance. What it provides is precisely this ‘time out’ from the juggernaut of civilisation. Wild places are uncontrolled. Their presence reminds us of just how far we have distanced ourselves from the rest of nature.

We did not, after all, make wilderness. In it we stand naked of the built and modified environment, open to seeing ourselves once again as large mammals dependent not on our technological cleverness but on the health of the ecological community to which we belong. Writing in a pre-ecological age, Thoreau was more correct than he could have imagined about the importance of wildness to the preservation of the world. The actuality of wilderness reminds us that when we enter it we enter someone else’s home. Recall your parents’ admonitions: courtesy is called for; so is respect. Stealing is wrong (but think of the past few thousand years of human relationship to nature). Wild places deserve respect not for what they can do for us but for what they mean to our fellow evolutionary travellers.

The concept of wilderness is just as important. It instructs us in the need for a more embracing, environmental ethic. The fact that wilderness is nature we do not own or use can open us to perceiving its intrinsic value. By definition we do not dominate or control wild places, and so they suggest the importance of sharing – which was, after all, the basis of the ethic of fair play that we did not learn very well in kindergarten. A species whose technological cleverness has made it the schoolyard bully desperately needs the ethical discipline that wilderness provides. Ethics are concepts of right and wrong that work as restraints on freedom in the interest of preserving communities. It is easy to think of the kind of eco-centric ethic that I propose as being ‘against’ human, interests and freedoms. But most basic interests of human beings are inextricably linked to those of the greater environmental whole. From this perspective, less, in the way of human impact on the Earth, can indeed be more. Growth is a good thing that has been carried too far. We spend our ecological capital as if there were no tomorrow and run an environmental deficit. In the relatively near future, some feel, the notes will come due. Our self-interest is very definitely involved. If we sink that ark, we go down too. Respecting wildness, then, is prudent as well as ethically enlightened. Its instrumental and intrinsic values converge on the distant perspective point of evolutionary biology. Evolutionists increasingly recognise that species co-evolve – in communities. In respecting wildness, we forgo economic advantages. Lumbering, farming and mining stop. Roads and buildings stay outside. We even limit our recreational options: limiting the use of mechanised transport, for example. Indeed the power of ‘recreation’ as a justification for keeping land wild is in its twilight years; the Sun is rising on the new moral and ecological arguments. Wilderness is the best place both to learn and to express ecological limitation. Its value as a moral resource is not in the least diminished by our staying out altogether. Properly managed and interpreted, designated wilderness could give us the inspiration to live responsibly and sustainably elsewhere. In wildness is the promise of both biological and ethical repair.

Roderick Frazier Nash is professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His Wilderness and the American Mind is now in its fourth edition (Yale University Press, 2001)