On the afternoon of May 10, the cramped hall on the fourth floor of Memorial Union hummed with the energy of more than a hundred enthralled minds.
For the first time since “The Great Wilderness Debate” of the 1990s, two University of Wisconsin-Madison luminaries, William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of history, geography and environmental studies, and Donald Waller, professor of botany and environmental studies, sat down to discuss some of the key points from that debate and modernize it for today’s political and environmental reality.
These two thinkers come from divergent disciplinary backgrounds, Cronon being a historian and Waller an ecologist, yet together their ideas have shaped how a new generation of scholars thinks about the meaning of wilderness and nature and humanity’s role in both.
The title of this event, hosted by the Nelson Institute Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development seminar, was "Conservation in the Anthropocene: A Joint Dialogue from Ecology and the Humanities." The speakers were asked to respond to a single question from Nelson Institute graduate student and event moderator Nathan Shulfer before opening up to questions from the audience. That question was: "How has the debate regarding human impacts and 'wild' ecosystems changed since you wrote your highly influential essays a decade ago? Would you shift your emphasis were you to write an essay on conserving 'wilderness' today? And how so?"
While I certainly cannot replicate the erudition and articulacy of the two speakers, I will try to capture a bit of the discussion as best as I can.
In Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” he set out to rethink – not jettison, as he pointed out in his opening remarks – the concept of “wilderness,” for fear that in setting it up as the epitome of nature free of human interference we would perpetuate the conception of nature as separate from humans. He asked the audience to consider: “How does wilderness position us relative to the rest of nature?”
There is a duality of meanings couched in the word “nature” that is of significant concern for Cronon. We think of it as both the totality of all things, “Nature,” and as that which is not human, “nature.” Fortunately, the ideological landscape has shifted in the last 15 years, in large part due to this very debate, and we no longer think of wilderness as simply the most extreme form of nature as that which is other.
For Waller there is another imperative – a biophysical one. In his essay, “Getting Back to the Right Nature,” he writes, “the tree in the garden is not wild because it has been removed from its ancestral ecological and evolutionary context.”
“Nature is clearly both resilient and fragile,” he says, and the problem, he suggests, is that we often can’t tell which part is which until it’s too late. We need to maintain ecological function and conserve ecosystems – not just species.
For Waller, two big issues trouble him in regard to the human-nature gap: first, that we end up trivializing nature, thinking of it simply as the background to all things cultural, and second, that we have been ever more aimed at the commodification of nature. These are the big issues that loom today – more so than the role of wilderness – as threats to ensuring a sustainable future.
Waller believes we need to work toward maximizing the utility of our environment, which includes consideration for both the natural value of our landscapes – their ability to support ecological function and to harbour biodiversity – and the social value, to provide food, recreation and spiritual inspiration. In the anthropocene, we are at serious risk of destabilizing global ecological processes, but to care, we need to value the environment in a way that goes beyond monetary value.
There was little disagreement between the two as to the value of wild places, as one would notice when reading their essays. Yet Cronon suggests that they continue to talk past each other to some degree. While both of them cherish our wild places, and in particular our wilderness areas in which humans are severely restricted in the activities they can carry out, Cronon’s concerns continue to be deeply political.
He worries about the political map being islands of blue amidst a sea of red. It is within that sea of red that the islands of legally protected wilderness are positioned, with the sea being generally hostile to the state’s protection of those lands and exclusion of human use.
To demonstrate the deepening political polarization, Cronon reminded us that the U.S. legislature was able to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 with broad bipartisan support, while neither would have any chance of passing in today’s political climate. Our ecological concerns continue to mount and we seem even further from having the political will to resolve them than we did 15 years ago.
Cronon insists that we have to bring nature inside, that we have to recognize that nature is the very device you are currently staring at; it is the processes that put that phone in your pocket, the room around you, the food in your fridge, or your very being that are Nature, not in nature.
Yet, as a word of caution, Waller points to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Everglades, the great deserts, mountain tops and estuaries – the least disturbed and most magnificent places in our world – as our touchstones, our baselines, both spiritual and ecological for what we need to protect.
Cronon and Waller were coming at the issue from different angles, historian and scientist, but the discussion resolved in some unity.
“We must nurture human love, nurture human values,” said Cronon. This is necessary (emphatically so) for the conservation work we pursue. Waller continued by suggesting that humans by nature are a cooperative species and when working together, “face-to-face,” we can accomplish amazing things.
Both spoke of ensuring that people felt a direct connection to Nature. A language emerged as being critical: rather than talk of management, which is bureaucratic and dehumanizing, we need to talk of nurturing, caretaking, parenting and stewarding.
Both also emphasized the influence of boundaries in our perceptions of nature and wilderness. Waller suggested that boundaries are often indiscriminate of ecological gradients, yet he identified that there are ecological spatial thresholds (for example, the pileated woodpecker needs a certain amount of suitable habitat or it simply cannot survive). Still, the boundaries between wild and tame are along a gradient, and not a simple dichotomy. Cronon goes further, describing wildness as fractal and relational.
At any scale we look, be it continental or within the space of our own bodies, there is that which is more wild and that which is less. Our gut is a veritable wilderness, a diverse ecosystem not well understood and not under our direct control, in comparison with our hand. While Waller was pointing out the difficulties and importance of dealing with the physical boundaries, Cronon emphasized the profound influence of socio-political and psychological boundaries.
In the end, both speakers were guiding us toward making wilderness home and the need to relate to the land, to understand it and to feel connected to it in order to value it, with valuing wilderness necessary for living sustainably with it.
Throughout the discussion, both speakers repeatedly alluded to Aldo Leopold, who so early on pondered these issues of wilderness. Recognizing the need to change our hearts and minds and not simply our practices and laws, Leopold wrote of the need for a land ethic, an expansion of our people-centered ethics to include all that is around us. This is an idea that we are still working to embody today, and one from which both speakers may well have drawn inspiration.
As Leopold wrote in 1949, yet with so much relevance today, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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