Wilderness Is a Harmful Myth
An environmentalist says that nature and humanity
are both harmed by the vision of pristine nature.
This one will require some careful thinking. An environmental writer argues that “the myth of ‘wilderness’ harms both nature and humanity.” What does she mean? And what are the implications for environmental policy?
Writing in New Scientist (1 Dec 2021), Emma Marris wrote one of the most provocative essays CEH has seen in awhile from an environmentalist and evolutionist. The subtitle says,
Humans have affected every aspect of life on Earth – from hunting prehistoric beasts to changing the climate – and the illusion that pristine nature still exists undermines our efforts to make a better world, says environmental writer Emma Marris.
As readers let that sink in, they must be wondering, ‘But aren’t wilderness areas good? Don’t people need areas away from strip malls and car exhaust to escape the cities and contemplate the beauty of nature?’ Of course; that’s not the issue. The myth is the assumption that remote areas are untouched by human presence, as if they are pristine and holy temples where Homo sapiens should keep out. It’s too late, Marris argues.
After many years thinking and writing about nature and wilderness, I have come to see these concepts as not just unscientific, but damaging. The notion of a pristine ecosystem is a myth. Over millennia, humans have stirred up the global pot and changed the entire planet so that all organisms alive today are influenced by us. And it goes the other way, too. We humans are deeply influenced by the plants and animals we evolved with; we are part of “nature”.
What’s Evolution Got to Do With It?
The word “evolved” is unnecessary to her point. “Engaged” might be a better word. We influence ‘nature’ (whatever that means), and nature influences us. This is inescapable. Recall that one of the earth’s greatest examples of untamed wilderness seemed to be the Amazon rain forest. But humans have lived there for millennia, altering it in numerous ways. Evidence of large “geoglyphs” (major modifications of the land) have come to light in recent years in Brazil (2 March 2017).
Marris carries on about natural selection without thinking critically about it. She traces human influence back into the Pleistocene, claiming that humans hunted many of the large mammals to extinction. The examples she gives of evolution, though, are not matters of new genetic information or innovation, like new organs, but more like cases of loss, or devolution.
Today, even the wildest of wild animals aren’t only influenced by all those millennia of human-caused changes, they are continuing to adapt to our ever-changing ways. Wild animals make their own choices about what to do every day – in that sense they are free. But their daily choices involve navigating a world that has been rearranged for human needs and desires. And we profoundly influence the evolution of their minds and bodies. Elephants are losing their tusks as poachers kill the big tuskers before they can reproduce. Animals we hunt and fish intensively are becoming smaller-bodied as they evolve to reproduce faster.
That’s not the kind of evolution that would make Darwin Day a happy celebration. Darwin Devolves would not likely get a prominent spot on Charley’s bookcase. Marris also mentions climate change, of course, as another human influence that is making animals ‘evolve’ somehow. Perhaps she believes birds will innovate air conditioners for their nests, or attack the guilty humans like the angry birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller.
Why is Wilderness a Bad Assumption for Policy?
Marris argues that the assumption of pristine wilderness has also hurt indigenous peoples by encouraging colonialism and robbing tribes of their land. Time to blame whitey again, in other words. But surely not John Muir, that untouchable icon of conservation?
Around the world, Indigenous people have been evicted from their homes, which were later rebranded as “wilderness” and set up as places for white people to use for recreation and relaxation. In California’s Yosemite valley in 1851, a unit of the California State Militia expelled a band of Ahwahneechee people, killing 23 and setting their houses and acorn stores on fire, to make way for gold miners. In 1864, US president Abraham Lincoln made Yosemite valley into a park – an act considered by many to be the beginning of the national parks system. Four years later, naturalist John Muir came to California and fell in love with the landscape. He called Yosemite “pure wildness” and wrote that “no mark of man is visible upon it”. What Muir didn’t realise – or allow himself to understand – was that the landscape he loved so ardently was created by the “Indians” he sneered at in his writings as unkempt blights on the landscape.
After enough Darwin and Darwinian racism, it’s time for some Genesis. First, Marris continues, we must expand the discussion of solutions to combat the harmful interactions people have had with plants and animals.
Our concepts of nature and wilderness sadly limit the solutions that we can imagine. Perhaps because of the bluntly extractive tendencies of their ancestors, it remains very difficult for many people with primarily European ancestry to wrap their minds around even the idea of a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with other species. Thus they can see only two conceptual options: destruction of nature by humans or separation of humans from nature. To save nature, we must exile ourselves from it – like latter-day Adams and Eves leaving Eden in shame after despoiling it.
Marris finds some hope for future environmental policy in two ways: (1) forget that the world is pristine, because it is not. (2) Get back to humans’ original job, which is gardening: “a gardening metaphor seems right,” she says, qualifying it with the ethic that we should “leave room for the autonomy of non-humans.”
Marris’s essay is provocative, well-written and refreshing in the sense that here, finally, is an environmentalist that owns up to the fact that humans are just as “natural” as the polar bears, delta smelt and spotted owls. As an evolutionist, however, she commits the usual Darwin blunder: using the “should” word on organisms (humans) that she thinks evolved by the Stuff Happens Law. “Should” is not in the Darwin Dictionary. It must be borrowed from the Bible. It’s a concept communicated by the only Lawgiver with the authority to say “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” So again we must gently tap the wrist of the plagiarizing Darwin Party member. Get your own “should” from natural selection, Emma. To use ours, you must repent and come to Christ.
The garden metaphor is appropriate, we agree. (Isn’t it interesting how Genesis so often makes its way into rhetoric among people who think it is a myth?) The Genesis Mandate, creationists and theologians believe, makes it appropriate for humans to “keep” the created order while also using it for their needs. Maintaining healthy ecosystems and biodiversity is a worthy policy. We can also recognize the health value of national parks and areas set aside for low-impact visitation with the “Leave no trace” practice. A Christian environmental ethic starts with the understanding that we are not owners, but stewards. “The Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) and we would not want to damage the property of the Landowner, would we?