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

                    i.        Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”

          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

          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

          d.       Not clear criticizing concept of wilderness is not also criticizing those land areas or attempts to protect such areas


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 is supposed to contaminate it!)

          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 value 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.       “Elite urban tourists/wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and created wilderness in 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 claim that mountains and valleys were “warts and pock-holes in the face of the earth” (1600 preacher/poet)

8.       Modern env. attitude toward wilderness was created by two intellectual movements: Romantic Spiritual Sublime and Post-Frontier (Primitivist) Ideology


9.       Romantic Spiritual Sublime (wilderness as a symbol of God’s presence on earth)

          a.       Origin of idea in some modern environmentalism that nature is sacred

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

                    i.        Mountain as cathedral

          c.       Even in old concept of wilderness as bad, it was a place one might meet God

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

          e.       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.        For Thoreau–a stern loneliness and for Wadsworth–awe-filled bewilderment

                    ii.       Mountaintop, waterfall, thundercloud, rainbow, sunset

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

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

          f.       These are sublime landscapes

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

                    ii.       An emotional response that is like being in the presence of the divine

          g.       Sublime became domesticated, as more tourists coming to look at nature’s beauty;

                    i.        Wilderness became a spectacle and was sentimentalized

                    ii.       John Muir experiences in nature as “welcome ecstasy”


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

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

          b.       Wilderness was a response to nostalgia for passing frontier

          c.       Wild country becomes a place of national renewal

          d.       A place to experience what it means to be American

                    i.        “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”

          e.       Myth (reality?) of the vanishing frontier fueled the preservation movement

                    i.        To preserve an older, simpler truer world that was disappearing forever

                    ii.       World depended on free land, wilderness

          f.       “To protect wilderness was to protect the nations most sacred myth of origin”

          g.       Wilderness as last bastion of rugged frontier individualism

                    i.        A nostalgic for passing of heroic men who embodied that life (cowboy, horseman), kept his word, didn’t talk lewdly to women, worked/played hard, and whose “ungoverned hours did not unman him”

                    ii.       Teddy Roosevelt, macho “wild rough-rider of the plains”


11.     Wilderness environmentalism is masculine, even macho (sexist?)

          a.       In wilderness a man could be a real man

          b.       Becoming civilized sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity

          c.       Comforts and seductions of civilized life, the feminizing tendencies of civilization emasculated men

12.     Wilderness is elitist; wilderness as landscape for elite tourists

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

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

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

          d.       Rich men who had means could preserve a remnant of wild landscape in order to be regenerated/renewed by sleeping under stars, hunt, and live off the land

          e.       Frontier was gone, but could still be experienced if saved enough wilderness

          f.       Wealthiest Americans had elite 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

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

          h.       Is it true that wilderness is elitist?

                    i.        Don’t poor, middle class folk like wild land too?

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

13.     Wilderness is only an ideal for those who are ignorant of how people do and must use the land; it is a fantasy of urban folks

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

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

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

          d.       Urban folk for whom food comes from supermarket/restaurant and not field

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

14.     Wilderness idea a consumerist (rather than productive) view of nature

          a.       In wilderness, one is not a producer, but consumer (of guides who serve as romantic surrogates for former frontiersmen–when really servants of the rich, of nature experiences)

15.     Wilderness creation involved the removal of the Native peoples (and still does?)

          a.       National park and wilderness movement came right after final Indian wars where 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.       Is wilderness preservation the reason Native Americans were removed from their lands?

          e.       Today, natives (e.g., Blackfeet) are accused of inappropriate and illegal “poaching” on lands that they once lived and hunted on as home (e.g., Glacier National Park) before removed

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

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

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

          a.       E.g., the rainforest in developing world become icon of sacred land

                    i.        Douglas Tompkins example

          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.        Guha/Rothenberg quote

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

17.     Wilderness is a flight from history (historically ignorant idea): False myth that wilderness was a “virgin, uninhabited land”

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

          b.       Illusion that we can wipe slate of our past clean and return to a world that existed before we left our marks on the world

          c.       Wilderness offers us the illusion we can escape the cares and troubles of the world our past has ensnared us

18.     Wilderness fulfills romantic project of secularizing Judeo-Christian values, by making the new church nature (God’s own creation)

          a.       Many enviros who claim to be areligious or atheists express religious feelings toward wilderness

          b.       Modern environmentalism has many quasi-religious values

          c.       Many enviros see god as a projection of human dreams and desires, but fail to notice that their view of nature/wilderness is a similar projection

          d.       If people find god in wilderness and do so self-consciously, is this a problem or a strength of the wilderness idea?

          e.       Is Cronon making the claim that seeing god in nature is a mistaken religious attitude, just a projection, with no reality to it? No argument given for this view.

19.     Central Paradox: Wilderness embodies an unfortunate dualism in which humans are entirely outside nature

          a.       He thinks it crucial that people should always be conscious that they are part of natural world, tied to ecosystems that sustain their lives

          b.       Wilderness encourages us to think that we are separate from nature and this is likely to reenforce environmentally irresponsible behavior

          c.       If nature to be real/true nature must be wild (separate from humanity)

                    i.        McKibben’s pristine view of nature: Thesis presupposes that to be natural requires being pristine, untouched by our common past; But env. history shows us that people been manipulating natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record;

                    ii.       But this ignores that industrialized humans have altered it on a scale way beyond anything in the past

          d.       Then human’s presence in nature degrades it (represents its fall)

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

          e.       If wilderness has no place for humans (except as contemplative travelers reveling in god’s natural cathedral)

          f.       Then it can’t offer a solution to env. and other problems we face

          g.       It would seem to offer the solution to the problem that humans are taking over more and more of nonhuman nature and leaving less and less room for the more-than-human (other than human)

20.     Wilderness environmentalism is profoundly misanthropic

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

          b.       A self-defeating council of despair

          c.       If wild nature is only thing worth saving

          d.       If our presence destroys it

          e.       Sole solution to protect sacred nature from profane humanity is to commit suicide

21.     Wilderness nostalgia for passing frontier way of life involved hostility toward civilized (modern) life

          a.       Wildlands of frontier are freer, truer, more natural (e.g., Aldo Leopold)

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

          c.       Civilization contaminated its inhabitants and absorbed them into faceless, collective, contemptible life of crowd

          d.       Redeem civilization by retaining frontier virtues in post frontier life

22.     “Wilderness environmentalism” involves idea that civilization is a disease and that preserving wilderness is the way to save the planet

          a.       Civilization as a disease:

                    i.        Wilderness only place humans not fully infected the earth

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

                    iii.      Civilization contaminates wilderness

23.     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 was a return to simpler more primitive living

          b.       Popular idea that our env. problems began with agriculture, suggests that we need to jettison civilization to treat nature properly

          c.       We need to become hunter-gatherers again

          d.       Abandon everything civilization has offered us

24.     Wilderness environmentalism today fails to properly value civilization

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

25.     Wilderness ideal shows alienated relation to land as doesn’t allow humans to be a positive part of nature

          a.       Only people whose relation to land is alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for romantic ideology of wilderness leaves nowhere for humans to make their living from the land

          b.       This is true and deeply important

26.     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 to solve env. problems

          d.       Berry quote

27.     Wilderness env. leaves little hope of finding what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature

28.     The belief that humans 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


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

          a.       Excludes from radical env. agenda 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 an human suffering in overpopulated places of earth

          b.       Social ecology as the response

          c.       Wilderness env. sees env. issues in stark terms of humans vs nonhumans

                              (1)     Deep ecology

                    ii.       Ignores differences and conflicts between humans that lead to env. problems

                    iii.      Wilderness goes with wealth; problems of poor don’t count

                    iv.      Wilderness pits urban recreationists against rural people who earn their living from the land (except those who sell to tourists themselves)

                    v.       But rural people have perceived econ interest in exploiting the land; why should be accept their views as objective or proper?

30.     Wilderness env. idealizes and seeks to protect distant wildernesses (Arctic Refuge, 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

          b.       The roadsides, trees, backyards of our neighborhood

          c.       Plenty of nature there worth valuing and protecting

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

          e.       Wilderness privileges some parts of nature at expense of others, privileging the romantic sublime over the humble plains/marsh

          f.       Big wilderness is also given preference (where you can really get away from civilization)

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


31.     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

32.     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 nec 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

33.     One of environmentalism’s great contributions is a critique of modernity (of the failings of the human world)