The Threat of Wilderness? by George H. Stankey
“Wilderness is a cultural construct, rather than an intrinsic biophysical reality. In order to understand the meanings and values associated with wilderness today, it is necessary to understand the cultural context within which the concept was originally imbedded…this largely involves an examination of western religious traditions and the effect these traditions have had on society’s view of nature…Because wilderness holds a variety of culturally imbued meanings, it is necessary to understand its cultural origins.
The Judeo-Christian origins of Western society generally are credited with portraying wilderness as a synonym for desolate, wild, and uninhabited lands manifesting God’s displeasure. But wilderness also served an important function in Christianity as a place where one could prepare for contact with God. Such countervailing perspectives created an ambivalence that still prevails. Yet, despite the ambivalence, early Europeans and North American societies perceived wilderness as a threat. Although a variety of factors, including increased scientific understanding of nature and the growing scarcity of wild country, have contributed to a greater appreciation of the value of wilderness (and) efforts to protect wilderness, there still remain deep-seated emotions about wilderness.
As the antonym of civilization, wilderness retains an image for many people as a place of fear and foreboding and as an active challenge to civilization’s survival. Perhaps deeply scored on the genetic code of humans are the fears of our ancestors as they huddled around the fire, listening to the sounds of the night around them, ever mindful of their precarious status and vulnerability. Today, it is civilization and society that surround the wilderness, its survival dependent upon our capacity to recognize the values it possesses and our willingness to ensure its preservation.”
Wilderness: A Western Concept Alien to Arctic Cultures by David R. Klein
The concept of wilderness in Western culture has its roots in Judeo-Christian fundamentalism. Europeans brought with them to North America this concept, as they set out to tame the wilderness of the western frontier. It was only after the wave of settlement had reached the Pacific coast that the desire to protect samples of wilderness was born.
Humans now controlled the land and viewed themselves as separate from nature. This view of nature is embodied in the United States Wilderness Act of 1964. Indigenous peoples, however, whose cultures have evolved within wild lands based on hunting and gathering, are at home in these lands. Their life-styles and very existence have been dependent upon a sustained harvest of resources from the land without altering nature.
Indigenous peoples are at the top of trophic relationships within arctic ecosystems and view themselves as a part of nature. Although conservation of nature in the Arctic is today a common goal of both the indigenous cultures and elements of Western culture, increased understanding of culturally based differences in perceptions of nature is necessary if mutually acceptable conservation efforts are to succeed.
Indigenous peoples of the arctic are gaining deserved legal authority and responsibility for administration of their homelands-homelands that only recently are viewed as such in Western society. Wilderness advocates are now turning their eyes northward and are beginning to perceive the as yet unrealized potential for wilderness opportunities in the Arctic. If the Arctic is to serve the growing interests of wilderness seekers from the south, those interests must be compatible with the interests and the well being of the residents of the Arctic.
This is particularly relevant in view of the current, and presumably continuing, future trend in world politics toward recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples relating to the lands they occupy and their desire to protect values they cherish in their cultures.
But how differently do people who live south of the Arctic and indigenous people of the Arctic view the concept of wilderness? Aldo Leopold in the book Sand County Almanac (1949) described wilderness as: I “the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization…. To the labourer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary to the pioneer. But to the labourer in repose, able for a moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life.”
These few perceptively chosen words by Leopold encompass two important aspects of the evolution of the wilderness concept in Western society: first, the human striving to transform nature, and second, the more recent nostalgic and aesthetic valuation of wilderness by an affluent society no longer in direct contact with nature. This pattern, perhaps not surprisingly, parallels the historical shift in Western society from its land-based origin to the technological industrial dominance of this century.
Western civilization has its roots in the city-states bordering the Mediterranean Sea, where separation of the urban dweller from nature was considered a desirable outcome of civilization. Wilderness became antithetical to the development of Western society. Wilderness was an obstacle to human dominance over nature but, as humans increasingly became separated from the natural environment, familiarity with it was lost.
Thus, wilderness, which had nurtured humans throughout their evolution into the Stone Age, was now abandoned by civilized man and was relegated to the realm of the unknown, engendering the fear and foreboding that humans so typically ascribe to the unknown. The emerging new religions in the Mediterranean basin focused on the urban dweller and provided reinforcement for the belief that wilderness was threatening to human society, harbouring the spirits of pagan animism as well as demons and devils of the new religions.
Religious ideology underwent a transformation from the nature-based spirit world of hunter-gatherer societies to the abstract single, human, and male all-powerful God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jerry Mander (1978) stresses that between 3000 and 2000 B.C., Hebrews won a political victory by renouncing worship of graven images, which were the symbolism of nature-based religions, while substituting their new anthropocentric religion that flourished in the expanding western civilization.
Much later, the industrial revolution brought about acceleration in the rate of human exploitation of the earth’s environment, fostered by the Reformation and the emergence of fundamental Protestantism. Max Weber (1930) ascribed the rapid development o f industrialization and the associated growth of capitalism to the Protestant ideology that viewed the earth as a storehouse of resources explicitly available for human exploitation. Protestantism also provided a work ethic that supported, and was supported by, the rapid rise of capitalism. Human populations were exploding at the expense of wilderness.
Nonetheless, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the dominant view of wilderness in the West was shifting from the fundamentalist Judeo-Christian negative image of darkness and the home of evil and threatening elements to a more positive view that melded the rural pastoral landscape with undisturbed nature. An appreciation for wild nature was evolving, particularly in North America, where development of the land by European immigrants had occurred in proximity to wilderness, as the frontier was pushed westward across the continent.
Appreciation of wild nature had become the central theme among an emerging cadre of American writers, including Charles Carleton, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Thus, the wilderness movement was born in North America as a satellite to the growing conservation movement that had been instrumental in bringing about the establishment of the world’s first national parks. For many, the culmination of the wilderness movement in the United States was the recognition by the U.S. Congress of the values of wilderness and the importance of wilderness preservation through passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 (U.S. Congress, 1964). This act-designated federal lands, primarily within existing federal reserve lands (national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges), as wilderness and offered protection to assure its continued “community of life …untrammelled by man.”
Official recognition of wilderness values by the U.S. Congress was largely a consequence of the strong educational and lobbying activity of the environmental movement through citizens’ advocacy organizations, primarily the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and the National Audubon Society. At the time, the Wilderness Act was branded by outspoken opponents, perhaps validly, as elitist legislation, serving the interests of a wealthy minority of the United States population. Subsequently, however, areas designated as wilderness throughout the United States under the Act have experienced rapidly increasing visitation, dominated by young people, often with only moderate or meagre levels of income. Nevertheless, only a minority of the American public actually visits wilderness areas. For most people in Western society today, wilderness is a concept, the reality of which they have not personally experienced.
The image of wilderness in the minds of many urban Americans, however weak it may be, is derived almost totally from television (the average American adult spends 4 hours per day in front of the TV screen). The proportion of TV time in support of wilderness preservation in the United States is probably a fraction of 1% (and most of that is on public TV which is watched by less than 5% of the TV viewing public). Contrast this with about 20% of commercial TV time in the United States devoted to advertising products that either directly or indirectly result in loss of the natural environment or damage to it through pollution, deforestation, land lost to development, over harvest of marine resources, and scarification of the land through extraction of nonrenewable resources.
Even when the effort is made through TV, it is not possible to represent the depth, smells, and feel of wilderness through the electronic media. Television lacks the potential to convey complexity to the viewer. The electronic media is flat, affecting only the visual and auditory senses in a filtered, superficial manner. It cannot convey the nuances of life or the complexity of ecosystem relationships. Those who have not experienced nature by being in it, a part of it, cannot understand the beauty and richness of nature solely from the television screen. The aura of living systems does not lend itself to any abstract form of communication. It must be experienced in situ (Mander,1978). There is no simple solution to the conundrum of perceived reality of the natural environment as depicted by TV. TV has captivated the minds of a majority of Western society. But TV, even in the unlikely event that the program time and motivation were to become available, is technologically incapable of conveying an understanding, an appreciation, and a reverential respect for wilderness values. If television is able in rare instances to engender support for wilderness protection through programming, it is only through the viewing public’s willingness to accept the voice of electronic media as authority.
Unfortunately, the voice for wilderness that comes from television is minuscule in contrast to the dominant materialistic, consumer-oriented, resource exploitive voice that occupies the majority of prime time TV. I do not intend these comments as merely an attack against television, but rather to emphasize the almost totally ineffective role that television plays in conveying the concept and reality of wilderness to the viewing public. Nevertheless, TV plays an effective role in shaping the views of the public, however distorted from reality they may be.
It is ironic that Western society, with its materialistic, technological preoccupation, its present economy that is clearly unsustainable through its dependence on massive worldwide exploitation of non-renewable resources, and its dissociation from nature, has also been the source of political activism to provide protection for remaining areas of the world’ s wilderness. The wilderness preservation movement has its roots in America, fostered by the biocentric writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, and more recently supported by advocates of deep ecology (Devall and Sessions, 1985). The concept of humans as part of nature, which has remained an integral component of non-Western cultures, is viewed as a threat to the environment by many Western wilderness advocates (Guha,1989).
The act of offering legal protection for wilderness that is far removed from our everyday lives provides salve for our conscience, perhaps in recognition that we have lacked the will to initiate the major governmental and economic restructuring necessary if we are to move toward sustainability of Western society.
But what is the meaning of wilderness in the Arctic? Is wilderness a concept alien to arctic cultures? Cultures have evolved within the constraints imposed by the environments where they occurred. Indigenous people that have lived compatibly with nature have done so by necessity. Those that exceeded the bounds of their environmental constraints died out, and there are numerous examples whose artifacts left upon the landscape have provided fertile fields for archaeologists.
Cultures have waxed and waned in relation to resource abundance, sustainability, and level of exploitation. When cultures persisted and human populations remained stable, it was usually because the level of technology available for exploitation of resources did not permit overexploitation of resources. When new technology became available, either through innovation, or by adoption from other cultures, increased exploitation of resources became possible. Human populations then expanded until either a new level of capability of resource exploitation was reached within the sustainability of the resources or overexploitation occurred and the human population declined, often to extinction, and taking with it the associated culture. When advances in technology have led to increased human density, social interaction flourished and time became available for activities in addition to those essential for subsistence.
Artistic skills developed and spirituality became more complex, often incorporating feedback from resource limitation. If the food base was diverse, overexploitation of one resource did not necessarily lead to the demise of the human population. It is apparent that, given that the time was available, awareness of the need to regulate future use of the overexploited resource may have developed. Constraints may have become incorporated into the culture as taboos, moral injunctions, or religious sanctions.
Cultures characterized by stability over long periods of time were logically those that did not overexploit, that were relatively free from influences of other cultures via technology exchange, competition for similar resources, warfare, and introduction of disease.
Cultures undergoing rapid change, albeit from the introduction of new technologies and ideologies, exploitation of newly available resources, domination and absorption of minority cultures, occupation of new lands, or population explosion, are likely to lose those constraints against resource overexploitation that had evolved with the cultures. This occurs because cultural attributes that yield long-term social benefits are lost in cultures undergoing rapid social change with associated population growth. Under such conditions all aspects of culture, including value systems, become flexible and subject to change.
Cultures in isolation with stable or even declining population growth are resistant to change. Witness the stability of the Norse culture in Iceland during its isolation throughout the Little Ice Age. The written Icelandic language and agrarian-based culture remained intact, even though the sustainability of the land for livestock and crops declined to submarginal levels as a consequence of the cooling climate, widespread overgrazing, and soil erosion. A similar pattern appears to have preceded the demise of the Norse settlements in Greenland (Fredskild, 1988). The Norse in Greenland were apparently so inflexibly tied to an agrarian economy and culture that they failed to transfer their dependence from the land, which could no longer support them, to the more abundantly available resources from the sea that became the sustenance for the Inuit who ultimately moved southward to replace them.
The Western concept of wilderness often includes homelands of indigenous peoples. The Gwich’in people, Athabascan Indians living close to the northern limit of forests in north-western Canada and adjacent Alaska, have a saying that “to understand our way you must stop for a moment and feel the rhythm of the land. For we are part of it” (S. James, pers. comm. l993). Before contact with Western culture the Gwich’in knew of the caribou only in fall and winter, when they were present in their homeland. When the caribou left their wintering grounds in spring migration north to the calving grounds, they left the land of the Gwich’in. The calving grounds were in the land of the Inuit, the people who lived at the edge of the sea.
The Caribou Cree of the northern coniferous forests of central Canada have had a similar relation to caribou (Ingstad, 1993). They knew that the caribou were in the north and absent from their lands in summer, to return again in fall and winter, but not always. Wintering areas varied from year to year as well as the migration routes followed. They spoke of the caribou as mystical and often unpredictable creatures, even though their culture had evolved largely in relation to caribou, their existence was dependent upon them, and they had intricate knowledge of the winter ecology of caribou. Nevertheless, they had a saying that “no one knows the way of the winds and the caribou” (Munsterheilm, 1953:97).
In a sense, the calving grounds of the caribou might be viewed as an analogue, in these caribou hunting cultures, to the Western concept of wilderness – a land beyond the realm of the known homeland. Similar areas might include those areas of the Arctic that could not support indigenous people, areas without harvestable resources and therefore of no utilitarian value, such as the tops of high mountains, ice caps, and expanses of the sea beyond safe exploitation. Such areas, although not visited except perhaps by shaman seeking powers from the spirit world, were, nevertheless, usually endowed with spiritual entities or power. They commanded respect event though seldom or never visited.
But if such lands can be considered wilderness by indigenous cultures of the Arctic, the concept is far removed from the wilderness of Western culture, which has values that can for most people be personally appreciated and exploited only through visitation, a place of retreat and restoration of self and soul. In indigenous cultures, the land is the source of being and is understood as such. In urban, industrialized, and monetarily-based cultures, the individual has lost direct contact with the land and has no real appreciation for the relationship of culture to the land via the commodities consumed that are products of the land (e.g., food, clothing, materials to construct homes, and paper that brings the printed word).
Wilderness in the Western concept, when in the homeland of indigenous peoples, is valued by indigenous cultures for its productivity. In Western urban society, however, wilderness is valued not for its productivity but rather for its lack of productivity for humanist consumption. A great disparity obviously exists between the Western view of arctic wilderness and the indigenous view of arctic homeland. Is a marriage of the Western concept of wilderness with indigenous peoples’ views of the land possible? Can protection of natural areas in the Arctic serve thirsts of Western society, while respecting and protecting the interests of indigenous peoples within their arctic homeland?
Because surviving cultures are not static, and both Western and arctic indigenous cultures are undergoing rapid change, the targets that are the focus of legal action to protect wilderness in the Arctic are moving targets. It i s not surprising that a divergence of views on measures for land protection exists within both cultures. Western culture is an amalgam of cultures (largely, but not exclusively, European) that has and is undergoing rapid change. This accelerated change is the product of the industrial/technological revolution. Unlike most of the cultures that it has absorbed and that had evolved over millennia of relative stability, Western culture is now a culture in transition, fuelled by the rapid increase in human population density and exploitation of largely non-renewable resources that are far removed from their consumers. It is a culture with little likelihood for adoption of timely self-imposed constraints on its manner of resource exploitation that could lead to population and cultural sustainability.
Wilderness, as a concept, is also undergoing change in Western society. In the three decades since the passage of the Wilderness Act in the United States, there has been a rapid growth in wilderness visitors (users) in areas designated as wilderness. The wilderness experience, as defined by the Wilderness Act, should provide opportunities for solitude. Now, however, the experience must be shared with an increasing number of users in most designated wilderness areas. A consequence is that the wilderness character of these areas is being lost, but it is the concept that is being eroded, whereas the land remains largely unaltered. Jay Hansford Vest (1987) has pointed out the difficulty that federal agencies have encountered in attempting to manage wilderness areas to serve the aesthetic and poetic ideals encompassed in the Wilderness Act through objective management technology. The Wilderness Act is an attempt by legal mandate to designate and protect the naturalness of areas to serve the concept of wilderness. Naturalness and the solitude that can be experienced in wilderness are lost to the wilderness seeker if numerous other humans are encountered.
Because concepts are in the human mind and not in the land itself, merely designating areas as wilderness could not assure that they would continue to fit the definition. Now, when I wish a wilderness experience, I increasingly select de facto wilderness which remains less visited by wilderness seekers than those areas designated as wilderness, and advertised as such by the eco-tourism industry and government agencies responsible for administering them.
It is obvious that the association of wilderness with solitude is being eroded in Western society. The wilderness concept has changed during the history of Western civilization and it would be naive to assume that further evolution of the concept will not occur. However, the concept remains a Western one and the change that it is undergoing is driven by pressures increasing human population and urbanization.
Designation of wilderness areas in the homeland of indigenous peoples of the Arctic by governments and pressures based outside of the Arctic is an ethnocentric act that reflects ignorance of, and insensitivity to, the cultures, interests, and concerns of arctic peoples. Although wilderness designation may protect the fish, wildlife, and other resources that are essential to the subsistence economy of arctic peoples, this benefit to arctic peoples is usually incidental to the primary intent of the designation and reflects a Western cultural bias. Similar results can be achieved, without invoking or reflecting cultural dominance, through intercultural negotiation leading to land use classifications designed to maintain the productivity of the land and waters for sustained harvest of resources by indigenous peoples, while offering opportunities for visitors from the south to experience the pristine nature that usually characterizes such environments. It is encouraging to note such a trend in Canada, where several new parks and other protected areas in the Arctic are the product of joint negotiations and efforts of cross-cultural groups. Visitors from the south should be fully aware when visiting the Arctic that they are usually guests in the homelands of cultures other than their own. Gaining understanding of these cultures offers the potential to enhance rewards from their visit.
Conversely, most Westerners, since the first arctic explorers and whalers, have entered the Arctic assuming or claiming possession of the land and resources for themselves or their own countries, without consideration for the endemic cultures and peoples of the Arctic. The recent trend by arctic countries to recognize claims of arctic peoples to lands and resources is an encouraging sign that the historical perception held by Westerners of the Arctic and its peoples is being revised. It is only through mutual understanding and respect between cultures that there can be a marriage of interests to assure the longterm protection of natural areas in the Arctic.
Alternatively, failure of peoples from- diverse cultures to understand one another and to respect their differences inevitably leads to increasing polarization and alienation when contact between cultures occurs. Witness the opposition originating in southern urban centres to the harvest of marine mammals by arctic peoples, and the subsequent boycott of sealskins in Western markets. The future offers promise for the protection of nature in the Arctic, but it can be accomplished with assurance of lasting benefits to the peoples of the Arctic and to Western society only through increased mutual understanding and communication. Westerners must learn to find wilderness gratification when visiting homelands of the Inuit, Sami, Evenki, and other arctic peoples without their specific designation as wilderness. We must continue to support protection of the arctic environment and the sustainability and productivity of the biological systems it encompasses. But its protection should be negotiated within the terms and conditions of the residents of the Arctic rather than by imposing cultural concepts that are alien to arctic cultures. .
Devall, B., and Sessions, G.1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Layton, Utah: Gibbs M. Smith.
Fredskild, B. 1988. Agriculture in a Marginal Area-South Greenland From the Norse Landing (985 A.D.) to the Present (1985 A.D.). In: Birks, H.H., Birks, H.J.B., Kaland, P.E., and Moe, D., eds. The Cultural Landscape-Past, Present, and Future. Cambridge, E ngland: Cambridge University Press. 381-393.
Guha, R. 1989. Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World critique. Environmental Ethics 11:71-83.
Ingstad, H. 1993. The Land of Feast and Famine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Leopold, A.1949. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mander, J. 1978. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: Quill Press. Munsterhjelm, E. 1953. The Wind and the Caribou; Hunting and Trapping in Northern Canada. New York: Macmillan. U.S. CONGRESS. 1964. Public Law 88-577, Wilderness Act, September 3, 1964.
Vest,J.H. 1987. The Philosophical Significance of Wilderness Solitude. Environmental Ethics 9:303.
Weber, M.1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons.