Dr Michael P. Cohen
Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick, the great American story, documents
a grand American Imperial Project, seen through the microcosm of whaling.
On board, the whale ship is organized in a socially hierarchical way that
determines procedures of owning commodities, hiring labor and
commanding production. Aside from being an example of American
―Nature Writing,‖ Melville‘s narrative puts hard questions to Americans,
about the American attitude toward the world: What are whales to us, that,
as the New England Primer has it ―God‘s voice obey?‖ What do we make of
our modes of extraction, production, technology, and knowledge? How do
domestic citizens keep track of the processes of extraction and production
that are at such a distance from consumers? How do Americans
accommodate themselves to or judge the violence done at a distance, in our
name. How are we implicated by corporate modes of accumulating capital
from the natural world?
For me, Moby Dick also shows how nature ―out there‖ matters—or
ought to matter--to those at home, and ought to shape our priorities, since we
are all member of what Ishmael calls a joint-stock company‖:
What if we don‘t care about distant places and entities?
How does ―globalization‖ bring distant places urgently close to hand?
What is subsistence in a global context, and how far does it reach?
How do places where no human live call for human restraint?
Are concerns over protecting marginal cultural systems and protecting
marginal natural systems related?
Perhaps we live in a postmodern world where no discourse is privileged, but
these nagging questions remain, and Melville introduced them as part of our
discussion of wilderness.
My personal perspective is very limited. As an American Male,
raised in a suburb, taken to the mountains when young, who climbed
extensively with the Sierra Club of California, went on climbing expeditions
in North America, Europe, and Asia, led Sierra Club outings for many years,
where I became a mountain guide, wrote about John Muir, and continued to
choose a career by the availability of wild landscapes nearby, I am hardly
neutral on the subject of wilderness.
Think of me as one who was also shaped by the romantic ideas of his
father, who read and argued about Whitman and Wordsworth in his youth,
as one who was trained in the romantic ideology that Cronon attaches to
wilderness, and as one who married into a family of wilderness
recreationists, people prominent in Sierra Club outings and activities, and
whose marriage has been marked by continuing devotion, my wife being a
National Park Service Ranger, original board member of Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), landscape painter, environmental activist, and
companion on many outings to wild places.
I have spent too much of my life in the open, out of doors, training for
rock climbs and ski descents, backpacking--in other words engaged in those
post WWII activities that my generation was gifted, and coming to see these
activities, leisure time activities, as the center of my life.
My early scholarly work, The Pathless Way: John Muir and American
Wilderness (1984) and The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970 (1988)
have been about wilderness and wilderness politics. My most recent book,
A Garden of Bristlecone Pines: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (1999)
has been a part of my dialogue with William Cronon, and designed to
demonstrate the importance of natural entities that contain history--as found
in 4,000 year old trees--to the understanding of human roles in the changes
of the North American continent.
So my writing has been associated with an extended study of those
who are like me: Muir, the board members of the Sierra Club, and to those
who study the deep history of the biological earth, and long-lived trees.
John Muir, Bob Marshall, and Loren Eiseley are formative influences on my
I may be too much inside this tradition to be able to see it from the
outside. Yet I also welcome critique of this tradition, for reasons I will
Essays and Institutions on Wilderness
I am a student of literature, a literary critic, and this influences the
way I think about wilderness.
For instance, it is a long way between Robert Marshall‘s writing his
classic essay ―The Problems of the Wilderness‖ in 1930, for The Scientific
Monthly, and William Cronon writing ―The Trouble with Wilderness‖ in
1995. And yet Cronon‘s title suggests the degree to which the two essays
are linked. I myself published a short essay on the subject in 1991, in which
I pointed out, as Marshall had in his original, that much of what passes for
controversy is rooted in conflicting discourses. ["The ProblemS of Post
Modern Wilderness," Wild Earth (Fall 1991)]
Between Cronon and Marshall, almost precisely in time, one sees the
passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the publication of the first
edition of Roderick Nash‘s defining book, Wilderness and the American
Mind, in 1967, that celebrates and concludes with this event.
The committed writing of advocacy by Marshall, followed by the
committed history of that advocacy by Nash, and finally the critique of the
ideology of wilderness advocates by Cronon form a tradition.
The institution where Cronon and I met, the American Society for
Environmental History, was formed in 1976, more than coincidentally
created in the same year as FLPMA, the Bureau of Land Management‘s
Organic Act, that marked a possible end of treating the public domain in the
United States as open rangeland and the place for mining claims. This was a
year of our American bicentennial celebration but also an era of perceived
crisis. The very idea of wilderness, that was institutionalized in the
Wilderness Act of 1964, a dozen years earlier, comes out of that perceived
A rich literature associated with the advocacy of wilderness preceded
it, and was associated with works that have become canonical, for instance,
with the advocacy of Wilderness in Leopold‘s A Sand County Almanac
(1949), or with Wallace Stegner‘s ―Wilderness Letter‖ (1961). Wilderness
is also associated with a vast literature of governmental reports, and
handbooks, the most ubiquitous being Wilderness Management (USDA #
The Act, and the rhetoric generated around it, became a tool for those
who wished to ―save‖ as they put it, unspoiled natural regions. History is
not simply ideology enacted; it is a result of people using tools, in this case
legislative tools, and often using the original tool for new purposes. The
wilderness act, generated out of arguments about recreation, could be used to
protect biodiversity, and has been.
For nearly a half a century, since the passage of this Act,
environmental historians have written about wilderness and The Wilderness
Act. Environmental historians are not the only ones who have written
narratives and/or critiques of wilderness. For instance, one saw a flowering
of rhetoric about wilderness within the organizations that have advocated it,
and furthering their own goals using wilderness, especially during the year
of the 35th anniversary, in 1999. Wilderness is intimately associated with
public and private institutions, ranging from the BLM, NPS and US Forest
Service, with universities and academic associations like the ASEH and
ASLE, to the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, SUWA, Friends of
Nevada Wilderness, and even corporate entities like Patagonia and the
Foundation for Deep Ecology.
Wilderness is now institutionalized on many levels, and consequently
so too are the modes of discourse about it. These modes of discourse have
The ethics of historical writing is itself a broad subject, and this
analysis will take a rather narrower view of the ethics of critical writing,
using literary sources, not strictly speaking historical. Wilderness has been
very literary in its conception, in the discourse used for its critique and
advocacy, and in its implementation as an institution. As Howard
Zahniser‘s son once commented, on his father, the writer of the Wilderness
Act, ―Dad spent more times in used book shops than he ever did in
wilderness areas.‖ In fact, the writing of history about wilderness is
preceded by the writing about the history of wilderness from a literary
standpoint, by such writers as Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Henry Nash
Smith, Leo Marx, and eventually by Roderick Nash.
My point is that historicizing and enacting wilderness designation
have been complimentary activities. The number of wilderness areas in the
US continues to grow, and the number of acres continues to increase. In this
sense alone, the institutionalization of wilderness matters. And the sense of
crisis from which it has grown.
To begin with crisis. Marshall spoke of crisis when he wrote, ―Within
the next few years the fate of the wilderness must be decided.‖ When I say
crisis, I mean of course, perceived crisis. No doubt there is always a real
crisis, but the ethics of writing is about perception, about the intersection of
theory and literature, thinking and acting. We might see, as the ethical
literary critic Geoffrey Harpham does, that ―thinking of narrative as a
representational structure that negotiates the relation, cultivated by ethical
philosophers since Hume, of is and ought.‖(Harpham 1996) ―Ethics is,‖
writes Harpham, ―. . . the point at which literature intersects with theory, the
point at which literature becomes conceptually interesting and theory
becomes humanized‖ (401). ―Ethics does not solve problems; it structures
them‖ (403). Historians structured problems as narratives, with plots. The
plots themselves, or the concept of them, went through what Harpham calls
a ―mighty shift‖ in the 1970s, from a formal property of the text to a readerly
construction (403). ―To make up a plot,‖ writes Paul Ricoeur, in 1984, ―is
already to make the intelligible spring from the accidental, the universal
from the singular‖ (1984, 41).
In this sense, we might say that the very conceptualizing of a part of
the world as wilderness is a kind of plot making, and I will have more to say
about this. Critique of wilderness idea is in fact entailed in the critique of
Because wilderness is part of the popular, and I have written
narratives myself–in now not so popular books about wilderness--I will treat
myself as implicated in this discussion. It is perhaps obvious now, as a
result of critics like Theodor Adorno, that works of art, to quote Charles
Rosen, ―works of art do not passively reflect the society in which they arise,
but act within it, influencing and criticizing it‖ (Rosen 2002). Historians
have in fact been the objects of my narratives, themselves written as
critiques of previous views of wilderness and the wilderness movement. My
narratives have in turn been critiqued. But the real point here is as follows:
historians have been engaged in creative acts, when their narratives have
advocated wilderness as idea or institution, and they have been engaged,
through critique of wilderness designation or management strategies, in
creative acts here too. Meanwhile, the designation of wilderness by
Congressional act is itself creative, and as some have argued, a critique of
modern society; so like the work of the historians, wilderness is written into
It is interesting, I might say if I wanted to make trouble, to watch
latter-day academics do their work in total disregard for its effects. In this,
wilderness might be a case in point. One sees scholars jump on
bandwagons, as they have always done, and follow the academic successes
of their elder peers. William Cronon‘s critique of wilderness ideology has
been wildly successful, and in English and History Departments we all know
how to say--everyone says--―gender, race, class, ethnicity,‖ and so
environmental historians seem no longer interested in actual ecosystems, or
in the health of the biotic environment, in their desire to understand the
cultural construction of environmental consciousness. Or maybe it is just
too unpleasant to think about such issues as rapidly declining biological
diversity, or global warming.
You might say that Marshall was not writing about biological
diversity at all. One wonders why Cronon did not critique Marshall directly
The Wild and the West
Joel Rosenthal, head of the Carnegie Council, made these comments
concerning our talks:
"Putting Cronon's debate into an international perspective will be a
valuable addition to the literature. . . . I am genuinely intrigued as to
how the concept of "wilderness" has shaped American thinking and
how it has traveled overseas . . . bring this debate to an international
audience, playing up the American experience in both a comparative
context and a global perspective. A secondary goal would be to
generate a background resource that is useful to those thinking
‗ethically‘ about preservation.‖
Where did wilderness come from? From THE American ―creation
myth‖ as Patti Limerick has called it, that includes the single direction of the
―plot‖ of Frederick Jackson Turner‘s so-called Frontier Hypothesis, and the
importance of conquering and exploiting ―undeveloped‖ land in developing
the American ―National Character.‖ The ―reverential‖ aspect of wilderness
also comes out of that emergence story, a kind of religious awe toward that
wild country that even Cronon cannot help evoking at the end of his essay,
―The Trouble with Wilderness‖ (Cronon 1995).
The emergence story has been taken up—assumed really!--by
institutions like the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club, in their
implementing the modern idea of wilderness (Stegner 1985). This has been
unfortunate because the more recent, and accurate, versions of American
history describe a complex cultural convergence. The Western United
States, as Patti Limerick says, or Richard White has shown, is a place where
many cultures interact, where we met each other. A primary topic of the
conversation at the site of cultural conversion has been the way air, water,
land, and wildlife shall be owned and treated for themselves and for human
health and welfare.
Wilderness has been a part of that conversation.
If one parses the language of the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness
Act of 1964, one sees the Frontier Hypothesis within it. The Act of 1964
defines wilderness as the following:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own
works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where
the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where
man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is
further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal
land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent
improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed
so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally
appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with
the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has
outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined
type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of
sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an
unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological,
or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
Parsing this language, we find certain qualities of appearance, the lack of
humans, possibilities for solitude, recreation, unimpaired nature, and certain
scientific, i.e. natural historic features. Consider Eliot Porter‘s photographs
in the most famous, and perhaps most beautiful Sierra Club publication of
the 1960s, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (1963).
The title is perfectly consonant with this definition of wilderness. Consider
Solitude is the theme of the book;
In all images of the Colorado River corridor, not a single footprint;
The landscape includes a troubling erasure of Native Americans:
Yet the Glen Canyon region was one of the richest in archaeological
resources for understanding indigenous settlement of the southwest United
States. The book is without a single image of Native American pictographs,
petroglyphs, granaries, pueblos, and contains no images of modern residents
of the region, Paiute, or Navajo. Cronon is correct: there is trouble here.
Nevertheless, the formal definition wilderness has frequently been
distinguished from the value Americans have placed on wildness, in a
literary tradition that stretches from Henry David Thoreau‘s essay,
―Walking,‖ to Gary Snyder‘s well known book, The Practice of the Wild
Wilderness is not and has never been the entity that David Brower
spoke of in the 1960s, perhaps mocking himself, a place where ―the hand of
man has not set foot.‖ His is a provincial definition. But maybe wilderness
contains some ideas of worth and usefulness, in the larger global context.
I believe that our biggest problem of environmental ethics in the
present and future is accommodating the equally important concerns for
social and environmental justice with our concern for the biotic health of the
earth, acting upon both, without sacrificing one for the other. For this
reason, I am daunted when I read in the very influential American literary
critic Lawrence Buell: ―. . . as the twentieth century nears its close, the world
has become sufficiently westernized to ensure for Euro-American culture,
for better or worse, a disproportionately larger share in determining world
environmental attitudes during the next century‖ (The Environmental
A couple years ago, I looked at a coffee table book like those
published by the Sierra Club, but this one was in Zermatt, by the famous
Austrian mountain climber Reinholdt Messner, and called something like
The Wilderness of the Alps. So I am aware of the impact of wilderness
ideologies on some Europeans. I have a (perhaps) simple-minded notion
about the way ―American 'wilderness' concept(s) have been affecting
worldwide conservation, for good and bad‖ in such colonial ideas as David
Brower‘s 1969 plea for an ―Earth National Park.‖ But I am not sure what to
make of this matter. I know that American wilderness advocates have been
trying to make their arguments less about recreation and more about
biodiversity, less about personal gratification and more about biological
science, these days. And I am tempted to say, on the one hand, that this is a
rhetorical ploy, not a change in their ideology. Their ideas have received
critique by the ecologists, especially by Daniel Botkin in his Discordant
Harmonies, A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century (1990). This view,
and Cronon‘s have received responses by such books as George Sessions,
Deep Ecology for the Twenty-first Century (1995).
What I want to do, however, is consider the role of the environmental
justice movement on ideas of land use and environmental ethics.
There are multiple problems with my speaking of the ―global reach‖
of American ideas. I am more competent to say what makes them American
than what makes them travel well or poorly. My recent though pitifully
short conversations with Japanese literary scholars, have included
discussions with Masami Raker Yuki of Toyohashi University of
Technology, who has translated the works of Terry Tempest Williams, three
scholars of University of Ryukyus, Katsunori Yamazata, an eminent scholar
of the work of Gary Snyder, Shin Yamashiro who has recently explored the
writings of Peter Matthiessen, and Ken-ichi Noda, who is interested in
represented wildness in modern Japanese literature. All suggest that the idea
of the wild does not travel very well, except as an imagined natural past.
But, as these scholars have argued, even an imagined past—a part of literary
and artistic traditions--is a powerful force that links especially the interests
of literary scholars of Japan and United States.
When Cronon‘s essay appeared, on May 12, 1995, I framed 8
questions on which we agreed. I said our strong personal commitment to
them create our difficulties but both hope that inquiries associated with the
questions will offer better solutions to real social and environmental
1) How is it possible to offer a constructive critique of
environmentalism, of the past and present, especially of the "save the
wilderness" version of environmentalism, without damaging the valuable
parts of the movement, and without offering an argument largely usable by
the opponents of environmentalism who are motivated only by narrow
2) How can the literature of wilderness, sometimes called "nature
writing," be understood as a literary canon, in itself? Further, how can this
literature be used as part of a critique of its own tradition, in a way that does
full justice to the literature as literature, but also historicises the texts?
3) How can a clear distinction be made between the salient parts of a
scholar's version of this literary tradition and popular misconceptions about
the structure and function of the environmentalist's thinking?
4) Is it possible, or desirable to distinguish between the secular and
sacred strains of environmentalism? Aside from the difficulty of making
such distinctions, what will be the social or political effect of making them?
5) How -- and to what extent -- can environmentalists themselves alter
their own ideologies in light of significant advances in historical,
geographical, and scientific knowledge about the "nature of nature," without
losing their sense of identity, loosing their political focus, or losing their
economic and popular constituency?
6) Is there a central position from which the various environmental
issues and agendas can be launched? From some "middle ground," perhaps?
What are the risks and benefits of looking for such a central position?
7) What new and, hopefully more powerful strategies, will this
critique of environmentalism create?
8) What is the relationship between environmental history and a
critique of environmentalism? How can the environmentalist be educated by
Making and Critiquing Wilderness
―It is easy to be a critic. All one needs to do is to think very hard
about any complex aspect of the world and it quickly becomes
apparent why this or that approach to its study is defective in some
way. It is rather more difficult to suggest how we can, in practice, do
better.‖ (Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix, 109)
It has been argued that the wilderness movement was largely based
upon a critique of modernism, or modern mechanized civilization, or
consumerism, or rampant commercialism. There are plenty of these
But it is also true that the wilderness story is about making something,
about rescue, about saving. Whether such ideas have been mistaken in
intentions and in practical implementation remains to be seen. The fact is,
that the activists of the wilderness movement--those who have engaged in it,
written histories of it, gloried in it, and made it powerful, have thought that
they were making something better in the world.
No doubt their dreams and the implementation of those dreams bear
the stamp(s) of their time, place, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and ideology.
They were, nevertheless, attempting to make the world they could influence
a better place.
Scientists and historians have had their say about the trouble with
wilderness as conceived and as implemented. The present political regime
in the United States has also had its say (see BLM Wilderness).
Nevertheless, there is a limitation of criticism.
Critique is not dismissal. I ask, what can we learn from the idea of
wilderness, its origins, its transformations, and how it has been implemented
in American Law? What of American conditions seemed to legitimize the
What are the foci of present American discussions? In an era when
we are watching an American presidential administration with the WORST
ENVIRONMENTAL RECORD, LOCALLY AND GLOBALLY, IN MODERN
HISTORY, we find careful analysis and critique of the motives of the
wilderness movement, in such places as the recent Merchant Compact Disk,
American Environmental History, that concludes its segment on ―wilderness
When the Wilderness Act of 1964 brought Thoreau's dream of
preserving wildness to its greatest triumph since creation of the
national parks, the act's authors defined wilderness as an area "where
the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where
man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Once again Indians
were erased from the wilderness.
This is true, but not all true. And is the final sentence the most pertinent
conclusion for our time?
GLOBALIZING the Critique of wilderness: Are American
environmentalists responsible, as Merchant and others suggest, for
ghettoizing Indians, furthering consumerism, creating bad art, creating
a ―green empty space,‖ devoid of environmental justice?
One might ask whether historians are engaged in a kind of critique
that is valuable, but not useful to our current condition. The assumption that
the wilderness movement is about only the human history of ideas about
nature, and about the imperial power of Euro-Americans over native peoples
misses the whole point of the movement, or, to be more moderate, critiquing
the cultural errors of the wilderness movement may be a useful kind of de-
centering of the project, but doing so has its dangers.
Environmental historians are not thinking like W. S. Merwin‘s ―For A
Coming Extinction (1967):‖ that begins, ―Gray whale / Now that we are
sending you to The End / That great god /tell him . . . That it is we who are
important.‖ (The Lice). Only the scientists, ecologists, biologists,
conservation biologists, and the poets seem to care that critique of
wilderness goes on at the same time as the destruction of the biotic systems
of the earth.
So Cronon‘s short essay has been damaging to the wilderness
movement; even Richard White has said so, but without offering a program
we can use. For me, this is because of where it has led journeymen
historians—namely away from focus on biotic systems and toward social
dynamics. Many Environmental Historians have lost sight of the object in
our attention to the subject that perceives it. Environmental History must
include Natural History. This has been theorized for a good long time, and
very well by Cronon himself who has argued that there is a dynamic of
human acts and environmental responses and human adjustments.
To use another perspective, consider Walter Benjamin‘s Thesis XVIII:
‗In relation to the history of organic life on earth,‘ writes a
modern biologist, ‗the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens
constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-
hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill
one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.‘
To make a great thing small, to turn the history of wilderness into a history
of human ideas of wilderness, to focus not on what is, and what has been in
the organic world, but what humans have made of their world, and the
motives that have driven them to alter their behavior toward it. What if it
turns out that the wilderness movement has done the right things for the
wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons? Such questions
shape the plot of the stories in which the history of wilderness is cast.
Part of the problem may be related to the ideologies held by wilderness
advocates, ideologies like that of Konrad Lorenz, as described by Kenan
Malik (Malik 2002). But that is not a sufficient reason. We have been
theorizing wilderness all along.
Critique is always directed at perceived errors or troubles of past theorists
1. To me, the first trouble is that wilderness advocates have linked
conceptions about the disappearance of wilderness with conceptions about
the disappearance of certain ―wild‖ human virtues. This theory of human
nature contains an assumption that a future world without wild places will be
a future world without human evolution in appropriate environments where
biological natures can find some degree of adaptive fit. This is a kind of
2. Cronon steers clear of biology. Instead his target is the biocentric views
of ―Deep Ecologists.‖ He reframes wilderness as a ―biocentric idea‖ in much
the same way as Simon Schama has in Landscape and Memory (New York:
Knopf, 1995). Schama‘s analysis of nature writing and painting (its section
headings are labeled ‗Wood,‘ ‗Water,‘ and ‗Rock,‘ and its epigraph and
closing words are quotations from Thoreau), is very much like that of
Cronon. Rather than polarizing ecocentric vs. homocentric, or nature vs.
culture, Schama claims that they overlap, and he mocks the distinctions:
―The founding fathers of modern environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau
and John Muir, promised that ―in wildness is the preservation of the world,"
…but of course the healing wilderness was as much the product of culture‘s
craving and culture‘s framing as any other imagined garden" (Schama 7).
3. We now know that Roderick Nash‘s (literary) definitions of wilderness as
linked to the American ideas of ―National Parks‖ are ―nationalistic‖ and
paltry, because they come from a certain provincial position about ―Nature‘s
Nation.‖ So an elaborate critique of the ideology of wilderness advocates in
the United States has emerged.
Cronon rightly finds some of the roots of the Nash-type wilderness
ideology in Romantic ideas. However, his notion of the romantic is too
narrow when he fails to deal with gender, with colonial and post-colonial
transformations, and with individualism. For instance, his own narrative
reproduces the American insistence on ―solitude,‖ an idea in Thoreau and
Jeffers that has been challenged by writers like the American poet Adrienne
Rich. He neglects the dissemination of wilderness as photographic image.
Romantic images of wilderness are being consumed every day through
photographs, not words, as in The Place No One Knew.
4. A more subtle analysis reveals varieties of environmentalism and their
disparate foci. The Environmental Justice Movement, for instance, is about
access to a healthy, beautiful and stable world, how some have access and
others do not. The wilderness movement has also been about human access,
but it has been less multi-dimensional, and more hierarchical.
I will define Environmental Justice as Robert Bullard has, in a brief
entry in Conservation and Environment: An Encyclopedia. It is, in North
America, a movement, ―a loose alliance of grass-roots and national
environmental activists, civil rights and social justice leaders, and
academicians who question the foundation of the current environmental
protection paradigm‖ (Bullard 1995 251). Not least of the issues of EJ is
this key question: Whose histories count in the human plans to change the
earth? Many disciplines participate in this concern. For instance, landscape
architect Ann Whiston Spirn‘s multicultural perspective in The Language of
Landscape (1998) can be read as a beautiful treatise in Environmental
Consider a recent direction, in The Environmental Justice Reader:
Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy, ed. Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and
Rachel Stein (Tucson; University of Arizona Press, 2002). Joni Adamson
has said that Cronon has given her a piece of the puzzle she wished to solve.
But the approaches represented in this anthology are not influenced strongly
by him: they are consonant with his critique, they enlarge its boundaries, and
they are compelling as a result of multiple perspectives.
Mei Mei Evans, from ― ‗Nature‘ and Environmental Justice‖:
Her point is to show ―the ways in which particular
constructions of nature and/or wild(er)ness serve to promote the
interests of a select few to the exclusion of all ‗Others‘‖ (181-2).
―The lack of interrogation of such terms as ‗nature‖ and
‗wilderness,‘ for that matter, is perhaps nowhere as conspicuous as in
present day discourses of ‗environmentalism‘ and ‗ecology,‘ thus
necessitating as many counter-hegemonic challenges that we have
come to refer to collectively as environmental justice‖ (182).
―. . . when actual subjects in the United States set forth to
experience ‗the call of the wild‘ they are accompanied always by
cultural expectations that the encounter may change or consolidate
their identity in some meaningful way‖ (182).
―In other words, we can see the way that representations of U.S.
Nature as a physical location are overdetermined as white, male, and
heterosexual when we look at what happens to people who are not
white, male, and/or straight when they attempt the same sort of
transformative experience in nature‖ (183).
Steve Chase, from ―Changing the Nature of Environmental Studies‖:
Chase begins with environmentalism as defined, essentially by
Samuel Hays, ―about preserving wild nature, improving public health,
and creating a sustainable way of life‖ (350).
He reacts to the version of ―Patterns of Environmentalism‖
based on a ―continuing argument between the ghosts of John Muir and
Gifford Pinchot, the two competing icons of the Progressive Era
conservation movement‖ (351).
He quotes Carl Anthony, who points out that this leads to
discussing environmental problems ―as if the human community were
uniform, without great differences in culture and experience, without
power or access to material affluence‖ (352)
These scholars of Environmental Justice in the United States have been
particularly interested in what they call ―border studies,‖ in edges and
contact zones between cultures, in places like Arizona and New Mexico, and
between Arizona and New Mexico and Mexico proper, especially under
NAFTA. They are interested in these places where cultures meet, where
power is imposed, where arguments occur, and where the marginal cultures
need to learn to ―talk back.‖ This is a site of cultural translation from which
Americans have much to learn.
Wilderness and NEPA as Political Processes:
Ideologies cannot be managed, but political processes can be. For a
historian, wilderness is ALSO a prelude to the National Environmental
Policy Act of 1970. The wilderness act of 1964 tested and created, indeed
provided a political process. NEPA may be the best the American gift to the
environmentalists of the world because it is a process, adaptive, ethical, and
public, and it is a means to cope with change.
NEPA, with its provisions for the Environmental Impact Statement,
more than any other U.S. statute, has been widely emulated (over 80
countries now). As Lynton Keith Caldwell has pointed out, the promise of
NEPA is still unfulfilled (Lynton Keith Caldwell, The National
Environmental Policy Act: An Agenda for the Future (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1998), 55-56.). It will not be fulfilled until people like
Cronon or me, so-called ―ecocritics,‖ demand better nature writing in
Environmental Impact Statements, because this is where much of the real
writing of nature occurs today. Ecocritics must enter the public arena, by
encouraging and facilitating writing the most important single literary genre,
the letter to a governmental agency.
NEPA‘s intention to establish interdisciplinary teams that include
social sciences and ―environmental design arts other than engineering‖ for
the writing of Environmental Impact Statements, Caldwell shows, ―could
bring considerations of equity, ethics, and environmental justice into the
decision process and could enlarge the basis for mediation when values
conflict.‖ The promise is there but we have yet to give it substance.
The idea of Biodiversity: ecology, etc, have replaced the recreational
focus of wilderness advocates. Earth Firsters like Dave Foreman are now
working to create biodiversity reserves. Biodiversity, a term invented in
1986, is a way to replace the embarrassing aspects of wilderness ideology.
But if wilderness is a social construction, so is biodiversity and the spectre
of the social construction of ecology remains. Is the science of Ecology
linked to the power of Empire? Some say it is (Zehle, in Environmental
Justice Reader, 334).
Wilderness against itself: A Case in Point
Matters of diminished things have become quite specific
environmental management issues. I have in mind the case of a specific
place, The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM), a
place exactly adjacent and sometimes overlapping The Place No One Knew,
and dedicated by President Clinton in 1996: this monument retains
landscape as close as one can now get to Glen Canyon.
The history of the region is part of the Management Plan issued by the
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in November 1998. That history ought
offer a preamble, laying out a clear outline of unintended damages of the
past and unintended possibilities for the future.
For a government document the tone and substance is stunningly
candid, and a remarkably cold pastoral, that takes dominion everywhere, but
does not give much hope for an improved future. It is two paragraphs long.
In the late 19th century, the small communities at
the perimeter of the Monument experienced rapid
growth. Most settlers were supported by livestock
grazing or associated occupations such as freighting
and merchandising. Some settlers capitalized on the
timber from nearby plateaus, and established small
sawmill operations. Higher than normal precipitation
patterns and the native grasses of the region
supported growing numbers of livestock and settlers.
This 20 year growth pattern came to a halt near the
turn of the century when overgrazing, declines in
wool and beef prices, and drought combined to force
many residents to leave the region. This
out-migration continued through much of the 20th
century, with occasional booms brought on by
activities such as movie making, uranium exploration
and mining, and the construction of Glen Canyon Dam.
As a result, the landscape today includes hundreds of
miles of rough routes developed for settlement and
for mineral exploration; it includes a producing oil
field; some active mines and numerous abandoned
mines; fences, corrals, cabins, water developments,
and altered vegetation associated with over a century
of livestock grazing; and new communities associated
with Glen Canyon Dam and with Lake Powell, which is
clearly visible to the south.
Livestock grazing in the region has evolved and
changed considerably since it began in the 1860s.
From that beginning, the number of cattle, sheep, and
horses increased rapidly. At the turn of the century,
large herds of livestock grazed on unreserved public
domain in uncontrolled open range. Because the
experience of stockmen was in more temperate
climates, they knew little about the carrying
capacity of these arid lands. Consequently, the range
was stocked beyond its capacity, causing changes in
plant, soil, and water relationships. Some speculate
that the changes were permanent and irreversible,
turning plant communities from grass and herbaceous
species to brush and trees, which were less palatable
to domestic livestock grazing animals. Protective
vegetative cover was reduced, so less water
infiltrated the soils. More runoff brought erosion,
rills and gullies. Livestock grazing effects were
pronounced in riparian areas, where results included
reductions in understory vegetation, bank erosion,
increased sedimentation in streams, and the
introduction of weeds. In extreme situations,
dewatering resulted from gully cutting which lowered
water tables and dried up riparian areas and meadows.
This is the reality of the region in The Place No One Knew, one might
say. The language I just extracted contradicts the language of the
presidential proclamation for the monument, and certainly the pristine
imagery of Porter‘s book. In contrast to a grim version of history, the first
paragraph of President Clinton‘s proclamation of the monument had stated,
―Even today, this unspoiled natural area remains a frontier, a quality
that greatly enhances the monument's value for scientific study. The
monument has a long and dignified human history: it is a place where
one can see how nature shapes human endeavors in the American
West, where distance and aridity have been pitted against our dreams
But the on-the-ground history of the region insists on the extent to which the
Bureau of Land Management, and Americans themselves, have inherited a
diminished thing. While the president‘s advisors and writers described an
―unspoiled natural area‖--historians and ecologists describe irreversible
Thinking of this history, as the management plan indicates,
―involve(s) determinations that are of necessity complex, and are to some
degree intuitive.‖ This intuition begins with background, but where does it
end? If such landscapes are not pristine, but damaged land, must we not
begin to think of and attempt RESTORATION? Yet the language of
wilderness in this particular case, may be an excuse for avoiding strategies,
and the hard work they entail, of what I would call ―hands on‖ work of
Marc Hall‘s contribution has been to pinpoint with great accuracy the
differences between conceptions of restoration of different cultures. In our
world, the ethical question begins with mapping these differences. But we
must also find ways to allow them to come into constructive dialogue.
Rather than replacing strategies for environmental ―Health, Beauty, and
Permanence‖ we need to combine them. We need complimenting strategies
that do not destroy each other.