Friday, May 28, 2010

Responsible Environmentalism

“Wilderness is not quite what it seems”  -- William Cronon

In my research and digging around regarding the environmental movement and more specifically wilderness designations, I have run into the concept of Responsible Environmentalism. For many of us these two words are often at odds with each other. When someone talks about an environmentalist many of us think about a burned out hippy who put down their joint if only for a moment and joined ‘the cause’ or an over zealous academic who has yet to step off the campus quad and into the real world. Granted I may be taking advantage of over generalized stereotypes here, and I truly have respect for academics, but I believe that there are some legitimate and sometimes harsh realities that we all need to face.

I was born into this world bare naked and bawling. From the first breath of life until the last we are all completely and undeniably dependant upon the natural resources that our environment provides. There is no way around the simple yet irrefutable fact that we are a part of the environment.

William Cronon has written and excellent essay titled, “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Independent of what ever side or moral ground you stand on you should take the time to read the fully essay.

Cronon states that for many, “Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost it soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity.”

I think with the above statement Cronon is really just setting the stage explaining that this is where the original intent for many who have bought into the theory of wilderness are coming from. As a side note I personally would like to hear your personal reaction to the above quote before reading the rest of the paper or this post. I think that your initial reaction to the statement will say a lot about where you stand on the theory behind wilderness but I digress.

In the next paragraph and throughout the rest of the essay Cronon identifies and explains the realities behind wilderness and the framework by which it is built on.  To be put quite bluntly, “wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility.”

The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die.

Worse: to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead. We inhabit civilization while holding some part of ourselves—what we imagine to be the most precious part—aloof from its entanglements. We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imagining that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit. In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature—in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism

Why, for instance, is the ” wilderness experience” so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and “get away from it all?” Why does the protection of wilderness so often seem to pit urban recreationists against rural people who actually earn their living from the land (excepting those who sell goods and services to the tourists themselves)? Why in the debates about pristine natural areas are “primitive” peoples idealized, even sentimentalized, until the moment they do something unprimitive, modern, and unnatural, and thereby fall from environmental grace? What are the consequences of a wilderness ideology that devalues productive labor and the very concrete knowledge that comes from working the land with one’s own hands?

We American environmentalists who quite rightly worry about the future of the earth and the threats we pose to the natural world. Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home.

These are only select statements out of Cronon’s essay and no doubt does not convey the full message that a full reading of his full essay would give the reader however they are important points that I think everybody on all sides of the issue need to reconcile. Cronon’s essay was written in 1995. I think that this only goes to show that we have not come far and there is still a long ways to go to make a true attempt at living with our environment not against it. They day when I can unashamedly call myself an environmentalist and not have to worry about being a naive urbanite or irrational hippy will be a prolific day.

As I have stated in many posts before wilderness designations within Gold Butte will not solve any problems or fix any injustice that many believe it will. We all love Gold Butte and want protection for it but unchecked amounts of wilderness is not the solution. I truly have to ask if this is not a shameless carrot dangled for political gain. If conservation is the true goal for all those involved is not the political designation of the National Conservation Area and the protection it provides enough?