Why Wilderness Truths?

Why this website is needed – the problem of the ‘Wilderness Knot’

Over the last thirty years the meaning of the word 'wilderness' has changed (in Australia and elsewhere), and it has come under sustained attack on philosophical, cultural, political and ‘justice’ grounds (Washington 2005, 2006). Why has this happened? Why have wilderness campaigns drastically slowed? Why do some people no longer use the term? How has the term become so confused? What could be done to reduce this confusion? This site deals with 21 myths involved in the 'Wilderness Knot’ – the confusion and tangled meanings around ‘wilderness’. It responds with the truths that answer these myths. In the literature this ‘knot’ is comprised of at least five strands; philosophical, political, cultural, justice and exploitation (see Washington 2005, 2006).

This website is based on the research by Dr Haydn Washington (the site webmaster) carried out for his PhD ‘The Wilderness Knot’ at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and available in full through their library. A paper presented at the World Wilderness Congress in 2005 summarises much of this research can be downloaded from the home page under ‘link to key reference’) or by clicking on this link - Washington 2005 While this site tends to use many Australian examples, it is not limited to Australia and has relevance across the world. We hope all those interested in wilderness (i.e. large natural areas) will take part in the discussion and seek to de-mystify wilderness so that these areas remain into the future.

Wilderness definition
There have been many definitions of wilderness, but they all have a number of elements in common, being large size, naturalness or wildness, and sometimes remoteness from human development, and management to retain the area in a wild condition. The IUCN (2008) Guidelines for applying Protected Area Management Categories defines wilderness (Category 1b) as:

Wilderness areas are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.

The primary objective is:

To protect the long-term ecological integrity of natural areas that are undisturbed by significant human activity, free of modern infrastructure and where natural forces and processes predominate, so that current and future generations have the opportunity to experience such areas.

Other objectives are:

  • To provide for public access at levels and of a type which will maintain the wilderness qualities of the area for present and future generations;
  • To enable indigenous communities to maintain their traditional wilderness-based lifestyle and customs, living at low density and using the available resources in ways compatible with the conservation objectives;
  • To protect the relevant cultural and spiritual values and non-material benefits to indigenous or non-indigenous populations, such as solitude, respect for sacred sites, respect for ancestors etc.;
  • To allow for low-impact minimally invasive educational and scientific research activities, when such activities cannot be conducted outside the wilderness area.

This second objective remains an ongoing debate, given the definition also states that wilderness is to be ‘without permanent or significant habitation’.

Why are there myths about wilderness?
There are many myths about wilderness, and it important to respond with the truths that answer these myths. It is ironic that ‘attacks on the idea of wilderness have multiplied as the thing itself has all but vanished’ (Orr 1999). Three postmodern myths are listed by Soule (1995). Five ‘critical myths of wilderness’ have been listed by Soule (2002), being the sceptics myth (wilderness doesn’t exist except in the minds of elitist conservationists); the postmodern myth (wilderness is a cultural creation, a product of human cultures); the social justice myth (wilderness is a sandbox for yuppie bushwalkers); the property rights myth (wilderness areas are human exclusion zones that unfairly limit the exercise of the free market); and the biologists myth (wilderness is not essential for nature conservation and is a distraction). Soule (2002) answers each of these myths, and points out that ‘extremists at both ends of the wilderness debate promulgate myths to further their political goals’.

‘Modernism’ ignored most of the values of wilderness, and viewed it purely as a stack of resources for human use (Oelschlaeger 1991). It did not so much criticize wilderness as refuse to acknowledge its existence, independence or value. The focus here on postmodernist criticisms is thus not meant to suggest that postmodernism is more antagonistic to wilderness than modernism (indeed the reverse is probably true). However, postmodernism was seen as a revolt against modernism, and the way it sees the world. It might come as something of a surprise that postmodernism too is highly critical of ‘wilderness’. However, postmodern deconstruction has been said to be the product of French, urban intellectuals, few of whom had any contact with wilderness (Soule 1995). Postmodernism is thus a revolt that has not significantly improved the situation in regard to the philosophical strand of the ‘wilderness knot’ (so that wilderness is perceived negatively by both philosophical movements). There are quite a number of specific criticisms of wilderness that derive from some streams of postmodernism. There are also other criticisms of wilderness which do not readily sit under such a label, and are grouped under ‘other criticisms’.

Clearly, there are a large number of criticisms of ‘wilderness’ in the literature. Some of these derive from modernism, and quite a few from various streams of postmodernism. Many of these criticisms are statements rather than argued positions. However, despite the fact that some criticisms are not rationally argued, they are not fading away. On the contrary, in the last decade they have strengthened. The question to ask is why these myths have had such an effect, and been so tenacious. The discussion of modernism and postmodernism offers insights. Wilderness has become entangled philosophically, culturally and politically, and has been overlooked in the recent focus on social justice. A multitude of authors have pointed to the human/ nature dualism as the key problem in how the West thinks about nature. Unfortunately, wilderness seems to have been associated with such a view, even though wilderness advocates such as Thoreau, Muir and Leopold clearly felt that the wilderness experience taught them they were part of nature. The passion amongst scholars to break down the human/ nature split has thus been deployed against the term ‘wilderness’. The questioning of reality in postmodernism has also flowed over into our interactions with the natural world. The attack on reason by some postmodernists also has made it harder to rationally analyse such criticisms. The focus on social justice in the last two decades is most welcome, but again our view of ‘society’ or ‘community’ has not extended to the whole community of life. Rather, social justice has been the focus, without it seems any corresponding attention to environmental justice.

We should not forget that politically we still live in a modernist world, where resourcism dominates. The forces seeking exploitation of wilderness are as strong as they ever were. Resourcism seems to have also passed over to some postmodernists (for example Cronon and Callicott), who also argue to exploit the diminishing areas of land called wilderness. ‘Lock out’ from wilderness is still one of the most common criticisms of wilderness in country areas of Australia. Given all of this background, it is easy to see why criticisms such as human exclusion, dualism, overlooking indigenous history, terra nullius, and the human artefact debate remain very much alive, and do not fade away. We also need to consider the point made by Oelschlaeger (1991), that the ‘long and tangled history of the idea of wilderness’ goes back to Paleolithic times, while each successive age has added more tangled meanings. The myths deriving from the strands of the wilderness knot are thus not going to disappear in a flash of rational enlightenment any time soon. Washington (2005, 2007) enlarges on the wilderness knot.

Finally, the ongoing trend to exploitation remains a key reason why wilderness myths continue to circulate. Some people feel offended that wilderness is ‘unused land’. Those who wish to make money through exploiting the last large remaining natural areas continue to promote wilderness myths. This may be conscious or unconscious, as some of those promoting wilderness myths deny the value of wilderness or the impacts their actions cause. Such wilderness denial has much in common with denial of other environmental issues such as climate change (Washington and Cook 2011). Such denial is a delusion, and when it threatens our last remaining large natural areas it can be seen as a pathology. The answer to denial is to accept reality, the educate people with the truths about wilderness, which is the aim of this website.