Myth 4: Wilderness creates a ‘dualism’

Myth: Wilderness creates a ‘dualism’ between wilderness = good nature, and non-wilderness = bad nature which is inherently bad as it creates a barrier to recognising the values of nature in non-wilderness areas (Adams and Mulligan 2002, Mulligan 2001, Cronon 1996, Gomez-Pampa and Kaus 1992). Wilderness has been described as a dualism where ‘the unlivable city is abandoned for the wilderness … In concentrating on the wilderness, we turn our backs not only on the rest of nature, but on man himself’ (Lowenthal 1964). Wilderness has also been seen as an area free of people: ‘mountains, deserts, forests and wildlife all make up that which is conceived of as “wilderness”, an area enhanced and maintained in the absence of people’ (Gomez-Pampa and Kaus 1992). Similarly it has been held that the wilderness concept perpetuates the pre-Darwinian Western metaphysical dichotomy between ‘man’ and ‘nature’, and that the US Wilderness Act definition ‘enshrines a bifurcation of man and nature’(Callicott 1991). There is no explanation why it does this.

Truth: Firstly there is the question as to whether all dualisms are in fact bad, we do acknowledge the value or dualisms such as night and day, hot and cold, etc. Secondly one should ask is wilderness a dualism? To perceive wilderness as the wild end of the natural spectrum is a sign that people can still perceive ‘wildness’. This a hopeful sign. To give it a name ‘wilderness’ is not to ignore or devalue non-wilderness such as urban bushland. No evidence is presented to show that conservationists who argue for wilderness no not also argue for protection of non-wilderness areas. By naming it and defining boundaries, it makes it possible to actually conserve such areas. For Postmodernists, drawing a boundary is often seen as bad, but in the real world it is often necessary and practical. None of these authors however, adequately explain just why wilderness must be a dichotomy, rather than part of a land use spectrum, nor why naming a large natural area as ‘wilderness’ devalues other non-wilderness areas (any more than calling an area ‘urban bushland’ would do so). None of the myth proponents has tried to demonstrate that the majority of conservation or community effort is actually spent on wilderness, or that conservationists devalue and do not try to protect non-wilderness areas. A positive view of ‘wilderness’ is taken by Noss (2003b), who responds to Callicott (2003) by saying:

Callicott’s alleged dichotomy … is false. The reserve network model applied by the Wildlands Project recognises a gradient of wild to developed land, but encourages a continual movement toward the wild end of the gradient over time.

There is a possible solution to some of the criticisms of wilderness as dualism in Plumwood’s (1993) theory of ‘mutuality’, where she acknowledges a human continuity with nature, but also a difference with human culture, hence the two can be integrated. This is the hope of other scholars such as Rolston (2001). The dualism argument thus remains a recurrent criticism of wilderness, and is in part tied into the debate about whether humans are ‘part of nature’.