Excerpts from Dr. Cronon's 1999 Lecture
In Dr. Cronon's "The Trouble
with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature" essay in Environmental
History, he makes the core argument that "It's as important to reflect
on what we THINK about nature and about our complex physical relations with
the natural world, as it is to reflect on those physical relations themselves.
The nature we carry in our heads is as important as the nature that is all
around us, because in fact the nature inside our heads is often the engine
which drives our interactions with physical nature, transforming both ourselves
and nature in the process."
He continues "Perhaps most
provocatively, wilderness embodies an ancient dualism in which the human and
the natural stand in opposition to each other: wilderness, by definition,
is the place where human beings are not, and our presence can only sully if
not destroy it. This dualism is a very problematic foundation on which to
try to construct an environmental movement that takes full responsibility
for the moral challenge of living sustainably on the earth."
These assertions sparked considerable
debate among some environmentalists. Dr. Cronon's critique of wilderness as
a human idea that is not by itself an adequate foundation for environmentalism
led some to question his sympathy for the movement as a whole, but he argues
to the contrary that, in fact, environmentalism will be more successful in
its larger goals - including the protection of wilderness - if it broadens
its philosophical and political foundations. In his current lecture Dr. Cronon
attempts to open up an alternative space for dialogue. He further explains
that wilderness survives in a cultural space, and that it will only survive
if we consider the cultural, political, and economic context under which wilderness
is designated. Dr. Cronon then presented ten theses to begin to define what
a Humanist Environmentalist defense of wilderness might look like.
Among his key claims were the following:
"Nature is all we've got:
we are never outside of it, and our lives depend on it. A humanist environmentalism
must constantly attend to the natural context within which human beings make
choices and live their lives, taking care always to preserve, protect, and
honor the non-human creatures and systems whose survival is crucial to our
own, and whose health and safety and right to exist are no less valuable than
of our own ideas of wilderness and nature gives us greater self- knowledge,
greater self-criticism for recognizing what it is we are projecting out onto
the world; that which comes as much from within us as from the world itself.
This is not to deny the existence of the world but to acknowledge that knowing
the world is a much more difficult enterprise than it appears. Taking the
world at face value almost always means accepting human assumptions about
the world that may not be inherent in the world at all."
"Non-use is not an option:
to live in nature is to use and change it by our presence. The choice we face
is not to leave no marks--that is impossible--but rather to decide what kinds
of marks we wish to leave."
"Although we may seek values
and ethics that are less anthropocentric, we should never fool ourselves into
believing they can be anything but anthropogenic: they come from us, from
our dreams and fears and histories. Struggling to make them fit the world
as we are given to understand it is our never-ending challenge, because nature
itself does not speak in a language of "values." Even if we carry
90% of all species to extinction and ourselves as well, nature won't care.
We'll just be another extinction event in the accumulating stratigraphy of
the globe. Whatever we do will be fine with nature... but it will not be fine
with US. The responsible environmental ethics we defend are grounded as much
in human values and motivations as the environmentally destructive values
we seek to replace. Biocentrism is an anthropogenic value. Values are impossible
without a self-reflective consciousness projecting its goals and desires forward
into the future and imagining their good and bad consequences--that is what
humanity adds to nature, that is what leaves us anxious about whether we stand
inside or outside the magic circle of the natural. We hold ourselves morally
accountable within our circle of language in a way we hold nothing else in
the universe accountable."
"A humanist environmentalism
strives to protect nature but also other, equally important values: responsible
(wise?) use, social justice, democracy, fairness, tolerance, community, generosity
(forgiveness of the other), love, humane living, beauty, good humor, joy."
"Wilderness is a crucial measure
of our success in building a more just and humane environmentalism, because
wilderness will only survive if our culture, our political economy, our ideas
and values, honor and sustain the space in which it survives--a space that
is not just ecological but moral, political, cultural. But that will only
happen if we abandon the dualistic illusion that it is separate from ourselves.
It could hardly be more connected, and our every act affects it."