Merely fencing off tracts of land and keeping humans out can now be seen to be an inadequate response to valuing wilderness. There will always be the need to preserve areas of particular natural beauty or vulnerability but the environmentalist debate has moved on to more complex notions of sustainability. Views vary widely; from preservationist right through to radical ecocenterism, but in general there tends to be an acceptance of the &ldquospaceship earth” principle, acknowledging that resources are finite.
Our development from hunter-gatherers was, in terms of the environment, very one sided. We developed more and more efficient ways of exploiting the benefits of the environment without building on the sustainability that was part and parcel of the hunter gather system. Now, albeit quite late in the day, there is a realisation that humanity will have to divert some of the energy and intellect it employed on exploitation to strategies that will ensure sustainability.
True sustainability can only come when humanity and nature are finally reunited in the minds of all of us. No longer can we see wilderness or environment in terms of its importance to us, but rather, we must come round to thinking in terms of a symbiotic relationship. Humans will only continue to exist on the planet if they do so as an integral part of the web of interdependence that exists between all forms of life on the planet. This calls for, in the first instance, a huge change in mindset. It will not be easy to divest ourselves of the cultural baggage we have built up for over two thousand years. It may also require a radical change in lifestyles. Some pessimistic commentators, such as Richard Douthwaite, believe that economic collapse is inevitable and that humanity will only survive if we revert to non-mechanised sources of energy, like horses and water-wheels. The more optimistic view might be that if we manage to take on board a holistic approach to environmentalism, we will through resource management, technological advances and above all restraint, achieve an equilibrium that will allow humanity live on the planet, being sustained by it and managing not to destroy it.
As we enter the twenty first century humanity is at a crossroads. The question is whether we can afford to ignore the danger signs and persist with our profligate approach to our environment or are we ready to take the corrective action sooner rather than later.
If there is to be any chance of Richard Douthwaite being proved wrong, then rather than valuing the importance of wilderness we need to take that huge leap in thinking that will allow us reverse the processes that gave us the concept of wilderness in the first place.
Douthwaite, Richard. (29 December 2001) When should we have stopped? Irish Times
Glacken, Clarence J., (1973) Traces on a Rhodian shore, University of California Press, Los Angeles.
Sarre, Philip. and Blunden, John. (eds.) (2000) An overcrowded World, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Vidal, John. (26 January 2002) The great wilderness myth, Irish Times.