&ldquoThey took all the trees Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got Till it’s gone
They paved paradise And put up a parking lot”
[Joni Mitchell. &ldquoBig Yellow Taxi”]
The concept of wilderness is of course a cultural construct. If, for example, one considers the north of Greenland, to the Inuit it is home but to us western Europeans it is wilderness. The idea of wilderness is predicated on the notion that humanity is separate from nature. It can only exist in opposition to something else. The opposite to wilderness, is understood, at least in western society, as those portions of land occupied and controlled by man. It is a product of thought processes that were set in train when Plato separated the natural from the aesthetic.
There is a curious triangulation that connects a society's mode of production, their type of religion and their attitude to the world around them. Hunter-gatherers, for example, live in harmony with the environment and their animistic religion reflects that harmony. Western society has long since ceased to live in harmony with the environment and this too is reflected in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. From the beginning societies have adapted their religious beliefs to justify their changing relationship with the environment. As society developed through its agriculturalist phase religion evolved to polytheism, reflecting a balance between human intervention and the need for divine intervention. With the move to monotheism came the belief that earth had been created by God for the benefit of humanity, and that it was to be utilised and improved upon by humanity. When combined with Greek rationalism, the separation of humanity and nature was complete. Any connection between nature and divinity was dissolved with the shift to modernity based on the ideas of the Enlightenment.
In this way humanity came to justify its unrestrained exploitation of its surroundings. Nature became a commodity to be used and abused at will. What was not &ldquohumanised” was wild, untamed, and threatening. During the age of improvement the moral imperative was to improve upon nature, for humanity to intervene, to roll back the wilderness, to make it productive. These were days of linear development; devising more advanced technologies humanity was able to utilise the &ldquofree” resources that drove the Industrial Revolution and the population explosion that accompanied it. Modernity brought with it a pronounced dualism that pitched humanity against nature, order versus chaos. At this stage the western attitude to wilderness would have been almost exclusively negative, in its raw state it was little more than an obstacle to an expanding population and its only use was as a source of raw material. Having given up its timber and having been rid of bears and wolves it was to be transformed into habitable farmland.
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