The Challenge of Wilderness Environmentalism and the Four Myths of Civilization


We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent upon its vulnerable reserves of air and soil, all committed for our safety to its security and peace, preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate and half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave to the ancient enemies of mankind and half free in a liberation of resources undreamed-of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.

Adlai Stevenson, 1965

It takes great courage for an environmentalist of any political stripe to come out in favour of wilderness. The overwhelming orthodoxy of our times is the four great myths of civilization:

  1. That the Earth is the centre of the universe, a unique and ‘chosen’ place
  2. That humans were created separately from, and are uniquely different from, all other animals on the planet
  3. That Earth and everything on it was created for the use of humans — for our consumption, for our entertainment, or to do our labour
  4. That development of the Earth — more people ‘improving’ more land to produce more human consumables — makes life better, and is our manifest destiny

An orthodoxy of any kind is extremely difficult to dislodge, because all human systems — political, economic, religious, educational, even sometimes the ‘agnostic’ artistic and scientific systems — reinforce the orthodoxy and fiercely resist any arguments that might undermine the orthodoxy’s defining myths. This was true in the 16th and 17th centuries when Copernicus and Galileo paid a huge price for debunking the first myth. At the time not only were scientists persecuted for espousing such heresy, but the very validity of the scientific method was called into question: If science did not support the orthodoxy that the planet made specifically by God for man was the centre of the universe, well, then, there must be something wrong with science.

Skip ahead to the 19th century and a similar violent reaction, continuing to this day, greeted Charles Darwin when he used science again to debunk the second myth, and cast some serious doubts about the third. Again, religious zealots bent over backwards to try to suggest that the science was flawed, and we see today, 150 years later, in the ludicrous fiction of ‘intelligent design’, a continuing frenzied attempt to rationalize away science and re-establish the myth of ‘divine’ creation. Myths die hard.

By Darwin’s time, the main job of maintaining the orthodoxy had shifted from the church, which had bungled the job badly, to industry, which was content to use science rather than trying to repudiate it, and to use science to strengthen what remained of the orthodoxy. So the third and fourth myths remain substantially intact, and modern laws and business activity exemplify and perpetuate these myths. Economics books promoting GDP as the ultimate measure of human ‘success’, and the holy books of the major organized religions, remain the unquestioned propaganda manuals for our reckless civilization.

So when the environmental movement began seriously in the 1960s to question the third and fourth myths, they decided to focus on the fourth rather than the third, and not bite off too much of a challenge at once. They immediately encountered ferocious resistance from the business elite, whose wealth has always depended on continuous and accelerating development, and from economists, the new preachers of the remaining two myths of the orthodoxy, and from the religious establishment, whose future survival depended on its members continuing to have lots of philosophically pliable babies and continuing to believe in the orthodoxy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the environmentalists blinked — they were not scientists or economists, and had limited scientific evidence to support their beliefs.

What emerged was a kind of ‘soft environmentalism’, a warm and fuzzy movement that argued that perhaps skinning baby seals alive was excessive enforcement of the third myth, that we needed to keep replanting and conserving resources at least until we had invented new ones to use when they ran out, and that our spiritual health required that we keep a few trees and samples of animals around to contemplate what life was like before we conquered nature, and for human ‘recreation’ (perhaps the most ironic word in the English language).

Most environmentalists therefore abandoned the more contentious challenges to the third and fourth myths — that human population growth threatened the planet and that growth and development were simply not sustainable. Orwellian oxymorons like ‘smart growth’ and ‘sustainable development’ were invented that environmentalists were all too eager to embrace. So environmentalists really had no expectation that any wilderness agreement, such as the agreement not to drill in the ANWR, would be honoured once it appeared to be in conflict with myths 3 and 4, and their pessimism has been justified.

The preservation of wilderness is seen as elitist, anti-human (especially in struggling nations that are encouraged to ‘develop’ their way out of the desperate overpopulation and environmental devastation that they, and their colonial exploiters, have wreaked), impractical, romantic, and unaffordable.

As a consequence, in the areas of high biodiversity on this planet, only three areas of significant wilderness remain — in Northern South America, Central Africa, and the island of Papua New Guinea. These areas, shown in dark green on the map above in the equatorial areas of the planet, are being ‘developed’ at a frightening rate, converted recklessly, mostly by slash & burn techniques, into ‘farmland’ that is ill-suited for that purpose. At current rates of ‘development’ it will be gone by the middle of this century.

The wilderness areas of more marginal biodiversity — mostly the boreal forests and tundra of the Northern and Southern high latitudes and the world’s most inhospitable deserts, also shown on the map above, will survive perhaps another century or two, but even when they remain most of the planet’s astonishing diversity will already have been squandered and lost.

So what? Why should we care about wilderness? Biodiversity has been disappearing from the planet for a century at a rate faster than that of the known Great Extinction events of the past, and, except for a few consequences like global warming that the Lomborgian defenders of the orthodoxy are all-too-willing to shrug off as of no consequence, humanity has hardly missed it.

In the remarkable essay Healing Time on Earth by the late David Brower, which I would encourage readers to spend an hour and absorb fully, especially his re-enactment of the entire history of the planet time-compressed to six days, naturalist Brower makes the following arguments for wilderness:

  1. We don’t know what we’re destroying. The high-biodiversity areas of the planet have been the source of most of the world’s most important medicines, without which humanity would still be suffering from the horrendous scourges that have decimated societies and made life almost unlivable for billions. It is very possible that the cure for AIDS has already been destroyed. The Cost of Not Knowing is just too high. This argument does not really question myths 3 and 4 of the orthodoxy, but the common counter-argument is that humans are so ingenious we will invent an ‘artificial’ cure for diseases faster than we can discover a ‘natural’ one.
  2. A world without wilderness is unsustainable. Throughout all of history, in all species, in all organisms at all levels from microcosm to macrocosm there has never been a society that has grown without limit, and the most ‘successful’ ones (measured by longevity and quality of life, not by GDP) are those that are steady-state, not unchanging but changing in balance, with a shifting equilibrium, not mortgaging the future and other interdependent parts of the ecosystem for the furtherance of one part in the present. This argument attempts to debunk myth 4, but is countered by the orthodoxy’s dreamy technophiles and believers in the rapture: We will create a new equilibrium, they say, one in which wilderness is unnecessary, one in which perhaps even carbon-based life is unnecessary, as humans will evolve to post-human, cybernetic form, capable of living forever. Or if that fails, a Super-Human will rescue us, not only saving us from ourselves, but re-establishing the first and second myths of the orthodoxy through His presence and miracles.
  3. A world of wilderness in which humans were re-connected with the rest of life on Earth would be healthier and happier for all life, including humans. Heretical new theories from economists and anthropologists suggest that pre-civilization man was much healthier than civilized man, and except for being eaten by predators (a fact that was accepted with equanimity by our ancestors, much as it is accepted by all other creatures on the planet) had as long a healthy and fully-participating life-expectancy, and lived an easy, care-free (one hour a day of work) life. The orthodoxy has orchestrated a Great Forgetting (as Daniel Quinn calls it) of these facts, depicting prehistoric man’s life as “short, nasty and brutish”. Why? Because the Great Forgetting was essential to the acceptance of the four myths, and the four myths were essential to the establishment of civilization — for who in their right mind would accept to be part of early civilization’s savage hierarchy, disease-crippled ‘cities’, stooped farm slavery, malnutrition, frequent starvation, poverty, scarcity and misery, if there was a known alternative of walking away and reverting to a pre-civilization lifestyle of health, abundance and ease? Civilized man had to exterminate all ‘uncivilized’ peoples to reinforce the Great Forgetting and ensure there were no examples of other ways to live. This argument, if accepted, would debunk myths 3 and 4 completely and bring about the end of the orthodoxy after its brief, violent 30,000 years of ascension and dominance in human society. Not surprisingly, supporters of the orthodoxy argue that the Great Forgetting is itself a myth (and until recently most scientists were on their side in this argument), and that it is not only unwise, romantic folly, but simply impossible to ‘go back’ to pre-civilization ways of living even if we wanted to.

It seems to me that environmentalists — or perhaps we might better call ourselves ‘naturalists‘ in a new sense of the word meaning those believing that a way of living that is respectful of, and balanced with, all life on Earth is the healthiest and sanest and most sustainable way to live — need to pay less attention to arguments 1 and 2 for wilderness, and more to argument 3. Arguments 1 and 2 are essentially clinical, and it is difficult to get people excited about clinical arguments. Argument 3 is essentially emotional, spiritual, and intuitive, but still not outside the domain of scientific argument.

It seems to me that

  • if we got the artists and writers working to depict a world of new wilderness in which (many fewer) humans lived in harmony with the rest of life on Earth without abandoning the miracles of human technology (medicines, communications tools and fabrics, notably), and
  • if we got the scientists to run simulations contrasting what such a world might look like contrasted with today’s fucked-up world, and
  • if we got the people to create natural enterprises and intentional communities that pioneered ways to re-enter and re-integrate with wilderness,

we just might have a chance of convincing humanity (other than the political, economic and religious elite wedded until their deaths to the orthodoxy) to quickly and voluntarily reduce human numbers so that such re-integration was possible, and to reduce human consumption so that wilderness could again flourish.

Everything — my instincts, my acquired knowledge, my emotions — everything tells me that Thoreau was right when he said “In wilderness is the salvation of the world”. I see no other way to prove it, in time — to debunk forever myths 3 and 4 and end the well-intentioned but now disastrous hold of the orthodoxy on humanity, and to save the world.

Like Copernicus and Galileo, like Darwin, we have a difficult and important task ahead, changing the fundamental thinking of our species, showing there is a better answer. And we have no time to lose.

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6 Responses to The Challenge of Wilderness Environmentalism and the Four Myths of Civilization

  1. For an extended meditation on the connection between humans and wild places, see Gary Nabhan’s The Cultre of Habitat, which I am reading at th emoment.

  2. Sean says:

    “if we got the artists and writers working to depict a world of new wilderness in which (many fewer) humans lived in harmony with the rest of life on Earth without abandoning the miracles of human technology …”somehow, at some point, as a writer, I am going to make a contribution to this one. the sooner the better I suppose.

  3. Ironically, I think most problems facing the human race today (without even considering the environment) would be alleviated by a lower population. We haven’t just outstripped the capacity of the planet, but perhaps the capacity of “civilization” as well.

  4. Firas says:

    I love the Stevenson quote… earth as a craft is a very illuminating metaphor.Although, from a less romantic point of view, it is not Earth itself that’s in any trouble–it is the current state of life on it (including us). This big ball of iron has been through a hell of a lot more than we can even conceive and will probably survive for ages after our species is extinct.

  5. chris kliemt says:

    earth was intended to be an eden. ..Where beasts and palnts, predator and prey thrive in harmony, not as the biblical lion and the lamb , for surely the most beautiful will be eaten in for the balance , but.. merely surface churnings in the balance of the earth. We are not seperate entities from the earth .. We come out of if like a wave comes out of the sea , only to return to the source.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Chris: Wonderful find! Thank you (just read the Amazon ‘look inside’ first chapter — awesome). Adds whole new meaning to the term ‘get outta here’ ;-)Sean: Great. Looking forward to it.Barbara: Yes. Now if only there were an easy answer to that.Firas: Exactly — especially since Earth it were reduced to the size of a beach ball, the entire atmosphere and the entire depth of the oceans combined would be so thin it we would not even be able to see it.Chris: Nicely put.

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