Volume 30, Issue 4, Winter 2008
The Twofold Myth of Pristine Wilderness
Misreading the Wilderness Act in Terms of Purity
In recent years, the notion of wilderness has been roundly criticized by several prominent environmental philosophers and historians. They argue that the “received wilderness idea” is dualistic, ethnocentric, and static. According to these critics, this idea of wilderness finds clear expression in the Wilderness Act of 1964. However, the idea of wilderness so ably deconstructed by its critics bears little resemblance to the understanding of wilderness presented in the Wilderness Act. The critics assume a backward-looking, purity-based definition of wilderness that runs counter to the forward-looking, relativistic interpretation of the Wilderness Act that has guided and informed subsequent wilderness legislation, management, and visitation. Under the Wilderness Act, wilderness designation is less a matter of preserving remnants of “pristine” nature than establishing a covenant between humans and a particular place. Wilderness areas, so conceived, serve as potential sabbath places, whose ultimate significance is best understood in terms of their mutually informing relationship to the places where we live and work. Rather than detracting from our efforts to inhabit the Earth in more creative and sustainable ways, wilderness represents a vital part of larger landscapes of human inhabitation characterized by a diverse mixture of human-nature relational patterns.