The Wilderness Ethic

In many faith communities it is common for adherents to sacrifice.  The Shakers embraced celibacy, though some might find that a flawed “business plan” for the endurance of the sect.  Catholics for years avoided eating meat on Fridays, a practice good for fish mongers. Likewise, many Jews and Muslims forsake pork in their diets.  Dietary restrictions, fasting, and other faith-based sacrifices are usually not instrumental behaviors, they are not to lose weight or improve cardiovascular health.  Rather they are expressions of humility or self-control or even a form of prayer.

In a similar way, the designation of wilderness, which I discussed in my last blog, is not a human-centered action.  Rather, it is an expression of self-control by the human species.  It is an assertion that nature does not exist solely for the satisfaction of human wants or needs.  There is something more to the universe than human wellbeing and by designating land for wilderness we are expressing humility for our species.

This is in stark contrast to the growing trend in the environmental community, particularly that part engaged in land conservation.  Conservation is the key word here.  With the growth of secular society, environmentalism has become increasingly anthropocentric.  We conserve land or other aspects of nature because it is good for us as a species.  Conservation is an ethic firmly rooted in utilitarianism, the idea that we should act to create the greatest good for the greatest number of humans.

The emphasis in the last few decades on ecosystem service valuation is a good example of this trend toward the dominance of conservation.  In the 1980s environmentalists were criticized for adversely affecting economic growth.  To fight this critique, the primary impulse was to find economic reasons for protecting the environment; the most important reason advanced was the centrality of economic services that a quality environment provides for humans.  The hope was that this economic argument would be a more practical means for winning environmental protection battles than more fundamental ethical arguments.

This is an old debate within the environmental community, going back at least to the fight between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.  Pinchot was the utilitarian, considered the father of the modern conservation movement.  Conservation meant protecting the environment because it provided wellbeing for humans.  Muir’s perspective was larger, I might say deeper.  Reflecting his upbringing in a strict Calvinist household, Muir saw nature as something with intrinsic value.  So for him, wilderness was worthwhile for its own sake.  (One of the best accounts of this debate is in Roderick Nash’s superb history, Wilderness and the American Dream.)

The problem with the conservation ethic is that it transforms nature from something intrinsically valuable into a commodity whose value is only expressed in dollar terms.  Decisions about the environment are made using the ethically flawed technique of benefit-cost analysis.  Recent critiques of this approach call it turning the environment into a commodity fetish.

Leaving part of the natural world alone, creating wilderness areas, is a very different approach.  It is an act of humility and self-control.  It asserts that nature does not need us to be valuable, even while we need it to survive.  By creating wilderness and walking away we are expressing our fundamental role in the universe, our part of something larger.  We do not need to hunt, fish, watch birds, hike, study wildlife, manage, or interact with the natural world in any way for it to be valuable.

Nature existed before we arrived on the scene and will continue after we depart, whether that is with a bang or a whimper.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.