Restoration of Preservation: Reflections on a Clash of Environmental Philosophies

By Kane, G. Stanley | The Humanist, November-December 1993 | Go to article overview

Restoration of Preservation: Reflections on a Clash of Environmental Philosophies


Kane, G. Stanley, The Humanist


The nub of the restorationist critique of preservation is the claim that it rests on an unhealthy dualism that conceives nature and humankind as radically distinct and opposed to each other. The writings of William Jordan and Frederick Turner offer little evidence to support this indictment, but others have, sometimes pointing to the Wilderness Act of 1964 as especially telling. According to this act, a wilderness is an area where in contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape... the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain .... [It is] an area... remaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvement of human habitation, which is protected and managed to preserve its natural conditions and which generally appears to have been affected by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable ....

Dissatisfaction with dualism has for some time figured prominently in the unhappiness of environmentalists with mainstream industrial society, as in the writings of Carolyn Merchant and Theodore Roszak. Jordan and Turner turn the critique of dualism against preservation,oriented environmentalists themselves. In their view, preservationists are imbued with the same basic mind,set as the industrial mainstream, the only difference being that the latter exalts humans over nature while the former elevate nature over humans. According to the restorationists, neither position is healthy. One underwrites exploitation, with devastating environmental consequences; the other effectively takes human beings out of nature altogether and makes wilderness of it.

In the judgment of the restorationists, the exclusion of humans from nature deforms both. Set off against nature, humans can only work harm in the world. Any possibility of constructive stewardship is denied them, and the best they can do for nature is depart it and leave it alone. But nature suffers as well in this separation from human beings, because it is deprived of the services that humans render as rightful citizens of the biotic community. Dramatic testimony to this is seen in Turner's statement, in the August 1985 issue of Harper's magazine, that wilderness areas from which humans are systematically excluded are "the most astonishingly unnatural places on earth."

What are we to make of this criticism of environmental preservation? In answering this question, we need to distinguish the issue of the merits of dualism as a philosophical outlook from the question of whether preservationists are really dualists. I am persuaded that many of the faults found with dualism by its detractors not only are real but have been fateful. But is the preservation program really committed to these errors? There is good reason, I believe, for thinking not. We can see this if we look in two places: first, at the complete environmental program supported by most preservationists; and second, at the logic of preservation itself.

It might make sense to ascribe the nature-humanity dualism to preservationists if wilderness preservation were the whole of their environmental program. It would make even more sense if in addition their principal reason for seeking wilderness preservation were the conviction that nature can be fully itself and thus have full value only when left undisturbed by human be, ings. Though there are exceptions, preservationists typically do more than just sponsor wilderness preservation. They also work actively on a broad array of environmental issues, such as air and water pollution, toxic waste, soil erosion, global warming, and so on. To think that such preservationists are fundamentally inspired by the nature-humanity dualism and a misanthropic view of human beings is not at all a necessary, or even a very reasonable, inference. To be sure, they are worried about the impact that humans are now having on natural systems, and they do think that human activity at the present time is alarmingly destructive of nature. …

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