Wednesday, June 8, 2011


by Scott Bradley

"In wildness is the preservation of the world." — Henry David Thoreau

I've begun reading a book about Deep Ecology (Deep Ecology, George Sessions, ed.), a term coined in the 70's and one I had never heard before. And yet, this is a common term among environmental philosophers. I find this scary — not that I am well-read in the area (for obviously I am not) — but if I haven't heard of it, then it is not mainstream. I fear that those who think and care about these things are like the small religious sect that somehow has come to believe that their ideas matter to the world at large.

Deep Ecology is a move away from an anthropocentric view of Nature to a cosmocentric view. Most of the world still believes that Nature is provided for the use of humanity. It is a 'resource'. Because resources are becoming scarcer, and because the very fabric of world ecology is at risk, a new awareness of our need to 'use' Nature more wisely has arisen. 'Sustainable development', a term which I previously called both an oxymoron (resources are limited) and a pernicious lie (keep consuming folks), is an expression (and cooption) of this view. And this is not surprising since it is still anthropocentric.

Deep Ecology says, No, Nature has the same rights as humanity and is to be protected and preserved for its own sake. We are not the center of the universe, but simply one species among multitudes of others, all of which have the innate right to exist as species. Taoism is mentioned as a philosophy contributing to this view, and I can only agree. "I and the ten thousand things are one."

I have often thought of the quote above, but have said 'wilderness' instead of 'wildness'. I find it interesting to hear that many prominent environmentalists confess to having likewise misquoted Thoreau's famous line. What is the difference? One writer (Jack Turner) suggests that wilderness is a place, whereas wildness is a way of being. And, from a human point of view, wilderness is not truly experienced unless with a sense of inner wildness. One is not truly in wilderness (or wildness) zooming through Yellowstone on a snowmobile.

Wildness, in modern speech, connotes qualities not intended by Thoreau. For him, I believe, it meant an inner sense of connectedness with Nature — something deeper than our conventional domestification. Such a rootedness radically influences our entire way of living in the world — the way we view Nature, the way we relate to the polis and to each other. I find it informative that Thoreau questioned why we chose to study the classical Greeks and Romans and not the Native Americans who could teach us so much more about being in the world.

Deep Ecologists hope to change the way humanity lives in this world, but I must confess to that same pessimism previously expressed. The world is urbanizing and for more and more people Nature is the park around the corner. But for me, wildness is about individual experience, just as is a philosophy of transcendence. And so, I share with you these thoughts about a possibly happier — because more rooted — way of being in the world.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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