Why Wild Nature?: A Short Rejoinder

Confusion on the Question

There is a lot of fragmentation within the green movement, creating confusion for those trying to get a handle on it and frustration for those who get mixed in with factions that have little or nothing to do with them. Among the most important questions for which there is (incredibly) no agreement is why, precisely, we should value wild nature.

Technophiles and many mainstream greens, like those whose primary concern is a clean environment for humans, are not particularly interested in wild nature at all.

Religious, New Age, and esoteric greens say that nature is a source of the numinous and divine.

A hefty bulk of the environmental movement believes that all life has intrinsic moral standing, and it advocates preserving wild nature on this basis.

Many environmentalists, and perhaps the bulk of the first world citizenry, have romantic sentiments about nature, seeing it as a source of beauty, peace, and tranquility, and a good place to recreate for it.

Finally, some greens simply want to preserve wild land because they depend on it for their well-being, not concerned, per se, about its particular aesthetic, religious, or moral qualities.

Clarity: An Economic Argument for Wild Nature

Of these, my arguments are closest to the latter, and furthest away from the romantic and moral conceptions before it. As I see it, the primary reason wild nature should be preserved is economic/ecological. If we value the autonomy of human beings, recognize the essentially Paleolithic character of human nature and needs, and, as a result of these two premises, believe that humans do best when in small social groups that can provide for themselves autonomously — then the only environment amenable to this kind of arrangement is one in which there is a great deal of wild nature. Technological environments simply will not do, because they inherently require large organizations and the subordination of human nature and natural social groups to those large organizations. And if a technological system isn’t going to provide for your basic needs, then human labor and natural processes must.

The romantic and moral conceptions of nature result mainly from urban environments. People who have actually lived close to nature either have a blase attitude toward it, like most primitive tribes (despite the stereotypes); or an ambivalent attitude toward it, like the pioneers. In either case nature may also be an object of religious veneration or general adoration, but none of that cancels out the negative or fearful sentiments.

To be clear, romantic sentiments are certainly a source of political energy. Just as the preservationists and conservationists could both agree, at least, on the political goal of federal land protection, so too can romantic and (wild-centered) economic arguments politically overlap. And in this case the two are not even entirely incompatible.

But I insist that the popular biocentric argument for preserving wild nature is mostly incompatible with the economic/ecological argument for wild nature. If the goal is autonomy from technological environments and a return to small, local, natural social groups, then it would be impossible to ever enforce the kind of morality that biocentrists advocate. Besides, the path of history demonstrates that extending morality to non-human beings is quite in line with a very normal path of civilizational development, which has been increasing its sphere of moral consideration from tribe to nation to humanity for the past 10,000 years. This among other things suggests that biocentrism is not about rejecting technological civilization; to the contrary it is a prequel of the technological civilization to come. That the widespread adoption of biocentric morals is only possible under global technological conditions is the surest testament to this.

Political Implications

The economic/ecological argument for wild nature provides the strongest basis for green unity.

It does not require such a fundamental shift in basic beliefs as do moral or religious arguments. It simply asks, “Do you value autonomy?,” and then points out the ways that reliance on wild natural processes, rather than technological ones, moves us toward the goal of more autonomy.

It elegantly joins together many other political impulses that have overlapped with the green movement for a while: anarchism, land-based conservatism, agrarian socialism, strains of anti-colonialism and indigenous struggles, etc. It also brings in other movements mostly unrelated to the green movement specifically, such as those who oppose surveillance, behavioral control, or excessive government interference.

Finally, it is more exportable for global political action. A larger majority of the third world and those actually living traditional modes of life are going to be more sympathetic to the economic/ecological argument than the moral, religious, or romantic convictions that have, historically, been a product of urban, metropolitan conditions. Given that the major political struggle of the twenty-first century is gearing up to be between industrial and traditional modes of life, this stands out as the strongest reason to support the economic/ecological argument for wild nature.

We concluded, as some writers in Germany and Czechoslovakia have also concluded, that the important fact of the present time is not the struggle between capitalism and socialism, but the struggle between industrial civilization and humanity. A new economic mode of existence brings with it new views of life which must be analysed and subdued if they are not to dominate to the exclusion of human values. Thus in the past, it has been necessary to destroy a superstitious reverence for agriculture, which dominated before it was made to serve the needs of human beings. Many prejudices still held by modern people are nothing but remnants of the agricultural, or even of the hunting, stage of man’s development. We came to believe that the important differences in the modern world are those which divide nations living by industrialism from those which still live by the more primitive methods, though these are being rapidly abandoned, and industrialism is spreading all over the globe.

The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, Bertrand Russell

9 Comments

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    Dear John, Although I find entertainment and enjoyment in reading your work, I still maintain that the search for meaning, method, and purpose in a spatially and temporally infinite frame to be absurd. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong. It all just is and is not, forever and as far as you can see! We are here through no will of our own until we are not and that is all the truth that can be found. You can occupy yourself with endless missions to fix this or that or to understand this or that. You can also sit quietly and do nothing until your body starves and dies. Both actions are identical. You and I are here until we aren’t and the frame isn’t changed, even in the smallest amount measurable. The state of being and not being is equivalent. If you do or do not, it matters not. Just here waiting.

    • The Wild Will Project says:

      Hey Robert, I know you maintain this. Here’s the quickest way I can explain why I disagree:

      You’re right, so far as we can reasonably tell, there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to anything. That doesn’t change the fact that we are individuals with bodies and drives and independent perspectives, and there (in some way) exists an external world that determines whether or not we can actually fulfill those drives. There are a lot of people who have drives that require the preservation of wild nature and the destruction of the industrial technological system: people who want autonomy, people who want to live close to nature, etc. etc. They cannot feasibly achieve their visions for their lives without the deterioration of the current economic and technological system, and its institutions.

      In other words, the political motivation isn’t based on some ultimate preordained purpose, like it is with religious evangelism. It’s based simply on will. I end Repent to the Primitive with: “The fundamental question is this: Which life do you will?” And that’s still the basic question.

      Anyone can pontificate and meditate all day on the relative nature of things. And it’s important to recognize all that, to situate ourselves in the basic level of ignorance that pretty much defines our reality. We’re small creatures. But when a large portion of the human population, each section of it with widely varying interests, begins to see the same damn thing as being in the way, maybe we should start working to get rid of that thing.

      And that thing is, like Ted and I and many other thinkers have pointed out since the Industrial Revolution, is industrial technological infrastructure.

      • Robert McGuinn says:

        Maybe it is something that comes naturally with age, but I tend now to resonate more with inward experimentation and direct alteration of my own consciousness vs. outward action and attempts at group influence. Like the quote from your conversation with Ran Prieur. “I increasingly think that the real action is not out in the world, but inside us. So I’m interested in metacognition, and the mysteries of consciousness, and technologies that can change the human mind. And there are a lot of them right now.” This type of action seems far more important to me now than it used to because it does not require the cajoling and cooperation of others, which I have grown to detest. It also results in real change (for me) that is immediately satisfying.

        Anyway…nothing really matters. We wait together for the end of this thing that is happening in our own way.

        • Robert McGuinn says:

          Also, I think individual action is more important than group action generally. Extending further, I think small group action, of which the nuclear family is the most natural form, is more important than large group action. Large groups tend toward useless abstraction and futile fights of fancy. For example, one can go now and live on the land relatively undisturbed by the industrial society. Most of the failures in this lifestyle result from failures of individual consciousness, knowledge, or will, and breakdowns in small group dynamics. Blaming the large group abstraction of “industrial and technological infrastructure” seems like a bit of a cop out. Right now, you can go live on the land for the rest of your life successfully. There are countless examples. The “intrusions” of industrial society are mostly beneficial perks that will only help the individual mission, like internet, running water, eyeglasses, etc.. The enemy tends to be in casting industrial society as some abstract monolith of evil, when, on the contrary, when taken in pragmatic bits it can be extremely helpful to your individual mission. I think it is very important to decide whether you have a real fight on your hands or an overblown abstraction that is weighing you down. If it is the “future generations” that one is worried about protecting from this great evil, then I say “good luck with that”!

          • johnfjacobi says:

            “The “intrusions” of industrial society are mostly beneficial perks that will only help the individual mission, like internet, running water, eyeglasses, etc.. The enemy tends to be in casting industrial society as some abstract monolith of evil, when, on the contrary, when taken in pragmatic bits it can be extremely helpful to your individual mission. ”

            As someone who has tried to live on the land and knows a lot of people who have, this is simply not true. There are benefits to some of the “intrusions” you mention. But they don’t mitigate the overwhelming barriers like roads, pollution, habitat destruction, property laws and building codes, etc. etc. etc.

            You know this!

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    One more from Ran Prieur read after I wrote the comment above: “I used to treat “civilization” as a monolithic idea, a simple black box that could just be plugged into ideological equations. Now I see it as a bunch of different things that have been linked in the past, but do not have to be linked. But here’s a positive definition of “civilization”: the increase in elegant complexity of human-made systems, and we have all kinds of room to do better.” …weird.

  • Hoot says:

    I think many have tried to be content and at peace by living simply and close to nature. But since that ain’t happening, because of relentless intrusions, there is a new search for contentment that will only come from the elimination of said intrusions.

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    You will spend of the rest of your life fighting. You can make this righteous fight be your meaning, and that is a fine life too, I’m sure. It does sound like the path you have chosen after all. The meaning you get from the fight will have to suffice, because the peace of living in harmony with the earth will be drowned out by the sound and fury of the fight. You can’t have both. Either path is an illusion, so no matter the choice, the outcome is the same. I say fight or don’t, it doesn’t matter in the very long run.

  • Hoot says:

    Great to chat with y’all. 1984 was an unhappy ending. The system beat acceptance into poor Winston. (Winston representing humanity). In the end he expressed his love for “big brother”.
    I think we can avoid that conclusion. In fact I would find great contentment in climbing to the top of the nearest wind turbine and placing big brother’s severed head on top (after disabling the prop for the bird’s sake) so the newly-hatched eaglets would have an easy snack. (of course,once the eaglets leave the top of the turbine,we’ll create a primitive, gigantic “come-a-long” if you will, utilizing un-needed power lines weaved together as gigantic cordage,so we can pull said turbines down to the ground,so as to avoid seeing the ugly buggers from afar. The eagles will return to their old familiar ways of utilizing tree-tops for nests.)

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