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.
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