The philosophical concept of interrelationship between human society and natural environment has always been at the center of the dispute between the supporters of the ‘conquest of nature’ for the greater good of the humankind and the proponents of its conservation. Basic positions of both parties have remained largely unchanged in the course of decades. In order to understand and contrast them, it is necessary to review the historical development of these ideas.
According to Berger, at the very inception of specifically human attitude to nature, human beings conceived of other animals as of equal parts of the unified nature (8). The symbolic perception of reality, of which humankind is the only capable Earthly species, enabled it to view animals as the mirror image of themselves. This quality found its expression in ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to non-sentient animals. An example from Homer's Iliad, which Berger mentions (9), shows that ancient Greeks perceived animalistic world as close to the human one. Oher famous examples of animal images in pre-modern cultures suggest that the idea of deep intimate connection between humans and their environment was widespread among early civilizations, and binary opposition between the world of nature and that of human culture was not yet developed to its logical conclusion.
As Weaver observes, such relationship did not preclude the exploitation of nature by grain cultivators who may have sometimes contributed to its decline, but it created the preconditions for a close unity between the self-perception of specific communities and their general mode of life. Such unity was destroyed with the advent of modern technocratic civilization, which views natural wilderness as some kind of ‘exotic’ refuge for tourists and other nature-lovers who no longer exist in close and intimate unity with their environment. The example of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park presented by Weaver supports this claim: even though the creation of a new national park allowed for conservation of its natural environment, it led to the severing of links between the area and its traditional inhabitants. This means that organic links between pre-modern societies and their natural environment are just as ‘natural’ as the supposedly pure and pristine nature itself.
Cronon (“The Trouble with Wilderness”) supports this point of view, noting that an “idea of wilderness”, which is an important part of the general ideology of environmentalists, is fundamentally flawed due to its reliance on false premises of contradictions between human civilization and wilderness (69). Cronon turns the attention of the reader to historical determination of “wilderness experience”, which has become part and parcel of human life as late as the 18th century (“The Trouble with Wilderness”, 70). The dichotomy between human life and wilderness experience was engendered more by the sublime and frontier mythology of the 19th century Romantic Age than by objective evaluation of the humans' experience with regard to nature.
The Romantics’ propensity to depict wilderness as the last redoubt of primordial or even divine values that were supposedly absent from the daily life of millions of Americans enabled the mythologizing of wilderness (73-76). The end of the open and wild frontier of the 19th century has also contributed to this development; real evaluation of human relationship to nature was substituted with the uncritical idealization of wilderness. Together with rapid commercialization of the ‘exotic’ experience in the 20th century, this led to the creation of a veritable mythology of ‘natural’ wild state that is often retrograde and nostalgic in its practical implications.
The work by Shulthis presents a similar attitude to the issue of wilderness and its relationship with humankind. Despite his assertion that outdoor recreation areas and park management in particular represent the principle antagonistic to that of urbanization and modernization, Shulthis believes that development of modern recreational culture would have been impossible without the assistance of industrial technologies which are often taken to be inimical to preservation of nature. In order to substantiate this claim by empirical examples, the author mentions the impact of Henry Ford’s introduction of assembly line production on the Americans' recreational habits, and consequently upon public attitude to the outdoor leisure. Such change has led to favorable outcomes for modern park system (Shulthis 57).
Finally, the respective work by Davis contributes to understanding the conventional representation of nature in mass media, with special attention to commercial entertainment shows. Davis demonstrates how the nature is domesticated by the TV presentation, how the wilderness and pristine landscapes are used as commodities by the corporations keen on presenting themselves as environment-friendly. The author notes that, far from recreating the real image of nature, commercial theme parks, such as Sea Worlds, establish the false appearance of nature as a kind of playground for humans, where everything is supposedly friendly and bereft of conflict. Such lulling, unreal images of natural world are utilized by corporate advertisement. The humanization of animals in these parks is likewise flawed, as it makes the latter appear as mere mirror images of the human customers, rather than as their own selves. It is an expression of the tendency to human domination of nature, which is hidden behind the assumption of its mere presentation to viewers.
Hence, to correctly understand the specificity of relationship between human society and environment we should free ourselves both from idealization of ‘wilderness’ as opposed to ‘civilization’, and the propensity to attach human-centric criteria to nature itself. This is the task all of us will have to face, sooner or later.
Berger, John. About Looking. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. W. Cronon. New York: WW Norton and Company, 1995. 69-90. Print.
Davis, Susan. “Touch the Magic.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. W. Cronon. New York: WW Norton and Company, 1995. 204-217. Print.
Shulthis, John. “Consuming Nature: The Uneasy Relationship between Technology, Outdoor Recreation, and Protected Areas.” The George Wright Forum 18.1 (2001): 56-66. Print.
Weaver, Bruce. “’What to Do with the Mountain People?’: The Darker Side of the Successful Campaign to Establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” The Symbolic Earth: Discourse and Our Creation of the Environment. Eds. J. Cantrill and C. Oravec. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. 151-175. Print.