What is Nature? An Academic Response

Note: This summary was actually written last fall as an assignment for our Nature & Society class. It’s not perfect but it gives you a good idea of what a typical assignment is (or might be) like in graduate school. We wrote one essay a week. The readings we did that week by Cronon and Waller were probably my favorite of all of the readings we did in that class.

A Summary of William Cronon’s “Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” and Waller’s Response

This week, we explored the idea of nature as a social construction. We read Cronon (who calls us to question the notion of wilderness), Waller (a response to Cronon), and then two case studies (where nature was an active player in geopolitical processes).

This week’s readings challenge us to rethink our notions of social constructs such as nature and wilderness — concepts that have certain characteristics only because most people agree that they do (“wilderness exists separate from civilization; wilderness is inherently pristine”). Our unquestioning acceptance of certain socially constructed notions is often a major barrier to much-needed transformations in discourse/dialogue (e.g., the dangers of valuing the environment as a system that exists only to provide goods/services to humans). Many of our notions about nature and the environment were created at very specific times and places and often served a purpose, disguising human values as “natural conditions” — and it’s often people in power advancing the constructs/discourse that benefit them (e.g., any conservation organization focused on one species, one ecosystem, to the exclusion of others). Cronon and Waller both attempt to (1) question dominant social paradigms about “wilderness” and “nature” (2) seek to discover and share alternative narratives.

The first reading was “The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” by William Cronon. Cronon, taking on the role of a social constructivist, describes the shift in understanding of wilderness as “deserted, savage, desolate, barren” – the antithesis to all that was good – to wilderness as a kind of untouched, untrameled eden. Our current notion of wilderness is a marriage of two sub-constructs: wilderness embodies the sublime (awe-inspiring landscapes that elicit strong emotional responses) and wilderness is a frontier (a place that offers more a return to simpler, more rugged, individualistic living).

Nostalgic, romantic ideas about wilderness were allowed to grow – and eventually gained enough power to drive geopolitical processes and environmental processes in significant ways. In colonial times, notions of wilderness gave colonialists license to occupy lands inhabited by indigenous people and reap natural resources as if they were free for the taking. The idea that wilderness could become exhausted inspired the beginning of major land conservation efforts starting in the 1890s – efforts which often viewed wilderness as a resource (providing goods/services for humans) or commodity (access to wilderness as a privilege that only the wealthy could afford).

Gradually, wilderness was once more placed further and further away from civilization until both became generally accepted as opposite, reducing discourse down to a humans vs. nature binary. This binary view of wilderness and civilization promotes the notion that humans are separate from nature – nature is a place we go to, not something that we exist within; we are trained to worship exotic, remote, untouched nature faraway and end up ignoring the nature closest to us. Positive environmental behaviors begin at home; by valuing wilderness and devaluing civilization, we decrease the imperative and urgency to act responsibly in the places where we actually live.

Cronon outlines some other implications of current notions of “wilderness” (and “biodiversity” by proxy) and how these notions prevent or utterly threaten environmental progress. Encouraging deep fascination with remote ecosystems permits people to devalue ecosystems closer to home; symbolizing the value of an entire ecosystem with a single endangered species devalues the actual value of the landscape as well as the other species that co-exist with that species (e.g., managing an entire habitat for a few endangered individuals); protecting “wilderness” often displaces native people. He also brings up the point that resting an entire value of an environment on a single species is a risky strategy, as was seen in the desert boundary paper.

Cronon ultimately argues that we should recognize ourselves as a part of nature (rather than nature being an other). We should consider the tree in the garden the same way we consider the tree in the wilderness: with wonder and respect. In order to progress, we have to abandon the dualistic way of thinking. The world does not consist of simply “civilization” and “wilderness”; the planet is s a “home that encompasses both.” He symbolizes this union with the image of a tree in a garden: it’s a place that is both wild and human.

Waller responds in Getting Back to the Right Nature: A Reply to Cronon’s ‘The Trouble with Wilderness.’ Waller argues that the debate about what wilderness is – a largely esoteric discourse that focuses more on abstract values than action – is itself incomplete and thus not very able to advance environmental discourse very far. While most of us can agree that our dualistic notions of wilderness are damaging, Waller cannot accept the alternative narrative that Cronon offers (that close nature is just as valuable as remote nature; that nature and humanity are inextricably linked). He points out that these viewpoints are often offered by scholars deeply concerned with finding common ground between social, economic and environmental spheres; their arguments are primarily concerned with expanding our vision of “how we might care for nature more responsibly while pursuing our own welfare” – which continues, to some degree, to portray nature as a being a generalized, amorphous vehicle, medium, or backdrop whose meaning is sure to change as agendas change. Waller calls for more operational definitions of nature and wild that are not framed in relation to human activity.

Cronon assumed that through worshipping wilderness, we neglect nearby nature; and that nearby nature is just as inherently valuable as remote nature. Waller questions this premise on two fronts. First of all, is there evidence that people prefer remote over nearby nature? Secondly, is nearly nature actually as inherently valuable as remote nature? No could be a reasonable answer to both accounts. First, he named how pioneering naturalists like Muir and Leopold valued nearby nature over big wilderness; and how most self-proclaimed environmental enthusiasts are in fact deeply concerned for nearby nature as well as social and economic issues. Second, he questions the wildness of Cronon’s tree in the garden. Wildness requires existence within a specific context; the tree in a garden is outside of its wild context and is as good as dead evolutionarily. A tree in the garden may have the same genome as its wild cousins, but because it exists in a rather sterile setting, is essentially is as wild as a Chihuahua.

How can we categorize something as wild – or define degrees of wild – in a world that has been inarguably, irreversibly and deeply altered by humans? Waller argues that Cronon does not focus enough on this reality. Waller suggests shifting discourse to protecting the functional wildness (as opposed to socially constructed wilderness or elements of it) that remains.  This means protecting entire ecosystems and preserving contexts where wildness and natural processes can occur.

“These arguments over the meaning of wild, natural, and wilderness might seem academic and semantic except for the very real implications they carry for how we manage our lands and waters,” he writes. While pondering abstract notions has limited utility in other fields, pondering such notions in the environmental field is something that we must do now as now is when a “new” – more interdisciplinary – discourse is being formed. While having more fields represented in the environmental fields is good in some ways, we also have to be more aware than ever before of who is shaping discourse and why.

The two case studies showed how nature acts as a player who is just as able to shape geopolitical processes as humans; both case studies reveal the power of nature as an actor. Does the Mosquito Speak? was an interesting article that revealed nature’s influence of complex events that unfolded in Egypt involving a drought, war, and the spread of malaria. The events were understood to be exclusively sociopolitical and dominant dialogue will probably always portray them as such although alternative narratives will reveal that nature (the damming of the Nile; the need to replace missing river nutrients with fertilizer; reduced crop outputs; the spread of the mosquito and its transmission of malaria to famished people) was a indeed a substantially influential force. The second article (Diabolic Caminos in the Desert and Cat Fights in the Rio) examined the role of the landscape on boundary making and enforcement in the US-Mexico boundary. It was interesting to track his thinking from “How does boundary enforcement affect federal land protection laws?” to “How do non-humans shape or constitute boundarymaking?”

One thing I liked about this paper was that it illustrated something Cronon mentioned in his first paper (the weakness of pinning an entire ecosystem’s value on a single species). Another connection I saw to the Cronon paper was how the desert was considered a tough, remote, harsh “wilderness” by the boundary officials; this would be an example of a dangerous application of “wilderness” since there were people, plants and animals that value that land.

Overall, I really enjoyed this week’s readings. I think our culturally-constructed notions about the environment sorely need to be reexamined; there are a lot of myths that are allowed to persist without question  and have immense impact on preservation/conservation thought and policy.


Cronon, W. (1995). The trouble with wilderness; or, Getting back to the wrong nature. In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, W. Cronon (ed.). New York: W.W. Norton and Company. (Pages 69-90)

Waller, D. M. (1998). Getting back to the right nature: A reply to Cronon’s ‘The trouble with wilderness’. In, The Great New Wilderness Debate. J. B. 4 Callicott and M. P. Nelson (Eds). Athens, GA, Univ. of Georgia Press. (Pages  540-567)

Mitchell, T. (2002). Can the mosquito speak? In: Rule of Experts:  Egypt, techno-politics, and modernity. Berkeley: The University of California Press

Juanita Sundberg (2011): Diabolic Caminos in the Desert and Cat Fights on the Río: A Posthumanist Political Ecology of Boundary Enforcement in the United States–Mexico Borderlands, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101:2, 318-336


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