In preparation for our trip to Opal Creek last week, my fellow DukeEngagers and I were required to read William Cronan’s “The Trouble with Wilderness,” an article about the evolution of the meaning of “the wild” as we know it today. One point that really stood out to me was the “us vs. the other” definition that has come to characterize society’s relationship with nature. As someone who has lived in the suburbs for most of my life, it never occurred to me how much I had romanticized my view of the environment. But the more I learn, the more I realize how inaccurate, misleading, and even dangerous that view was.
The conservation of the world’s natural wonders has contributed to the idealized vision of the natural world. Yosemite. The Grand Canyon. Niagara Falls. These areas are all places that have been deemed worth protecting, that are seen as important enough to salvage from the destructive forces of our never-ending quest for more. By preserving these areas, we have reinforced the notion that the wild is a place that is largely external to modern day culture and society. This means that we naively strive to protect this distant, magnificent idea of “nature” or the “environment” when we should also strive to protect the tangible environment around us, the one we see every day.
I am not saying that conservation is detrimental in any way. In fact, I am currently interning at The Nature Conservancy, a worldwide non-profit whose very mission is to conserve areas of the natural world that all life depends on. However, I do believe that the “us vs. the other” view of the world is flawed, and that this romanticized ideal that so many of us believe in is problematic. It is also what’s hurting the environment.
By separating ourselves from the natural world, we are able to dissociate the consequences of our actions from ourselves. How else are we able to continue building factories and dams and oil rigs that are so obviously detrimental to the environment without a second thought? How else are we to maintain the status quo of releasing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into our soil, air, and water? We are able to do all of this, and more, by distancing ourselves from the natural world. If we detach ourselves, then we don’t have to care about the impacts of our actions. And the less we care, the more ignorant we can allow ourselves to be.
But it’s not something that we can simply ignore. Global warming and climate change are real. No matter how much one denies the existence of these occurrences, there is undeniable proof in the melting of our glaciers and polar regions, the increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the prolonged droughts that have devastated parts of the world, and the extreme weather patterns that have threatened entire cities in the past few years.
I believe it is crucial that we bridge the gap between the environment and ourselves. Only by doing so can we hold ourselves accountable for our actions and reverse the damage we have unleashed on the environment.
I only hope that we can do so in time.