Backpacking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of California last summer I had a revelation. I stood looking up at a glowing, ancient peak over a small, clear lake a dozen miles from any road with no sign of any human presence but my campsite anywhere in view. And for the first time in such a situation I seemed to feel the contingent, circumscribed nature of the place I was in compared to the vastness of the human-built and intervened-with world that bounded it on all sides. I also understood that its official designation, ‘wilderness area’, was an unredeemable oxymoron. I knew that I was in a park, not the wild. Even more: I knew that wilderness in any meaningful sense no longer existed anywhere on earth. In that moment, at that place, I had cognitively entered what scientists have named the Anthropocene.
The end of the wild as a separate thing, a thing that surrounded civilisation and was never fully penetrable by it, always a threat to its sense of order, to its sense of power – that end was not near; it had come. I was living in it. Now, here and anywhere on the planet’s surface, it was the wild places that were surrounded, besieged. When, ever before in history, had mountains or forests been called ‘fragile’? Our so-called wilderness areas were bounded and gated off, but they were utterly porous too.
Legions of backpackers (sustained, as I was, by factory-made gear and industrial food grown and packaged by somebody else) marched up the Pacific Crest Trail every year through this one, making the trail a dust-stream an inch thick. Planes flew overhead almost hourly. Cattle and sheep grazed at the verges, and frequently managed to stray inside. Firefighting crews helicoptered over or plunged in to fight ever more-frequent wildfires. Cellphone signals were retrievable from all the high places; GPS coordinates had mapped every square foot. And principally, and likewise invisibly, as Bill McKibben had written decades before in The End of Nature – the effects of civilisation were warming the air, drying out the summers, seeping into every molecule of the wild. No atom of ‘wilderness’ on land, sea or air was untouched by civilisation any more.
But then again, the existence of the wild as a separate thing was itself historical. Before civilisations began to emerge it wasn’t a separate thing; it was our home. Once they had emerged, they rose and fell, and the wild returned where the cities fell, even if it was a desert wild, no longer a forest or a marsh. The people who continued to live closest to the unbuilt (I use this term for lack of a better one to replace ‘natural’, which has fatally slippery definition problems) ecosystems on which they depended directly for survival had no concept of wilderness.
Wilderness was never an intrinsic condition; it was a concept that depended for its existence on its opposite, civilisation. It was always the construct of a worldview whose mechanism for understanding and operating on the world was essentially binary. Environmental historian William Cronon, writing about the peculiar history of US wilderness areas says unequivocally: ‘There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness.’
So what has died in my generation is not ‘wilderness’, because it never existed. What has died is an idea that fired human hearts and minds, and survived many efforts to eradicate it until, pummelled under the unprecedented onslaught of the Industrial/Information Age, it finally gave way almost everywhere: that there was a sustaining and necessary mystery to the living, unbuilt world that humans could never penetrate, even though we were inextricably interwoven with it. The world was alive, at every level, as we were alive, but infinitely more powerful and wise than we.
This mystery may have had many elements that were malign and frightening, but in its essence it was benign. If it bore any likeness to our species here below, it was that it was in some fundamental sense maternal. But even more profoundly it was harmonic and indestructible.
It was a mystery that we simplified rather hopelessly by attributing early on to humanlike gods, and then degraded utterly by projecting into a lone male anthropic God. One who instructed his followers that the world was entirely disposable, a kind of temporary horror that would be cast off like a foul skin. We were thus ordered not to love the fascinating, complex, endlessly creative place that birthed us.
It was a mystery that we degraded as much by scientific hubris, sadly, as by our intolerant and hierarchical religions. Where the unbuilt world is concerned, science tends to proceed in the way Rupert Sheldrake (a much-vilified biologist who dares to propose that there may actually be a kind of sympathetic purpose in nature, and we might even be able to determine this by experiment) describes as ‘burning down a building and sifting through the ashes to try to understand the architecture.’
The cosmos limned by ultra-materialist Western science is almost entirely made up of dead stuff acting mechanically according to unchanging (if elegantly complex) formulae. Life is a rare freak of chance and has no ultimate purpose beyond replication. Humans alone are self-conscious beings and even our consciousness is theoretically reducible to mechanical processes. Life may be fascinating in its potential for variety, but except for its origin, which remains irritatingly elusive, it possesses no real mystery. It is defined chiefly by the presence of a fully identified set of molecules that can be rearranged in ways that we design for ourselves. All matter, organic or inorganic, can be further reduced to particles that when split open release an energy that is instantly and enduringly deadly to all life – this is the single most powerful force our science has unlocked.
And finally, anything that happens inside your head – all that wild feeling: longing, sadness, joy, compassion, desire, thought of any kind except mathematical – is totally irrelevant to a real understanding of the deepest forces at work around you.
But what is it that has truly been degraded by banishing the overarching mystery of a living cosmos? Not the unbuilt world as such, because the cosmos, which we have neither created nor can destroy (whatever it is actually made of), has functionally infinite spans of time and space to play in, to create new, rich, unimaginable environments, and let them grow and decay and seed new ones. Not the wild of this planet either, because, as I say, it never existed, except in the minds of the civilised. What is left?
Only ourselves. In the name of mastery over the living world, we have degraded ourselves, and the species whose fates are most closely tied to our own. All civilisations created hierarchies that relegated some living beings – humans, animals and plants – to the status of objects: possessions, slaves. Now we are trying to do the same even with their constituent molecules.
If the experience of human chattel slavery has anything to teach, it should be that being a slave owner is even more degrading than being a slave. In any morality worth the name, no one would be more degraded, because no one has reduced the potentialities of our species and its consciousness more than the perpetrator of oppression.
But what enables slavery and oppression? The ability to conceive of other living things as if they were essentially dead matter. And this is what all of us have learned to do.
People pay for what they do, said the great James Baldwin, and they do so very simply – by the lives they lead. If we create horror for others, we then live for the rest of our lives in the emptiness of the horror we’ve created, the impossibility of meaning, of belonging, of full consciousness. The bizarre documentary film The Act of Killing (2012) demonstrated this by focusing on the Indonesian perpetrators of mass murder, who live in absolute impunity decades after the killing time, the seeming beneficiaries of their actions.
The killers have become creepy comic book versions of human beings, affable but empty automatons. They are like zombies, eating the substance of life out of compulsion and habit, walled off from their own consciousnesses, unable ever to be fully alive again. It’s not an adequate punishment because it hasn’t allowed their surviving victims, or the families of the dead, any redress, any chance to confront their horror and have it consoled and the conditions that permitted it eliminated or even diminished. That would be the only justice. But the perpetrators’ self-created hell is still of vital concern.
This is because while the perpetrators are extreme cases, we products of civilisation are all on the continuum. Ours is a civilisation that metaphorically and literally eats its own, even as we project the horror of cannibalism into all our mythology. Witness one of the greatest of the European humanist writers, Michel de Montaigne. His musings never complacently come to rest in stark binaries – he invented the essay form as a vehicle for his iconoclastic thought. He understood four centuries ago that people who actually ate real human flesh were very likely less dangerous and degraded than those who professed a horror of the practice, while following a belief system that institutionalised intra-species predation through enormous imbalances of power. The self-described civilised imbued some humans with an absolute authority over others, while turning their enemies into sub-humans instead of honouring their shared humanity as the ‘real’ cannibals did.
In the contemporary world, Montaigne’s nuanced understanding remains apt – and just as irrelevant to mainstream discourse as it was in his own day.
As the last areas from which civilisation had earlier withdrawn or failed to penetrate fully come under another period of siege – and this time, for the first time, everywhere on the planet at once – the indigenous peoples still living in them have become visible to ‘civilised’ peoples once again. Civilised peoples generally divide into two camps on indigenous peoples: the first, that they should adapt to our civilisation and give up tribal life because civilisation is an advance on the way they live, so it would vindicate our faith in the rightness (or at least the necessity) of our way of life. The second: they should stay where they are and retain all their ancient behaviours because by doing so they help us feel better about who we are – we can accommodate ‘diversity’, we are liberal and tolerant, we don’t have to destroy or consume everything to live well ourselves – and also because they will thus accomplish what we have failed to do: protect large swaths of ‘the wild’ from civilisation, from us. Neither one of these mindsets actually has much if anything to do with indigenous peoples themselves. They are not equally and fully real to either mindset; they are simply a metaphor for the empty place in our psyche, and the way we try to fill it.
Those who desperately want a token number of indigenous people to remain in small, bounded reserves safe from rapacious extraction – just as other charismatic megafauna remain in safari parks – so that we can enjoy their lives aesthetically, so that the civilisation from which we benefit can redeem itself, are still on the same continuum as the civilisers, just as the vacant-eyed consumers are on the same continuum as the perpetrators of mass murder. They are still trapped in non-sequiturish thinking, in a false consciousness that requires massive suppression of all that has been and is being sacrificed – in their own bodies and minds as well as elsewhere – in order for civilisation to be maintained.
Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, made this explicit in an interview responding to a question about how the perpetrators realised but suppressed their culpability ‘in the same way I realise that the shirt I’m wearing was made in Bangladesh, and the people who made it may well now be buried in a pile of rubble. Thanks to that I can buy the shirt for six dollars.’
The extraction must be slowed and ultimately stopped – whether it’s on the land of the Inuit, a colonial African farm, or in a Texas exurb – and the oppression abolished because we realise they are undermining the aliveness of our life, all our lives. Unless that collective realisation dawns, they won’t be stopped except by a colossal failure from which the species will learn nothing, because this civilisation’s lessons will not be transmitted to the next to arise.
And because of the void in our psyches where a sense of transcendent mystery, purpose and belonging longs to be, made permanent by our radical dissociation first from our unbuilt habitat and now, more and more completely, from one another—we are all struggling psychically to experience life, rather than simply being fully alive. We keep trying to ingest experience – or more frequently, technologically enabled imitations of it – in whatever form we can to fill the emptiness. Or simply out of habit, which our own best musicians, artists and writers still try valiantly to shake themselves, and us, out of. And at which even they can only succeed momentarily.
Only a social system that does not rely on false consciousness to maintain itself could provide a more durable and complete identity for us. The empty place in our psyches is permanent as long as this civilisation lasts, and superfluous consumption of various kinds is an attempt to fill, and when that inevitably fails, wall it up, bound it and make that menacing emptiness as irrelevant as we have made the threat of the wild.
In other words: we feared the wild, we neutralised the wild, and now we have to neutralise the psychic consequences we have wrought upon ourselves in doing so.
We are not condemned to this situation by any external fate, by gods or genes. We are condemned by the daily choices of the powerful to whom we submit, and our own collaboration with them, to hunt for solutions to the problems our civilisation creates, which then generate more problems, for which we then produce even less adequate and enduring solutions. If that isn’t the epitome of the ‘progress traps’ social critic Ronald Wright has attributed to the decline of previous civilisations, you tell me what is.
I have said the broadly collective idea of living nature as both mysterious and purposeful has died, and my generation is living in its aftermath. But such understandings, unlike individual humans or societies, can be resurrected if the material conditions of human life allow them growing space in our psyches. Just as ecosystems rebound with surprising facility when civilisations retreat from them.
In 1983, David Rains Wallace wrote a book called The Klamath Knot, describing various aspects of the regional ecosystem in which the Marble Mountain Wilderness is located. He described the large-scale interventions of mining and logging in the 19th century, which reshaped whole features of the landscape with axes, poisons, furnaces, and dynamite. That landscape reconfigured itself yet again after they retreated, so that hunting for evidence of their presence now is almost like hunting for geological fossils.
He also gave a kind of evolutionary history of the region’s geology, flora, fauna, and water systems that was full of the sense of time as the prime mover, the one force sine qua non for the true expression of life. His evolutionary perspective was sanguine. Its surprising conclusion: the real lesson of geological spans of time is that overall, living things are more durable, more resilient than non-living things.
It seems that this is because the relationship to time itself is different. Living things are more flexible, more creative, more capable of a variety of approaches to the problem of existence – and with quantities of time they can produce true novelty, while non-livings things are condemned to a much narrower spectrum of behaviour and incapable of adaptation to, or creating, a changed environment in the same way. Wallace gave the example of blue-green algae, possibly a progenitor species of much of the living world. It is still proliferous in the region’s lakes, and has been in existence far, far longer than any of the peaks that shadow those lakes.
Contemporary civilisation’s idea that machines and mechanical processes are more durable than living things and represent desirable enhancements upon life and even a kind of next-phase triumph over the living world comes to seem particularly shortsighted – in fact retrogressive, in this light.
Montaigne claimed at the outset that his writing was only an effort to understand and present himself. (And so he has been touted as a seminal figure in the Rise of the Individual – Western civilisation’s ghost god, its necessary pillar of consumerism, but in reality more like the villages it keeps ‘[destroying] in order to save.’) But when you read the essays he slyly warns the reader not to waste her time upon, you find that self often engaged in a subtle and thorough critique of the brutally violent, hierarchical, and hypocritical society from which he had withdrawn to write.
And what does he offer, not as its binary opposite but as the exemplary, ineradicable, fundamental mystery that continues to offer it guidance and wisdom? Nature, conceived as something pre-existing and at the same time innate in humans and non-humans both. ‘Nature always gives us happier laws than those we give ourselves.’
Still, Montaigne offers no general prescriptions; he only provides the example of trying to see life more fully for its own sake, because he finds it necessary to do so. He finds no collective identity within civilisation that is not in some way toxic or built on air. He has come to a place I find myself familiar with.
It made me see the need to begin to look at things again, from a simpler place: What behaviours still make us humans lively, vivid, in the truest sense of those words? I found myself noticing people interact in ways that weren’t mediated by much if any technology – talking on park benches, in cafes, or on street corners, doing voluntary manual work together in living places like parks or gardens, or simply, quietly, observing the unbuilt living world wherever it could be found. It seems obvious: to be fully alive you have to interact directly, respectfully and in physical proximity with a variety of other fully living things as much as possible. There is no substitute.
There is no ‘end of nature’ to fear, no end of the ‘wild’. There is only the loss of our own vividness and dignity, and the rich and complex identity that could come from an understanding of kinship with many other living things and the benign mystery that connects and sustains all. That vividness is still accessible to us, even if it seems ghostly in the glare of screens or like a bad joke in the lives of the enslaved, hungry and impoverished. It continues to slip the bonds of all our attempts to neutralise it. And if it really is cosmological in nature, as other humans have guessed, it will always do so, until we learn from it or fade before it.
For now it waits, a possibility, in the immanence of any day in any place where you can lift your eyes from the glow of the screen or the darkness of an interior space and find it inherent in sunlight on leaves, a bird settling on a wall, a fearless and face-to-face conversation with a stranger or a loved one.
That is not enough. But that is what we have to work with now, we the civilised. The emptiness at the heart of civilisation will never be perfect, and that is our chance.