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The concept of wilderness and reasons why it should be abandoned


According to Guha (2003, p. 75), the concept of wilderness ought to be abandoned since the emphasis of environmentalists on it is positively harmful when applied to the Third World. In this essay, a discussion of the relevance of this statement and the reasons for supporting this position are presented. The essay is divided into two sections, each of them having different information as follows. In the first section, a clear outline of the concepts of wilderness and protected areas is presented. This is done with reference to developments in the subject of deep ecology as presented by different writers over the course of time. A brief examination of different views of authors about the concepts is also done in this section of the essay. In the second section, the reasons for the need to abandon the concepts of wilderness and protected areas are presented. These include different ways in which wilderness and protected areas as tenets of deep ecology are harmful to Third World countries. Lastly, it can be seen that throughout the essay, it is argued that the concept of wilderness needs to be abandoned altogether because of the harmful effects on Third World countries which are a result of a lot of emphasis that environmentalists have put on the concept over time.

The concept of wilderness

Essentially, several authors have attempted to develop comprehensive definitions of the concepts of wilderness and protected areas as important tenets of deep ecology. According to Joslin (2005, p. 24), the concept of wilderness is a complex construct that is subject to different interpretations. On one hand is the perception that wilderness is an idea that locks up valuable resources. This is in contrast with the other perception about wilderness in which the concept is seen as a way of maintaining and perpetuating natural resources in the society. In between these two views can be found a moderate definition of wilderness which identifies it as a relatively undisturbed landscape which can be used to provide numerous biological and social benefits. On the other hand, Williams (2002, p. 123) observes that there are multiple definitions of the concept of wilderness which may be cultural, ecological or emphasising on the utilitarian aspect of the geographical places that can be defined as such.

Historically, the concept of wilderness started in the United States back in the 1800s and gained prominence in the 1900s, following a series of legislative developments. According to the Wilderness Act of the United States of America, a wilderness is defined as an area of land which remains uninterrupted by humans and to which humans remain visitors who do not stay (Scott 2004, p. 127). This way, an area that can be described as a wilderness is different from the rest of the land in that there is little domination of human civilisation in such areas as compared to the rest of the land. It is from these developments that Wittbecker (2006, n.pag) identifies eight different kinds of wilderness as follows: (1) sacred landscapes, (2) foundation areas, (3) preservation areas, (4) reservation areas, (5) conservation parks, (6) restoration areas, (7) neo-poetic communities and lastly, (8) wild agriculture areas and forests.

General opinion on whether or not to preserve specific geographical areas as wilderness remains divided. On one hand are the proponents of wilderness whose arguments are based on the different forms of social, economic and ecological benefits that arise from protected areas. For instance, it is argued that protected areas are important as venues for recreation and sport (Clawson & Knetsch 2013, p. 180). Since there are several activities which can only be carried out in wilderness areas, creating protected areas is one way of meeting the needs of members of the population who form the demand for such activities. Secondly, the need to preserve wilderness is associated with ethical and ecological benefits. This is because creating areas that are free from human interference in the form of civilisation provides a mechanism by which many different species are protected and preserved for future generations. Thirdly, the basis for maintaining protected areas in the world as wilderness has been pegged on the argument that such a process can be used to convert erstwhile unproductive land into a valuable one through ecotourism.

On the other hand, several arguments against wilderness and protected areas have been advanced. These arguments have generally been based on the potential disadvantages that wilderness and protected areas present to the society. For example, it has been argued that creating wilderness means that other more important economic uses of the land are forgone. This implies that there are always better alternative commercial uses of land rather than fencing it off for different use. Also, the fact that recreation sports and other activities which take place in wilderness areas are a preserve of a few individuals in the society has provided a basis for arguments against the concept of wilderness in general. A common stance has been that setting aside land for recreational activities means that the land is locked up for use by a minority group of the population.

Reasons why the concept of wilderness should be abandoned

There are several reasons as to why the concept of wilderness and protected lands should be abandoned. All these reasons arise from the observation that overemphasis by environmentalists on the topic is positively harmful to many countries in Third World. To begin with, it is important to note that the need to create protected areas, which is as a result of a shift of focus from addressing the needs of humans to those of the entire ecosystem, emerged and developed as a concept of Western academic thought (Guha 2003, p. 76). As such, the concept that setting apart sections of the land for ecological, economic and cultural reasons fails to tackle the key problems facing Third World countries. This is because whereas the industrialised world is facing ecological problems as a result of overconsumption of natural resources, the situation is not the same in the Third World countries. Therefore, when the interests of humans are replaced by those of preserving the natural environment as envisioned in the need to create and maintain protected areas, the result is that there are undesirable social and economic consequences on human populations in such countries (Guha 2003, p. 62). Cronon (1995, p. 76) observed that the concept of wilderness cannot be used to solve the cultural problems of humans with the natural environment. This is because the concept, as envisioned and implemented, was conceived and has developed with reference to different cultural settings over the course of time. This means that although the concept may be effective in particular cultures, its interpretation and application in other cultures may produce undesirable consequences than the ones intended.

There is no doubt that protected areas arising from the concept of wilderness can be used for different social and economic purposes. This usage, which usually takes the form of ecotourism, always produces a number of social and economic consequences to the populations living around the protected areas. Benefits may take the form of employment opportunities for the local population, increased infrastructural development and other forms of social and economic benefits arising from the revenue generated from ecotourism activities being carried out in such areas (Miles 2009, p. 18). That aside, studies have also indicated that ecotourism produces a number of undesirable social and economic consequences to the surrounding populations, particularly in the Third World countries. For instance, in a study about the consequences of ecotourism in Tanzania and Costa Rica, La Porte (2010, p. 20) observed that the style of conservation adopted by the authorities in these countries has resulted in marginalisation of the communities living around protected areas. Such marginalisation is due to the requirement for members of such communities to change their lifestyles so as to fit into the management system used to manage such protected sites. Additionally, creation of protected areas changes land use patterns and rights by relocating large populations living in such areas (West, Igoe & Brockington 2006, p. 262). This practice causes overall tension among populations living close to protected areas in Third World countries arising from their interaction with the parks as sources of revenue and in utilisation of local resources.

Although these effects may not be evident in highly industrialised countries, they may be common in countries in Africa and Asia. As such, it can be seen that one of the central benefits of the concept of wilderness and protected land, which is ecotourism, produces undesirable social and economic consequences to the surrounding populations in Third World countries more than expected. When interpreted in light of the observations by Guha (2003) that the concept cannot be used to solve the problems of different cultures in the world, it is logical to conclude that the concept should be abandoned altogether because of its effects on populations in Third World countries.

It is not ecotourism alone that produces undesirable social and economic consequences on local populations in areas in which it is practised. The entire process of adopting the Western conservation model which differentiates between the needs of human beings and those of the natural environment has greatly affected indigenous populations in Third World countries across the world. According to Diegues (n.d., p. 3), the model of conservation which advocates for creation of protected areas has grown in popularity over the last few decades. The reason for adoption of this concept of wilderness has been international pressure from development organisations as well as local political and economic interests of elite populations in such countries. The result of adopting the conservation model to local environments has been destruction of the lives of indigenous populations who, before their displacement, had been coexisting peacefully with the natural environment. This denotes that the conservation efforts as envisioned in the Western model and undertaken by governments in the Third World countries result in mass dispossession, poverty and cultural change in indigenous populations (West, Igoe & Brockington 2006, p. 257).

Therefore, it can be seen that the link between much emphasis being placed on the concept of wilderness as a model of conservation and its application in Third World countries arises from the global development model in which leaders in Third World countries are encouraged to adopt the conservation model to their local conditions. The result of this is that there are numerous social, cultural and economic effects on the local populations. It is from this observation that it can be said that the concept of wilderness as developed in the West and applied to Third World countries is insensitive to the local cultures and harmful to the their ecologies and human populations (La Porte 2010, p. 1). This observation arises from the idea that the concept of wilderness is a received one in Third World countries. According to Callicott, the concept of wilderness and protected areas as practiced today is ethnocentric in that its emergence, spread and development is associated with American and Australian discourses as opposed to that of other regions (2000, p. 24). It then follows that the model of environmental conservation which is based on the concept may not be the best strategy for environmental conservation across the world, particularly in less developed countries.


In conclusion, Guha’s (2003) observation that the concept of wilderness and protected areas should be abandoned altogether is valid. This is because of several reasons. Essentially, it has been seen that the concept, which is central to the modern conservation policies in the world, emerged and developed as part of Western discourse. As such, its application in Third World countries fails to take into account local cultural, social and economic conditions. This results to various undesirable social and political consequences in these countries. Secondly, although there are several economic benefits that can be derived from application of the concept in the form of ecotourism, more often than not, ecotourism produces undesirable effects on surrounding populations. This takes the form of displacement, general poverty and changes in cultural settings of such populations. The third negative consequence of the concept to wilderness is that the resultant conservation efforts adopted by Third World countries produce negative effects on indigenous populations who usually exist in symbiotic relationships with the ecological systems from which they are separated in conservation efforts. It is because of these reasons that it is argued that the concept of wilderness as a model of global environmental conservation should be abandoned altogether.


Callicott, J B 2000, ‘Contemporary criticisms of the received wilderness idea’, USDA Forest Service Proceedings, vol. 1, pp. 24 – 31.

Clawson, M & Knetsch, J L 2013, Economics of outdoor recreation, Routledge, London.

Cronon, W 1995, ‘The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature’, in W Cronon (ed), Uncommon ground: toward reinventing nature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, pp. 69-90.

Diegues, A C n.d., ‘The myth of wilderness in the Brazilian rainforest’, viewed 13 May 2014, <http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/cca_acdiegues.pdf>

Guha, R 2003, ‘Radical American environmentalism and wilderness preservation: a Third World critique’, in D Van DeVeer & C Pierce (eds), The environmental ethics and policy book: philosophy, ecology, economics, Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, pp. 71 – 83.

Joslin, L 2005, The wilderness concept and the Three Sisters Wilderness: Deschutes and Willamette National Forests, Oregon, Wilderness Associates, Oregon.

La Porte, A 2010, ‘Developing wilderness: conservation and nature tourism in Tanzania and Costa Rica’, viewed 12 May 2014, <http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1447&context=etd_hon_theses>

Miles, J C 2009, Wilderness in national parks: playground or preserve, Washington University Press, Washington.

Scott, D 2004, The enduring wilderness: protecting our natural heritage through the Wilderness Act, Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado.

West, P, Igoe, J & Brockington, D 2006, ‘Parks and peoples: the social impact of protected areas’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 35, pp. 251-277.

Williams, D R 2002, ‘Social construction of arctic wilderness: place meanings, value pluralism and globalization’, USDA Forest Service Proceedings, vol. 26, pp. 120-132, viewed 13 May 2014, <http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_p026/rmrs_p026_120_132.pdf>

Wittbecker, A 2006, Reviewing, rethinking, returning: essays on life, ecology and design, Cambridge Books, Sarasota.