Wilderness and Privilege

I really need to change the quote at the top of this blog. I feel less and less like there’s a strict dichotomy between human habitations and everything else. Yes, wilderness is its own thing, and to be valued for what it is, and preserved as best as possible. But I’m feeling increasingly critical of the idea that cities are uniformly bad, that anything humans do or create is unnatural, and that you have to choose sides or else you aren’t a good enough environmentalist.

All these ideas of moving out to the country, living sustainably, or just spending more time hiking, camping, etc.–all these have something in common. They all assume that a person has the means to spend quality time outdoors. And that smacks of a great deal of social and financial privilege.

For one thing, it assumes that you have enough money to be able to drive out to the wilderness if you don’t already live there. It assumes you can buy or rent a car, and also have the necessary equipment to hike, camp, etc. once you’re out there.

It also assumes that you have the time to be able to do this. If you’re working two or three jobs and spending eighty hours a week working, you probably don’t have much leisure time to put toward outdoor activities.

And it assumes that you’ve learned that the outdoors is a good place to be, that you’ve had enough exposure for it to grow on you. Believe it or not, not everyone shares these social values. “So what about urban parks? We’re trying to get more of those for people who can’t get to the woods!” Well, yes, this is a good concept. However, parks are not uniformly safe places. Many urban parks are not outdoor refuges for nature lovers, but instead are settings for drug deals and other criminal activity.

If we are going to make the environment and sustainability relevant to more than just primarily white, middle class, educated people with enough spare money to live in safe neighborhoods and buy kayaks, then we need to look outside of that bubble.

We need to understand that for many people cities are their home, and this is not a bad thing–the cities may need restructuring on numerous levels to make them safer for the people who live there (and I don’t mean the process of urban gentrification). This needs to happen at the very least in conjunction with, if not before, greening and sustainability activities can occur. If your biggest concern is paying the bills and not getting shot, robbed or assaulted, then being introduced to Window Farms may not be very effective.

And we need to look at the social biases associated with “cities bad, countryside good”. There is a core of racism and classism in there. Who lives in the worst part of cities? A lot of poor people, a large portion of whom are minorities. Not that less populous areas don’t have poverty, but it’s primarily white people with money who move to the suburbs or the country to “give the kids a safer place to grow up”. What if you can’t escape that? Are you less deserving of a safe place to live?

Additionally, as pointed out in this essay that I love, the acts of urban sustainability that are promoted as the cure for environmental ills not only again assume one has the resources to enact them, but also removes responsibility from massive corporations that promote the very same environmentally and socially unsound conditions that keep the impoverished poor. “Oh, look what I can do!” you can say proudly, all the while ignoring that there are systemic issues that don’t get as much press because they don’t feature white people with easy solutions.

So where does this leave us. Well, we don’t need to give up our camping and hiking and outdoor activities, but we need to find more ways to make environmentalism relevant outside of its “classic” context. This isn’t just supporting environmental groups and activities that focus on specific demographics of race, ethnicity, culture, etc. though these are good things.

It also means making environmentalism relevant to people who would probably not think of themselves as environmentalists per se. I don’t mean in the sense of saying “Hey! You should totally think this is important!” so much as looking at things like environmental justice. It’s looking at related issues like how people buy cheap material goods made in China from Wal-Mart because it’s what they can afford (or Wal-Mart is the only store in the area) and the manufacturing jobs are all overseas. If people can’t afford to spend greener because they don’t have money or access, then that makes jobs a green issue that can’t be solved with a compost bin.

Making it all about going into the wilderness means leaving behind the problems of the city–and abandoning the people still in it.

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16 thoughts on “Wilderness and Privilege

  1. Sadly, even moving to the country “for the kids” doesn’t keep people safe. There are human predators pretty much everywhere, and it wasn’t until my family moved to the country that I was sexually abused (by a relative). So many different assumptions are at work, on so many levels.

    I do think that “wilderness is good” but I also love and appreciate cities. I think that a human connection to wilderness is healthier if it can be made and fostered but, as you say, it’s not as easy as just saying “go to the park if you live in the city.”

    • Yeah, and that’s another set of blinders that privilege gives–the privilege of never having been abused and assuming “it can’t happen in MY family/town/etc.”

      I am a huge fan of people making cities better places to live. if we have less of a physical footprint, so much the better. The more people in cities, the fewer will be demanding wilderness for new homes.

  2. I’d like to see a post specifically addressing the elitism present in condemning out of hand everyone who shops at Wal-Mart because it’s all they can afford. I shop there for that reason, but selectively. I buy about half of my monthly groceries there, except for meat (better meat, cheaper prices at my local grocery). I comparison shop and only buy at Wal-Mart what I must. When it comes to electronics, clothing, and other items, I usually try to buy from either garage sales or resale shops (same reason: save money), local businesses (when I can afford it), or at least places with better reputations. I’m really sick of the mention of going to Wal-Mart eliciting a bunch of comments assuming I’m an insensitive jerk who doesn’t care about Wal-Mart’s employee policies or their shameless use of Chinese labor. (Chinese labor has been taken advantage of for centuries; maybe the Chinese government should be doing something to look after their working population. Corporations notoriously fuck over everyone they can; why should the Chinese be exempt? -note sarcasm-)

    The problem goes much deeper than Wal-Mart and their exploitation of the Chinese. I seriously doubt there’s a successful chain store, from Best Buy to Target to friggin’ JC Penney, who isn’t sweeping ugliness under the rug somewhere. That’s the way the plutocracy crumbles. The problem doesn’t lie with the consumer. It’s a massively corrupt system altogether. The consumer is just the unfortunate end game receiving all the blame for what should be company policy.

    Soapbox aside: Awesome post. You always have great points to make, and the courage to make the points that few will dare to post.

    • I would love to do all my shopping at Trader Joe’s, New Seasons and the like. However, a lot of the time it’s WinCo, and we’re about to get a CostCo membership, too. I do try to buy green things when they do arrive at mainstream stores; sometimes i get my recycled-paper TP from Fred meyer, just to contribute to demand there. But I have to keep costs in mind even as well as I’m doing now.

      And yes, we need to really hold the corporations’ feet to the fire. All the recycling-sorting we do won’t change the massive broken systems that they are.

      And thank you :)

  3. Wonderful post and I absolutely agree. There are a number of very large, usually unchallenged assumptions that underpin the whole natural spirituality world that should be subject to critical examination in the light of classist perspectives.

    For feminists, it used to be “the personal is political”. Now it’s “the political is personal”. This is about our very relationship to the biosphere, after all.

    • It’s about our relationship to the biosphere, and also our relationships to ourselves and others as part of that biosphere. The removal of humans from “nature” is counterproductive, and while “pure” wilderness has its value, by removing ourselves from the picture, we are actually exacerbating the problems we’re dealing with. Detachment is not engagement.

  4. THIS. Awesome post! I’m one of those people who was born and raised in the city, and who never has been able to and cannot now afford to live “in the country”, which is now far more expensive than living in the city could ever be. That’s where most of the jobs are, after all. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford it, even assuming I’m able to retire some day. And as Erynn said, living outside of a city doesn’t guarantee safety anymore.

    I also get furiously tired of people who prattle on about humans as though we are 1) not animals (so, then, are we PLANTS??), and 2) not part of nature. If we are not part of the nature of this planet, then we are an invasive alien species and should be eradicated before we do any more damage to the “real” nature here.

    Thanks for letting me get this little rant out in print.

  5. Speaking as one who grew up on a homestead : most folks just don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not an easy life, it’s not a particularly clean life – and unless you’ve got some serious money behind you, it probably will be a whole pile more environmentally friendly to stay in the city.

    From what I’ve seen since though – the more people work on the biome (including social) in the world immediately around them, the safer and healthier things get. This isn’t easy either – but it’s worth it.

    • I grew up at least partly on a farm myself. I helped out on our farm and on the neighbors’ dairy farm, as well as helping my grandfather run a trapline in the winter. Hard fucking work all the time. I ended up traumatized by potatoes because in the late winter they were mushy and miserable and they were what we had to eat because there wasn’t much else. I was never so glad to leave anywhere in my life and am a very happy urbanite.

      I haven’t the health to live rurally anymore, and I honestly wouldn’t want to even if I did. I intensely dislike most of rural life, though I love hiking and camping when I have a choice about it. Chopping firewood, digging potatoes, milking cows, picking pests off plants by hand, dealing with the traps, slaughtering chickens — I can do that stuff if I absolutely have to because I know how, but damned if I would want to do it to keep food on my table.

      • There is something to be said, for sure, for the convenience that cities offer. If you aren’t isolated, you can find other people who can do things for you (and people you can do things for–hence self-employment!)

  6. I wholly agree to this. This is one of many reasons why I had started Ehoah. It is a naturalistic path that not only allows for people of all living circumstances to get involved, but gives viable opportunities for people in urban and heavy work loaded lives to be able to work with plants and urban wildlife. The teachings are also very much in line with the view that all is of Nature, Nature just takes different forms.

  7. I live in a city and find it a wild, abundant and beautiful place to be. Many of my favorite critters and plants can be found here. I honor the land spirits, and find they are many and though they are not honored nearly enough they willingly and generously offer abundance to human inhabitants. I feel strongly the stirrings of the seasons, the influence of the elements on my landscape and often bemoan how city planners need to learn to work better with nature when they design cities (I think they are getting better at it though!). From an environmental perspective, cities are also more resource efficient and are potentially lower impact on the planet if we design them properly. What a wonderful offering to our Earth, for us to transition to living in cities (our human population just tipped more than 1/2 in cities for the first time in history) and leaving the last wild spaces untouched for non-human animals to enjoy, and to allow our earth systems to remain in fluid richness! I often remember that, in a the blink of an eye a wave or fire or earthquake could take down my entire neighborhood so ultimately, we’re not the ones in charge anyway. I think the energy of the wild streets of San Francisco (or any city) and a deep green forest…they are just different. I do think that no matter what, we must be in relationship to place and that this is really the most important thing.

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