by Ben A. Minteer, an environmental ethicist and conservation scholar, who holds the Arizona Zoological Society Endowed Chair at Arizona State University, Tempe.
The desire to balance wild and civilized animates some of [Edward] Abbey’s best and most mature work. Not surprisingly, it’s also his most careful and restrained.
But there’s a further problem with calling Abbey a charlatan for rhapsodizing about being alone in the wilderness while at the same time feeling isolated, even lonely. It reveals a naïve understanding of the psychological complexity of the human experience of solitude and belonging in the wild in the modern age.
As historian Patty Limerick points out, Abbey, like many of us, wanted isolation and he wanted kinship; it was part of a series of paradoxes that he wrestled with throughout his work — and, we might say, throughout his life. For him, there was no contradiction between loving solitude and craving companionship, between recognizing the partly constructed nature of the wild while cherishing its authenticity, between passionately defending wild country and throwing empty beer cans out of a gas guzzler on the highway. (That last one may have been one paradox too many. Nobody’s perfect.)
Abbey’s calls to exercise restraint and self-control on the landscape, to protect wild country not just from destruction, but also from other forms of significant human manipulation and control, remain vital today more than 25 years after his death.
I think Abbey’s arguments take on even greater importance in light of current trends in environmentalism celebrating a more aggressive vision of human stewardship on the planet, philosophies that travel under banners like “EcoModernism” but that in truth often describe a kind of eco-prometheanism: a celebration of human power and technological ingenuity on a world increasingly said to be of our own making.
Unlike the new EcoModernists, Abbey took a much different lesson from the fact of human influence on the landscape, a conclusion that was evident to him decades before any fancy scientific talk about the Anthropocene.
In a 1987 letter to Wilderness magazine, Abbey made it clear that our ability to change and manipulate the wild wherever it existed wasn’t justification for taking these actions. “Simply because humankind have the power now to meddle or ‘manage’ or ‘exercise stewardship’ in every nook and cranny of the world,” he wrote, “does not mean that we have a right to do so. Even less, the obligation.”
It’s an insight we’d do well to heed today, even in — and maybe especially in — the age of humans.