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Can Ecopsychology Save the Wilderness Debate?
by Kari Mosden

In this essay, I will investigate the relationship between humans and nature as understood through the Wilderness Debate, discuss how that has come to affect us through our historical relationship to nature, look at current thinking on the matter, and explore a new movement that may offer some answers to this environmental debate.

There is a debate going on about what wilderness is, and what it should be. On one side, wilderness is considered to be vast regions of land that are considered a valuable “get away” for humans, a place largely "ruled" by non-human animals, but one which humans can and do enjoy. On the other side of the debate, true wilderness is a place that is completely unaffected by humans, an area that is untouched and pristine, a place where humans are not allowed.

George Sessions introduces the idea of Deep Ecology in the book Environmental Philosophy. The Deep Ecology movement began in the 1960s as an articulation of the need to move from an anthropocentric view of the environment to a more ecocentric one (2001, p. 157). The eco-philosopher Arne Naess is credited with the start of the Deep Ecology movement, when in 1972 he claimed that the environmental movement was shallow and anthropocentric because it was “concerned mainly with pollution and resource depletion” of those in developed countries (in Sessions, p. 164). Naess (2001) called for “a more ecocentric environmental ethic” (p. 187) which would include plants, animals and people equally, in order that we will all survive into the future.

With these humbling beginnings, the Deep Ecology movement has grown over the past 30 years to become, in part, a movement to create spaces of “wilderness” in which humans are not allowed. Part of the problem stems from the fact that, as David Orr (1999, p. 78) puts it, “older ideas about wilderness provide spiritual renewal and primitive recreation [which contrasts] with newer ones concerning ecological restoration and the preservation of biodiversity.” The new wilderness, instead of being a (mostly) untouched place where one can go to “get away from it all,” becomes a place that can only truly be called wilderness if there are no humans there. Ever.

I find the so-called wilderness debate incredibly interesting. For some, it is an issue of anthropocentricism, or human-centered benefit, and the preservation of wilderness for human pleasure is viewed as a petty benefit. They believe that human presence in an area automatically destroys its true wilderness designation. Intrinsic to the debate is the idea that we humans are not “special” and should not have the run and rule of the land. For others, wilderness is a place without human development, but a place that humans can still visit.

Arguments are tossed back and forth as to whether we should preserve wilderness for our selves or for wilderness’ sake. I would argue that our activities in the wilderness are not necessarily bad or harmful (although they certainly can be), but that they are an intrinsic part of the workings of the biosphere. Humans evolved alongside animals out there in the "wilderness," and it is only our social construction that deems to take us out of it. Some have come to believe that our intrusion in the wilderness is a bad or harmful thing, and would like to "create" a wilderness without humans, craft a place that they could then call wild. I think that either way, it is still an anthropocentric issue; in attempting to take our human-centeredness out of the debate about the wilderness, are we not in a sense also attempting to take humans out of the biosphere and all of its workings?

Although there are “radical discontinuities between culture and nature” (Roslton cited in Orr, p. , 77), we cannot deny that culture would not be possible without nature. As one of my classmates (Cook, 2002) pointed out, “the idea of designating certain areas as wilderness…. [implies] that "civilization" is by its very nature destructive, and its opposite is "wilderness", which should be untouched by humans (even though, ironically, it takes considerable human efforts to keep it in some sort of predefined "wild" state).” Once it is determined that humans are not a part of biodiversity, the argument becomes grossly anthropocentric.

If the wilderness is to be left alone to do its own things, i.e. evolve, why are humans not allowed to evolve along with it? It seems to me that one of the fallacies of “being human” and being able to think everything to death, is that we have come to think of ourselves as outside of, or perhaps the end (read: best) link of, the evolutionary loop or cycle. Sure, we experience changes, but they are of the socially evolutionary type. We do not want to actually experience evolution of the type that we fear might occur if we were to continue to (or return to) be a part of the biosphere, including the wilderness. We do not evolve; at least, not any more. In this sense, it seems to me that the Deep Ecologists who go to the extreme of desiring to see everything in a ecocentric view AND wish to leave wilderness completely alone are actually acting out of purely anthropocentric motives. In essence, they are looking out for their own best (human) interests.

A reading of Ramachandra Guha (1994) is informative of another perspective. Guha argues that the Deep Ecology movement is an extremely Western, and therefore somewhat selfish view itself. Although Guha does not say as much, I believe that “selfish” was his sentiment, specifically in his critique of Western deep ecologists who believe they are on the leading edge of the environmental movement. The thrust of Guha’s argument is that if the deep ecology movement focuses on the unspoiled wilderness idea, it is to the “neglect of other issues on the environmental agenda” (p. 242).

It is extremely difficult to take myself out of that Western view, as I am clearly deeply entrenched within it, but I do believe that Guha has a point, and it is essential to not fall into the trap of believing that “we” know what’s best for “them.” Guha tells us that elite Western environmentalists have been known to come into a community and take away land from those who know it and use it, all in the name of wilderness preservation (p. 244). Without a thought for the whole system, the Deep Ecologists’ biocentric view intends to give equal footing to all beings within the system, yet here it fails humans. It is an interesting contradiction to promote a biocentric ethic without promoting humans’ place within it. This is just one example of the difficulty of attempting a biocentric view, as it is intrinsically NOT a biocentric view, unless biocentric means “without anthropoids.”

As I dig deeper within the Deep Ecology movement, it becomes clear that the wilderness preservationists, or deep ecologists, are (or have become) reactionary to the “anthropocentricists” which have been in power for so long. It is all too easy to argue that humans have been human-centered for thousands of years, and we would likely not be here to argue about it (on paper and computers) if that had not been the case. But Deep Ecologists ought to be accused of “not seeing the forest for the trees.” And so the pendulum swings to the other extreme of anthropocentricism for them.

Without having a true or certainly not a complete answer for what this might look like, I would suggest that there is certainly a middle ground. Rather than letting humans run over the earth, and rather than setting the entire globe aside as a wildlife refuge, wouldn’t it make more sense for humans to decrease their impact (considerably) so that the are able to live alongside the rest of the biosphere, just as all of the other species do? Why continue to see ourselves as special?

Murray Bookchin (2001) informs us, “nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society” (p. 436).

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His basic argument is that humans are intrinsically tied to the environment. We are a product of nature and we cannot, and should not, deny that relationship; it has proven itself harmful to try to do so.

In an interesting article, Lisa Wessan (Ecopsychology Newsletter, n.d.) discovers that a recent depression stems from her concern about the state of the environment. Her therapist thinks it is “a deeper problem” about her career, but what could be deeper than the state of the environment? Lisa recognizes the fact that there is something missing in her life, that her disconnection from nature and inability to do anything about the environment’s woes is having a negative effect on her life. She eventually ends up switching therapists when she finds an "ecopsychologist" who knows exactly what she is going through.

This connection to nature appears to be precisely what is missing from the dramatic swing of the Deep Ecology movement. As evidenced by Lisa’s story, it is not a problem that just environmentalists are encountering; “normal” people also feel the disconnect, and it affects how they live their lives. We are a part of the natural world, and, ecopsychologists would argue, the natural world is an important part of us.

“Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the person and the natural environment” (Roszak, p. 49). Ecopsychology believes that the rampant mental disease that we observe in today’s society is a direct result of our lack of knowledge about ecology and contact with nature. “Ecopsychology is situated at the intersection of a number of fields of enquiry, including environmental philosophy, psychology, and ecology, but is not limited by any disciplinary boundaries. At its core, ecopsychology suggests that there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well being; that the needs of the one are relevant to the other” (

We know what the Ancient Greek philosophers put forward, and more importantly, how what they said had so much significance for the development of human thought about nature since then. “Socrates explains that everything about humans has a purpose and that the gods have seen to it that everything in the non-human world—including other animals—is for the benefit of humans” (Fox, 1997, p. 11). Ecopsychology tells us that we do not know just how true that statement is. Nature is at our service, but not in the way that we have thought of it since the times of those ancient philosophers.

“The main thrust of Western civilization has been to put nature at the service of humankind” (Fox, p. 10). Putting nature at the center of service to humankind, in the way that the Greek philosophers meant, has had obvious and detrimental effects on nature. If everything outside the human world is for the benefit of humans, it is (and was) not a far stretch to determine that humans are in fact above the rest of the natural world. If everything is for the benefit of humans, then (the argument goes) humans are the only thing that really matters. Clearly, I am simplifying the process that the human mind has gone through to get from the Ancient Greek philosophers in approximately 2400 BP, to dominant thought today.

The assumption that everything in the world is for the benefit of humans has caused us to abuse the natural world in an attempt to separate ourselves from the natural world completely. Ecopsychology argues that what that mind frame has come to mean also has detrimental, and not yet widely recognized, effects on humankind. Our connection to nature keeps us healthy, and keeps us human, and we are neglecting it. “Repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society” (Roszak, 49). We are the cause of our insanities.

Although we have created such places as malls, freeways, and airports, these are not the places we go when we need “peace and quiet.” In an essay arguing the psychological benefits of wilderness, Garrett Duncan explains that “getting away to a quiet, non-urban, sanely paced place is deeply restorative” and can help re-establish our sanity. What he is describing is wilderness, and what ecopsychologists tell us is that we need that wilderness, that our place in nature is more deeply rooted than we acknowledge. Deep Ecologists, however, would argue that wilderness does not need us, and that we do not belong there; in essence, that we have already removed ourselves from wilderness by our sociality. But is our sociality destroying us?

If we are to come to a conclusion about where we are headed, the debate about our place in nature must be resolved. The wilderness debate tells us that we should not be anthropocentric, that we should leave the wilderness alone, keep humans out. Ecopsychology, on the other hand, tells us that our lack of nature is detrimental to our wellbeing. How important is nature to humans? How important are humans to nature? How do we rectify human’s need for nature, with the biosphere’s “need” to keep humans out of nature?

These questions may seem to be exploring different ideas, but as I have shown, they are entangled in the complexities of the biosphere we live in. What does ecopsychology tell us that can be helpful to the Wilderness Debate? It has been argued that wilderness is only wilderness if there is no human influence, but is that really possible? In designing an area as a human-defined “wilderness,” we are inherently involved in the concept. Just as it would, and should, be impossible to remove spiders from wilderness, we cannot remove humans from wilderness. Humans evolved with and from the natural world, and by taking humans out of the concept of wilderness, we are taking humans out of their rightful place in evolution.

Humans evolved with the rest of the natural world, and it is a mistake to attempt to take humans completely out of nature, just as we have seen that taking nature completely out of humans has disastrous consequences. No one would argue that wilderness is “true” without the animals or plants in it, just as it becomes obvious that animals are not themselves if taken out of their natural environment (for example, zoos). Therefore, it is not “natural” to do the same for humans. It is ridiculous to discuss the concept of “wilderness” without including the human influence. It has been called anthropocentric to create wilderness simply for humans, but isn’t taking humans out of evolution the highest form of anthropocentrism? So long as it is a human making the decision or having the discussion, it can always be considered anthropocentric.

Ecopsychology does not give us any resolution to the Wilderness Debate. It does, however, offer us guidance into potential ways to proceed into our future, as an integral part of the biosphere. Ecopsychology can tell us much about where we come from and why nature is an intrinsic, and vital, part of who we are. It can also give insight into what we need in order to be fully functional humans. Does knowing that humans need nature make a difference when we decide to put aside untouched wilderness, or when we allow humans into the wilderness? It does not, but if we are to embrace the ideology that ecopsychology puts forward, perhaps it can guide us in a direction that reaches for Deep Ecology’s goals: to move forward with the entire biosphere in mind.

Sources Cited
Bookchin, M. (2001). What is social ecology? In Zimmerman, M. E., Callicott, J. B., Sessions, G., Warren, K. J., Clark, J. (Eds.), Environmental philosophy (3rd ed., pp. 436-454). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cook, B. (2002). Wilderness idea readings. Retrieved October 30, 2002, from First Class/Environment & Community/SWO/Philosophy.

Duncan, G. (n.d.) The psychological benefits of wilderness. Retrieved December 11, 2002, from

Fox, W. (Sept/Oct 1997). Human Empire. Resurgence, No. 184, pp. 10-12.

Guha, R. (1994). Radical American environmentalism and wilderness preservation: A third world critique. In Gruen, L., Jamieson, D. (Eds.), Reflecting on nature: Readings in environmental philosophy. (pp. 241-252). NY: Oxford University Press.

Naess, A. (2001). The deep ecological movement: Some philosophical aspects. In M. E. Zimmerman, et al., (Eds.), Environmental philosophy (3rd ed., pp. 436-454). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Orr, D. (Summer, 1999). The not-so-great wilderness debate…continued. Wild Earth, Volume 9, No. 2, pp. 74-80.

Roszak, T. (n.d.) Awakening the ecological unconscious. In Context, No. 34, pp. 48-51.

Sessions, G. (2001). Introduction. In M. E. Zimmerman, et al., (Eds.), Environmental philosophy (3rd ed., pp. 436-454). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wessan, L. (n.d.) What’s Really Bothering You, Lisa? Ecopsychology Newsletter.

What is ecopsychology? Retrieved December 11, 2002, from


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