Wilderness, Monasteries, and Moral Spaces -- Sightings (Kristel Clayville)

The biblical image of the Garden of Eden seems to offer a vision of humanity living in perfect harmony with the rest of Creation.  Now that we live outside that sanctuary, harmony is less apparent.  Living as we do in an age when the human footprint on Creation is increasingly heavy, we must face questions about how to balance our presence the rest of the environment.  This is especially true due to the impact of climate change.   In this essay by Kristel Clayville, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, raises important questions about our place in the environment -- in relation to the declining wolf population at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  I invite you to read and respond.


Wilderness, Monasteries, and Moral Spaces
by Kristel Clayville
Thursday |  June 27 2013
In a recent article in the New York Times, “Predator and Prey, a Delicate Dance,” John Vucetich, Michael Nelson, and Rolf Peterson describe a scenario that challenges the meanings we attach to the word, wilderness. They write of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior where the balance between wolves, moose, and vegetation have become drastically out of kilter because of the genetic isolation of the wolf population. “New” wolves cannot reach this area because, as a result of warmer temperatures, ice bridges between the island and the mainland form less often. Without a robust number of wolves to prey on moose, the ecosystem of the island has fallen apart.

The NYT authors outline three courses of action that the National Park Service could take: 1) genetic rescue of the wolf population by bringing new wolves to the island, 2) reintroduction of wolves to the island should they go extinct, and 3) letting nature run its course by doing nothing.

While the authors support genetic rescue, the National Park Service may be limited legally to the third option due to the definition of wilderness enshrined in the Wilderness Act of 1964: “[wilderness is] an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The problem, the NYT authors point out, is that human-induced climate change allows for our (human) influence without our presence. They suggest that the concept of wilderness itself is endangered since there are no natural areas untouched by us in the 21st century. In the authors’ view, the legal definition of wilderness is outdated and relies on a stark contrast between humans and nature that no longer holds.

But did it ever hold? Were humans and nature ever so distinct that the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act makes sense?

In the view of J. Baird Callicott, an environmental philosopher and ethicist, the concept of wilderness relies on a false distinction between humans and nature. Callicott holds that humans are, and have always been, part of nature, so preserving so-called “wilderness” areas is logically impossible and misguided.

Callicott also highlights the religious background on which the concept of wilderness is based: “It seems to me that sanctuaries are akin to monasticism in the dark ages. The world was so wicked it was better to have islands of decency than none at all.” By drawing a parallel between nature sanctuaries and monasteries, he concludes that wilderness, like monasteries, places a premium on ethical purity and retreat from the world. American ideas about wilderness are not based on science, Callicott maintains, but rather on unquestioned religious ideals about the necessity for purity, and the belief that human beings are impure.

In contrast to Callicott, Holmes Rolston, III, an environmental ethicist, finds that, “A scientifically managed wilderness is conceptually as impossible as wildlife at the zoo.”

For Rolston, cultural, or human-specific processes only derail evolutionary processes, so if we come to the genetic rescue of the wolves, we interfere with nature, which we ought not to do. Rolston affirms that while humans are biological, human culture is no longer part of the evolutionary process.  As a result, when we interact with nature, we overlay the ideas, concepts, and perspectives produced by culture (which are outside of biological evolution) onto the natural world (which remains subject to biological evolution).

Rolston also finds values at work in the wild that are distinct from our human values. For example, in the wilderness, values like the predator-prey relationship exist, a relationship absent from human culture. Values unique to the wilderness, Rolston insists, must be preserved as part of the evolutionary process.

Rolston and Callicott agree that wilderness is a space with moral significance even if the wilderness’ values are often at odds with our cultural values. Rolston, however, takes the dimension of time into account by noting that evolutionary processes are slow. He cautions that we will need patience and the willingness to endure the discomforts of change if we decide to trust the potential of natural processes to help biological creatures adapt, over time, to changing conditions.

Are we preserving the wilderness, or the concept of wilderness, out of a sense of nostalgia? Is this urge a product of the religious imagination that has been incorporated into American law? Should we assume responsibility for the wolves’ situation and act quickly on our scientific understandings? To what extent should the responsibility we bear for changing nature push us to redefine the concept of wilderness?

Hopefully, these are a few of the questions that the National Parks Service will ponder when they meet in the Fall of 2013 to decide the fate of the wolves of Isle Royale National Park.


Vucetich, John, Michael Nelson, and Rolf Peterson. “Predator and Prey, a Delicate Dance. The New York Times, May 9, 2013.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/opinion/save-the-wolves-of-isle-royale-national-park.html?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130509&_r=0.

Callicott, J.B. “The Wilderness Idea Revisited: The Sustain- able Development Alternative.” The Environmental Professional 13 (1991): 235-247.

Rolston, Holmes, III. "The Wilderness Idea Reaffirmed." The Environmental Professional 13 (1991): 370-377.


Author, Kristel Clayville, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She works on the intersection of hermeneutics and ethics with a particular interest in environmental ethics.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

Email DivSightings@gmail.com



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