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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds The wilderness is an invention of the Western mind, perhaps more specifically of urbanising settler societies. While “nature” has a long history in the West, the wilderness as a pristine, untouched and highly valued and often romanticised piece of nature had to wait until the 19th century to be invented. Prior to this time, a wilderness was a despised and feared landscape, the place where Moses was cast out to wander aimlessly. But by the late 19th century, in many places at least, non-human nature was increasingly being thought of as subdued, perhaps even threatened by humanity. Concepts like nature, the wild and the primitive now came to be seen in a positive light by some.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds The emergence of national parks like this one and other designated wilderness areas was one of the consequences of this change in valuation. From the very beginning, however, the establishment of national parks has often had a negative impact on local people. The wilderness, understood in a dualistic way, does not and perhaps cannot include people. Indigenous communities around the world were frequently expelled from these places so that they might be established as pristine examples of an untouched nature. In addition to impacting profoundly on these peoples, in some cases this approach has also been bad for biodiversity, a term and an approach to conservation only invented in the 1980s.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds In places where indigenous people’s practises like hunting or burning had become intricate parts of ecosystems, their removal sometimes led to a range of negative results. But this is also not just a historical situation. All over the world, indigenous, tribal and peasant peoples continue to be evicted from new national parks or similar protected areas. Many of these people may not actually have a deleterious impact on the environment and some are probably having a positive impact, depending in large part on how we understand how those environments should be.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 seconds The expulsion of these people, however, is part of the production of a pristine wilderness as mandated either by dualistic conservation legislation, which often stipulates that people can’t leave in a protected natural area, or the desires and priorities of wealthy tourists who want to have what they see as an authentic nature experience. But the impacts of this wilderness mentality might be even broaden than this. Historian William Cronon has argued that when we hold wilderness areas and national parks up as the truest, most perfect form of nature, we miss an opportunity to value and appreciate the wild nature that exists all around us, in urban parks, cracks in the sidewalk, perhaps even in our own guts.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds We devalue this nature— which might have really important conservation, aesthetic, recreational or even intrinsic value— because it isn’t natural enough. In short, wilderness is a problematic way of framing and valuing our world.

Example 3: Nature as wilderness—National parks

In this video, Thom van Dooren discusses the 19th-century idea of nature as a wilderness — a protected, romanticised area separate from and excluded from human activities.

Thom explores how notions of wilderness are bound up in the emergence of national parks, and the problems that occur when protected “natural areas” are created — such as the eviction of indigenous peoples.​

What do you think?

Do you agree with Thom that wilderness is a problematic way of framing and valuing our world?


  1. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995)
  2. Sahotra Sarkar, “Wilderness preservation and biodiversity conservation—keeping divergent goals distinct,” Bioscience 49, no. 5 (1999): 404–12.
  3. Paige West, James Igoe, and Dan Brockington, “Parks and Peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35, October (2006): 251–77.

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