4.4 Monastic wilderness
Monastic Wilderness and Civilized Complacency
Affirming wilderness to not to deny sustainable development. Callicott alleges, "Implicit in the most passionate pleas for wilderness preservation is a complacency about what passes for civilization." Not so. I cannot name a single wilderness advocate who cherishes wilderness "as an alibi for the lack of private reform," any who "salve their consciences" by pointing to "the few odds and ends" of wilderness and thus avoid facing up to the fact that the ways and means of industrial civilization lie at the root of the current global environmental crisis. The charge is flamboyant; the content runs hollow. Wilderness advocates want wilderness and they also want, passionately, to "re-envision civilization" so that it is in harmony with the nature that humans do modify and inhabit. There is no tension between these ideas in Leopold, nor in any of the other passionate advocates of wilderness that Callicott cites, nor in any with whom I am familiar.
The contrast of monastic sanctuaries with the wicked everyday world risks a flawed analogy. Unless we are careful, we will make a category mistake, because both monastery and lay world are in the domain of culture, while wilderness is a radically different domain. Monastery sets an ideal unattainable in the real civil world (if we must think of it that way), but both worlds are human, both moral. We are judging human behavior in both places, concerned with how far it can be godly. By contrast, the wilderness world is neither moral nor human; the values protected there are of a different order. We are judging evolutionary achievements and ecological stability, integrity, beauty–not censuring or praising human behavior.
Confusion about nature and culture is getting us into trouble again. We are only going to get confused if we think that the issue of whether there should be monasteries is conceptually parallel to the issue of whether there should be wilderness. The conservation of value in the one is by the cultural transmission of a social heritage, including a moral and religious heritage, to which the monastery was devoted. The conservation of value in the other is genetic, in genes subject to natural selection for survival value and adapted fit. There is something godly in the wilderness too, or at least a creativity that is religiously valuable, but the contrast between the righteous and the wicked is not helpful here. The sanctuary we want is a world untrammelled by man, a world left to its own autonomous creativity, not an island of saintliness in the midst of sinners.
We do not want the whole Earth without civilization, for we believe that humans belong on Earth; Earth is not whole without humans and their civilization, without the political animal building hispolis (Socrates), without peoples inheriting their promised lands (as the Hebrews envisioned). Civilization is a broken affair, and in the long struggle to make and keep life human, moral, even godly, perhaps there should be islands, sanctuaries, of moral goodness within a civilization often sordid enough. But that is a different issue from whether, when we build our civilizations for better or worse, we also want to protect where and as we can those nonhuman values in wild nature that preceded and yet surround us. An Earth civilized on every acre would not be whole either, for a whole domain of value– wild spontaneous nature–would have vanished from this majestic home planet.
Holmes Rolston III; (1991) The Wilderness Idea Reaffirmed