The Romantic sensibility about wildness, in particular, availed itself to would-be civilisers. Adventurers interested in divvying up the world in colonial and capitalist fashion. Pioneers of power, often white power.
Is the appeal of wildness, the call for a new 'wilding' of the planet, reducible to this form of reactionary melancholia? Is it extricable from the very historical coordinates that birthed what we call the 'anthropocene'?
There is an argument that cherishing of wilderness is loaded with anthropocenic self-hate. A desire that humans should be less prevalent, and far less in evidence. Certainly, the 'nature documentary' approach to wilderness, is to lament that such spaces are disappearing. That there will soon be nowhere on earth that humans haven't touched with their filthy, carbon-stained claws.
One of the undernotes of glacierology is the mournful anticipation that these last great wildernesses of the planet will soon disappear. The Arctic ocean, far from being what Fritdjof Nansen called an “Ice Temple of the polar regions”, will be just another lucrative trade route: an outcome that the Arctic nations have been giddily preparing for, for years.
And what do we hear, constantly, about the oceans? The wildernesses are going away, perhaps forever. The signs of the ghastly human tellurophagic enterprise -- fishing, shipping, pollution -- encroach ever more rapidly into the domain of gorgeous sea turtles, humpback whales, sailfish, beluga, leopard seals, and harlequin crabs.
Before going any further, let's acknowledge the obvious. Anthropocenic self-hate isn't all bad. Disappointment with yourself is the beginning of wisdom. There is a lot to mourn in the impact that humans, specifically humans, have had on the planet. We can no longer afford the anthropocentric romance.
And the Romantic sensibility about wilderness directs our interest and moulds our attention in valuable ways that cannot be taken for granted. Francis Spufford, writing about the Antarctic, evocatively historicises the break that Romanticism represented:
"Not too long before, wild landscapes only looked to travellers like a barren mess; but now, thanks to Wordsworth and Keats and Goethe and Thoreau, people had learned to see beauty in the fractal, unplanned complexity of stone, of snow, of water, of ice ... The Antarctic light refracted shades of cobalt or emerald or lilac off snow crystals that you would never see in any of the planet's other landscapes. Extra suns danced in the sky. The moon rose as a gilded smudge, as a burning slit, as a crimson block. The aurora shimmered against black, in slow gauzy pulses".
Of course, the disenchanted early-modern perspectives which treated wilderness as barrenness were themselves relatively recent. As Andreas Malm points out, the European capitalist class was born in hatred of wildness. For Locke, wildness was not to be protected or revered, but to be subdued. Whatever was deemed wild, be it a forest or a population, was defined mainly by desolation, by what it lacked: subordination to the grid of production.
Where does the idea of "wilding" fit into this? As the -ing suffix implies, it is not a 'return to nature' but an artifice. It is a form of geoengineering. In a qualified endorsement of geoengineering, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson argues that the term must be rethought: "engineering implies we know what we’re doing more than we really do. Also, that we have more powers than we actually have." In this sense, wilding could be seen as a form of geoengineering on a small scale. It entails, not the retrusion and abdication of humanity, but our assumption of collective responsibility, within the necessary limits of our powers and knowledge. As Monbiot put it in his 'wilding' book, Feral, it isn't to restore ecosystems to any prior "natural" state but to engineer a set of circumstances where natural processes can take place.
This has no intrinsic political valence, however. It need not even be primarily motived by ecological considerations. It can be used to turn land, where farming has ceased to be profitable, into a commercial 'natural beauty' spot -- as with the Knepp Wildland in West Sussex. Moreover, as Monbiot acknowledges, "wilding" has a dark history. Even when not deployed as part of a brutally racist, blood and soil enterprise, most wildings have been the spontaneous result of "humanitarian disasters" -- massacres, plagues, starvation. From a certain perspective, the wilding of the planet would be coextensive with human extinction, as in the eerily beautiful, closing passages of Gore Vidal's novel, Kalki.
Wildness has always been a social ideology, a way of classifying space and people. Take, for example, the colonisation of the Americas. The colonies were largely not built in barren landscapes, but in areas where Native Americans already lived, and had in various ways domesticated. In the Valley of Mexico, Melanie Perreault points out, Spanish colonists encountered, not wilderness, but cities and villages, and "one of the most ambitious wetland cultivation projects in human history". Elsewhere, colonists found extensive irrigation systems, and evidence of fire used to clear terrain for both agricultural and hunting-gathering purposes. What they reported, however, was a land that time forgot. An untouched wilderness.
The ideology of the 'untouched wilderness', which today is often evoked with a painful sense of loss and longing, was then an ideology which represented space and people as fit for colonisation. The corollary of 'wilderness' ideology was either that of the 'noble savage', who carefully refrained form altering the landscape out of animistic reverence for the planet, or the childish indigene incapable of the far-sighted maturity needed for conservation. Either way, the wildness that they set out to tame, conserve, harness, or submit to, was their own projection. And many of the "wildings" that took place in the colonial context were, ironically, the result of colonial action: the wiping out of the Mayans, for example. Lurking within the ideology of wildness one can hear the low call of the death-drive.
As with all ideological concepts, however, wildness is contested. Liberals, Nazis, ecologists, conservatives, and marxists have all had their distinctive sense of the wild. American capitalism has often been called 'wild' by progressives, US imperialism linked to the 'wild West'. Jay Griffiths's account of wildness extols (beautifully) a traveller's version of 'noble savage' ideology. What, if anything, can be rescued from all of this? Malm argues for a concept of wild spaces as those which are abundantly, "exuberantly indifferent to the value-form". Those which, though hardly 'untouched', are not, or not fully, subsumed into the grid of capitalist production (conservation areas generally being far less profitable, if at all, than free trade areas). Those which have historically been the refuge, the escape, of runaway slaves, or of Jewish communists fleeing the Nazis. Those enclaves of natural beauty which entrance us precisely because they are allegories of the beyond of bourgeois society, and thus fuel to the utopian imagination. Being unmanaged, their ways and uses undefined, they are pure potential. They evoke an unmanaged, undefined part of ourselves, a part of us that could live otherwise. In this sense, marxist-ecologism would be tactically on the side of the wilderness.
Is any attempt to recuperate wildness at risk of degenerating into form of nostalgia for a lost object, viz. the 'wilderness'? If we want to answer that, it is worth asking what is actually being lost. What is a lost object, after all? In psychoanalysis, an object is the fantasy representation of an external stimulus. When you lose an object, you don't just lose a friend, lover, book, house, you lose part of the way in which you've imagined your relationship to the world. So, ecological awakening doesn't simply bring to light the ways in which the Earth is in the process of being lost to human habitation. It is itself the loss, the destruction, of an object of fantasy: the Earth as a stock of raw materials, resources, inert natural goods fit for exploitation, for human plenty.
The 'anthropocene' heralds the breakdown of this way of 'knowing' the Earth, codified in disciplinary boundaries invented to partition and thereby master planetary forces. The partitioning that, in George Monbiot's words, leave us with "broken relationships, truncated natural processes, cauterised ecologies". To lose this fantasy is, you might think, no loss at all.
Yet it has also invented the field of "earth sciences", with its own underlying fantasy of a governable earth. It is underpinned by the 'blue marble' image of a planet under surveillance, as though from the perspective of a god, which is a product of Cold War imperialism. And it is eminently (though not inevitably) assimilable to a new war against wildness, reimagined as a security threat: "hostile nature". Which is thought liable to dislocate and rile up hostile people. By such military-instrumentalist reasoning, against which Romanticism is at least potentially an ally, earth science can be deployed to resuscitate what was in danger of being lost. In this sense, the side of reaction, mystification, and backward-looking irrationalism on this issue, is currently occupied primarily by the gung-ho exponents of disenchanted earth.