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Dismantling the Ideas of "Natural" Vs. "Wild" in the Environmental Movement

Dismantling the Ideas of “Natural” and “Wild” in the Environmental Movement

Acknowledging that “natural” and “wild” are connected to oppressive systems is a first step to change how we discuss solutions to the climate crisis.

By emily chang

My love for the environment first started from the beautiful green and blue landscapes I witnessed in BBC ocean and rainforest documentaries. As a child, images of thundering waterfalls, misty forests, blue oceans, and snowy tundra filled my mind when I thought about nature. These beautiful, untamed natural and wild landscapes evoked mysticism and spiritual discovery that I was unable to claim in my suburban childhood.

However, as I’ve learned more about intersectionality in the environmental movement, I’ve realized that the language with which we describe our physical environment—words such as natural and wild—actually uphold the colonial, capitalist, and white patriarchal systems that have caused climate change. 

The environmental movement is infamous for establishment, racist, genocidal “leaders” such as John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Their legacies have and still contribute to the forced displacement of Indigenous and Native communities from whichever land they are on—since many have already been displaced from their ancestral homelands—to uphold the construct of nature, and by extension: wilderness. Muir and Pinchot saw nature and wilderness as the antithesis to “development”—human construction that would only negatively impact our planet. These legacy ideas have created a binary of natural vs human-made and has assigned aesthetics to the binary. In other words, natural should look like a park and human-made, a city. 

However, the natural vs human-made binary rejects holistic stewardship of our planet. Any framework that employs this binary precludes any intersectional, equitable solution to climate change.

First, the binary assumes that natural spaces even exist. If we use Muir and Pinchot’s definition of natural as free from human contact, then there is no such concept of natural. Humans have impacted our planet’s entire ecosystem with the burning of fossil fuels; there is no place that remains unaffected. This includes the national parks that many people visit to experience nature—to embark on a spiritual (re)discovery within wilderness. These preserved natural spaces offer us solitude from the bustling of cities. However, there is nothing natural about national parks. Parks have borders and they fall under federal law and receive funding from Congress for maintenance. While these parks have melting glaciers that flow into beautiful waterfalls during the summer and verdant plant growth that sprout into lush forests, these biological processes should not be conflated into landscapes aesthetics of natural or wild. Parks are as actively maintained as urban gardens or city trees. 

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Second, the binary assumes that natural landscapes must be preserved and saved, implying that human-made spaces are unnatural and othered, which ultimately leads to exploitation. Again, this is very visible in the national park system. Natural as it relates to, for example, Yosemite, contributes to white America’s colonial legacy by erasing the history of Native and Indigenous peoples. Prior to the creation of Yosemite National Park, the Awahnichi’s (Yosemite’s native community) worked, manipulated, burned, and lived off of the land for thousands of years. However, Muir saw them as “lazy” and incompetent caretakers. He supported national parks because he and white/settler/colonial America were “saving” this pristine wilderness from “lazy” and “wild” peoples.

Additionally, the othering of human-made spaces as unnatural segments our planet’s continuum landscape and cuts it into arbitrary areas that either deserve preservation or pollution. A national park must never be polluted. One could never throw a plastic water bottle or build a factory on national park grounds without social condemnation.

However, what about our cities and the ecosystems that capitalism, colonialism, and white America have already desecrated—places often thought of and (dis)engaged as unworthy of saving or preserving. Like cities with historical POC neighborhoods. Places like Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; Standing Rock. Natural cannot exist in these spaces because their landscape aesthetics don’t match that of Yosemite. In fact, many of these places also house our POC, queer, and trans family. Therefore, the binary not only others the landscapes of minority spaces, but also others everyone who lives there.

Finally, ideas of natural and wild also play into cis, hetero gendered understandings of landscape. One is the manifest destiny concept of the white, settler pioneer. This pioneer derives his masculinity and power from not only survival in the wild, but also the domination of it. His ability to manipulate his physical surroundings for his own gain directly supports heteronormative ideas of hypermasculinity with display of strength and aggression. Yet, the opposite of the settler pioneer, Mother Nature, characterizes our physical environment as feminine. This view upholds white patriarchy who feels the need to preserve these virgin and untamed lands. Any desecration—code for penetration—of these lands falls under white patriarchy’s decision-making power. 

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I still appreciate the BBC documentaries I watched as a child. However, now I try to engage more critically with mainstream environmentalism. If the environmental movement is to be more equitable and just in solving climate change, the movement must reject ideas of natural and wild. From the facade of natural to white/settler/colonial America “saving” natural spaces; from the othering of cities and our POC, queer, and trans family as unnatural to gendered assignments of landscape, natural and wild directly uphold capitalism, colonialism, and white patriarchy. White patriarchy and colonialism profit from the monetization and domination of spaces and the peoples within these spaces. There is nothing equitable here. 

I am not a climate supremacist. Some in the movement believe that we must first target climate change, as in simply reducing emissions, before we can solve other social injustices. This is a false solution. Climate change will only exacerbate all current –isms and –phobias. Acknowledging that natural and wild are deeply connected to oppressive systems is a first step to change the way in which we talk and think about solutions to the climate crisis.  

emily chang is a noodle enthusiast and climate justice advocate. They are currently working in climate science in Washington DC. You can find them on Twitter @emandlens spitting climate science facts, geeking out about squash (the sport), and vibing on piano keys. 

More from our “Reclaiming Our Nature” Series:
THE COMMODIFICATION OF HENNA HAIR DYE BY WHITE-OWNED COMPANIES by Ammal Hassan
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