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Taking It All: The World as Wilderness

William Dietrich

Inside Passage: A Journey Beyond Borders. Richard Manning. 210 pp. Island Press, 2001. $24.95.

There are at least two Pacific Northwests in America's environmental imagination.

One is the green, damp, hip and quaint Ecotopia of tourism lore, a scenic Left Coast leftover, worthy of a visit if you can stand the rain.

The other Northwest, more familiar to locals, is a region of frenzied development and ecological catastrophe: butchered forests, extinct salmon runs, industrialized farming and strip-mall suburbanization. Paradise lost.

Author Richard Manning, a crusading environmental and science writer based in Lolo, Montana, has lived in the Northwest long enough to be a keen observer of the latter. Manning was forced out of his job at the Missoula newspaper for writing critically about the timber industry. Subsequent freelancing has only sharpened his pen.

His latest book, Inside Passage, is a well-written, well-researched, fast-moving survey of the environmental ills of the Pacific Northwest, from southeast Alaska to southern Oregon. He expands the term "Inside Passage" to include not just the shipping route from Puget Sound to Alaska that follows channels between the mainland and coastal islands but also the urbanized lowlands that extend between mountain ranges from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Medford, Oregon.

The book is built around one central idea, a rethinking of boundaries, which is quite intriguing. Unfortunately, it's also maddeningly undeveloped.

As a result, Inside Passage is a worthy addition to any environmental bookshelf and a good teaching tool for university classrooms. Yet it also begs for a policy-reform sequel to further analyze its central idea.

Manning is not impressed with the resource productivity of modern industrial technology. In its natural state, he argues, the Pacific Northwest supported more salmon than hatcheries and fish farms do now, and it sustained forests that were more productive than tree farms. He points out that the undeveloped Great Plains supported more buffalo than its successor does cattle.

He compares aboriginal inhabitants and small-scale loggers and fishers to bankers living off sustainable interest and likens modern "cut and run" companies to bank robbers.

Manning moves adroitly from such comparisons to journalistic reporting of present-day examples of what he considers the best and worst of environmental stewardship. He also pummels the reader with broader statistics of resource consumption gone awry. Showing us scenes ranging from the collapse of salmon runs to the restoration of a single creek, he takes us by float plane, kayak and fishing boat into a land- and seascape of loss and hope.

Still, a mere recitation of environmental woes would not have been original enough to justify the two years of support Manning received from Ecotrust, an environmental think tank based in Portland, Oregon. The rationale for this book is discussion of a radical idea: tearing down the boundaries between wilderness and civilization and using the wilderness ideal to reform industrial practice.

He visits Canada's Haisla tribe, who view their surrounding "wilderness" as a cornucopia of sustainable resources (meat, plants and shelter) and see the idea of hands-off preservation as absurd.

"Wilderness designation is not a victory, but acknowledgement of defeat," Manning writes, because it does not solve broader environmental problems. It serves as a sop to preservationists, artificially pretends there are ecological islands undisturbed by human activity and salves our conscience enough to permit short-sighted exploitation outside wilderness boundaries. Instead of helping society achieve a balance, he argues, the idea of wilderness allows us to hold two conflicting ideas—untrammeled nature and economic greed—in our heads at the same time.

His solution is to erase this artificial distinction and regain ancient harmony by eliminating such boundaries: by "taking it all," as he titles his first chapter, or thinking of everything—not just preserves—as a kind of "wilderness" that requires ecological balance.

This is interesting as a philosophical point but vague as a basis for policy. Manning's entire book makes clear that the real power lies with an industrial society that has run roughshod over native, small and traditional resource-based communities. So what is more likely if boundaries are removed: environmental reform as wilderness ideals penetrate development, or an extension of industrial exploitation into protected areas?

I'd bet the latter. This is a book to give the Wilderness Society the willies.

Sure, there's too much polarization between preservationists and industry. Setting aside parkland and open space somewhat misses the point if the rest of the environment is badly out of whack. Yet wilderness, even if one considers it an artifact, remains valuable both as idea and resource: as church, as artwork, as biological refuge, as example, as inspiration, as sanctuary. I don't see any particular nobility in allowing subsistence hunters, village fisherfolk or artists looking for an old-growth log to use wilderness for small-scale consumption. Their joy would be my irritation.

The idea of everyone treating all land with wilderness reverence is more appealing, of course, but practicality nags. The Pacific Northwest probably supports about 100 times as many humans as it did during aboriginal times. Sure, salmon have been driven to the brink, but in exchange for farmed food and electricity. Can we bring a wilderness ethic into the general landscape and still sustain our numbers? And if not, who has to die or move away?

Wilderness is a public-land concept, whereas resource development is largely private. Manning's idealism would seem to imply forcing public values onto private: more regulation, for example, or a more socialized or communized society. Most people don't live at comfortable distances from one another in the woods, as Manning does, but on top of each other, and some neighbors are downright pig-headed, greedy or despicable. The book argues that rather than drawing borders around nature, we might instead start placing borders on human behavior, but isn't this just a polite way of saying corporations and individuals should be coerced into cleaning up their act?

Coerced how? With wilderness ideals? Or with lawsuits, fines and wilderness designations, as happens now?

Inside Passage is part of a long tradition of environmental books that suggest that current human civilization is probably not sustainable and that a "small is beautiful" approach of simpler lives and better stewardship would make us happier in the long run. These authors are often critical of technology and the science behind it.

I don't necessarily disagree, and I think Manning's exploration of the meaning of wilderness and civilization is fascinating.

But like most writers on this subject, he's calling for a dramatic shift in attitudes without offering a detailed blueprint of just how the shift could occur—or a compelling vision of what our lives would be like if it did occur. Ernest Callenbach tried the latter in his Pacific Northwest fantasy Ecotopia, and maybe Manning could play with the same approach. Can I have old-growth forests and my DVD player too? How about hospital technology and thermostatically controlled heat? Or am I just crass, in a Faustian bargain with technology and blind to opportunities for a less stressful life with more community?

I don't have the answer, and neither, quite yet, does Manning. Environmentalism has always been hampered by being clearer on what it doesn't like than what it does. The intriguing thing about Inside Passage is that it hints at a compelling alternative. The disappointment is that its vision of the future is still not quite in focus.

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