An interview with environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott

The Received Wilderness Idea

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Environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott

Release Date: July 11th, 2019

In this episode of Wilderness Podcast, I speak with environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott, now retired professor of philosophy from the University of North Texas. Baird is known as being the modern day exponent of Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic. His two book series that he co-edited and produced with Michael P Nelson, The Great New Wilderness Debate and The Wilderness Debate Rages On are important contributions to the literature that seek to document the progression of wilderness thought.


We talk about Baird's early years, the first Earth Day in Wisconsin, his teaching career, the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, Tennessee where he was in company with Dr. Martin Luther King, the wilderness idea, his book series, thinkers of the Enlightenment, Aldo Leopold's evolution of though and his Land Ethic, grazing on public lands, societal shifts in public attitude towards wilderness and global threats to humanity and the planet from climate change.


Baird has been a controversial figure in the wilderness and environmental movement, going so far as to call for the renaming of our wilderness areas as “biological reserves”. He argues that the wilderness idea is so fraught with historical baggage, namely injustice and genocide against Native Americans, that it should be abandoned. To be clear, he is not advocating for doing away with land protections. He is being intentionally provocative. And I think this is a good thing.


Cultural attitudes towards wilderness have undergone dramatic shifts over time. To early Puritan settlers, wilderness was resented as a place of hardship, struggle and death. During the 19th century, wilderness began taking on more edenistic connotations as it became more and more scarce on the landscape. During the 20th century, this admiration grew and wild places became so rare and coveted that the Wilderness Act was passed. The framing of wilderness was the necessary backstop and a badly needed show of restraint.


“The received wilderness idea” is the target of Baird's critic. This is the notion that wilderness areas were “pristine” or “virgin”, untrammeled by man when early European Americans happened upon them and they remained in such a condition by the time the Wilderness Act rolled around. He also calls into question the dismissiveness of the language “that man is a visitor, who does not remain” as an affront to native peoples. But nonetheless, the framing of wilderness served a specific purpose and was a statement of collective value, that our wild places were worthy of protection.


Perhaps we can move beyond a “received wilderness idea” to a “new wilderness idea.” One where man is acknowledged as being a part of nature, not merely a visitor who does not remain. One where wilderness is seen and recognized outside of cadastral boundaries on the landscape. One where traditional Native American practices are better facilitated. Take the concept of Bears Ears National Monument for example. I am not a defender of the “received wilderness idea” but rather a defender of wilderness in its ability to morph and update itself under cultural value transformations.


Wilderness is arguably ethnocentric and has its faults and some historical baggage. As an American (not in the nationalistic sense, but cultural) and wilderness advocate, I know of no other way to describe that particular feeling when I immerse myself in wild nature and experience a deep connection. To me, this is undeniably wilderness. I wouldn't know how to describe it in any other way.



Thank you, Baird for the thought provoking conversation.

The Great New Wilderness Debate & The Wilderness Debate Rages On

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