Wildness: Edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer

Wildness: Edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer

The book’s strongest claims are left half-buried for the enterprising reader to excavate for herself.

Wildness: Edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer

3.25 / 5

Wildness is an exploration of the relationship between the concepts of “wilderness” and “wildness” and how this difference operates in daily social and political life in the United States. The book is insightful, entertaining and, at times, quite radical. Unfortunately, as is often the case with edited volumes, Wildness suffers from inconsistency in focus, quality and tone throughout. It is ambitious—there are 24 different contributors, each writing approximately a dozen pages—and while that scope provides much diversity of voice and experience, it also means that there are several chapters included here that are just not very good. However, the book overall is worth the time for any reader concerned about the state of the air, water and soil of our planet.

Wildness pushes back against longstanding principles within the environmental movement, especially those which dichotomize human space from non-human space, the latter of which is usually called “wilderness.” The central question of the collection ponders how humans may relate to the “wild” in positive ways. Several of the chapters, for instance, describe how indigenous peoples throughout the Americas helped to construct what we today think of as wilderness, through careful forest management and agricultural practices. In fact, three of the best chapters are written by indigenous Americans.

The chapters take a variety of approaches, though there is often some overlap—most of the contributors cite or mention Aldo Leopold, for instance. Some chapters focus on agriculture and how overturning many of the ingrained techniques of the Green Revolution is a crucial step to reverse ecological catastrophe. Others instead describe the way that various different ecosystems work. One section in the book takes a deep dive into the notion of the “urban wild” through several contributions about the Chicago metro area.

Because it is a compilation, Wildness occasionally lacks an overarching voice to connect the disparate ideas in the chapters together. While some of the contributors clearly call for the necessity of overturning the capitalist system and worldview, as the profit motive is irreconcilable with wildness, others prefer a much smaller scale of change within a single neighborhood or even actively seek to instead show ways in which capitalistic motivations have led to better environmental practices. This scattershot approach can be frustrating, even though it does emphasize that the notion of wildness and its distinction from wilderness is far from settled, even in the minds of those who are actively meditating upon it.

Read as a whole, the book does posit a few key insights. These include that the wilderness ideal (namely, that there is such a thing as a non-human ecological space) is misinformed and likely counterproductive for conservation purposes. A second is that agriculture must become central to our lives; to maintain Earth as a habitable planet, each of us must be conscious of our food in a much more intentional manner than we are now. “Solving” agriculture is the only way to save the world.

The book also suggests several unspoken ideas that must be gleaned from between the lines. The most promising of these is the incompatibility of Western worldviews and even language to nuanced distinctions between “wild,” “wildness” and “wilderness.” The European Enlightenment postulation of each human as a discrete and self-contained individual has warped the mindset and lexicon of those who inherited that intellectual tradition—that includes most of us—in such a way that ecological or planetary “oneness” is truly inconceivable. Environmental degradation, then, runs parallel with capitalist exploitation and the spread of individualism as the central precept for organizing society; all three of these are imperial impositions (and distortions) which must be overturned. In a way that resonates profoundly with the past 30 years of academic scholarship in cultural studies and political theory, Wildness clamors for a de-colonial ethic as the way for humanity to move forward. Unfortunately, this connection is not stated by either of the editors or any of the other 22 contributors, a missed opportunity for a more global, intersectional discourse.

Wildness is an uneven book that waxes and wanes from dangerous and boring convention—Silicon Valley’s latest catchphrase, “innovative design,” will lead to corporations saving the world—to truly radical assertions that capitalism and Enlightenment individualism are inherently “poison pills” that will condemn humanity to self-destruction. Its diversity of voice and place makes it worthwhile, even if the book’s strongest claims are left half-buried for the enterprising reader to excavate for herself.

      • Publisher:
        University of Chicago Press
      • Pages:

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