Robert Nelson: Leaving "nature" alone in southern California is one of the reasons those fires have burned out of control

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Nelson, a professor of environmental policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and an affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center, is the author of "A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).]

... Since the 1960s ... the central policy goal of environmentalism has been to restore nature, seemingly posing a direct conflict with the goal to curb or eliminate fire. In environmental thinking, it is humans who are unnatural. Within wilderness areas, the cathedrals of environmentalism, Congress in 1964 officially declared a federal policy to keep them "untrammeled by man."

In Southern California, however, fire has never fit well within this strict religious demarcation of man and nature. It might be harmless to let forest fires burn in remote wilderness areas, but even there the fires do not observe the boundaries drawn on maps. The National Park Service let the Yellowstone fires burn in 1988, but the fires then rapidly spread outside the park, eventually covering more than one million acres....

The idea of nature has long been a central element in Western religion. In the theology of John Calvin, there were two ways of knowing about God -- reading the Bible and observing the Book of Nature. Nature was seen as a mirror of the mind of God; the Creation was God's artwork by which He instructed human beings. As Calvin wrote in "Institutes of the Christian Religion," "the knowledge of God [is] sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature."

In the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards -- the foremost Calvinist theologian of the time in America -- believed that the "created world was the very language of God." When Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other New England transcendentalists looked to nature for religious inspiration, they were drawing on this Massachusetts Calvinist heritage. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, was a disciple of Emerson who moved west to learn about God in the mountains of California -- places he saw as "holy as Sinai."

In the late 20th century, environmentalists would discard the Christian vocabulary but otherwise still experience the same awe and reverence in the presence of nature. Combined with a rejection of high consumption and other ascetic ideals, environmentalism would proclaim to be a new "Calvinism minus God."

When Calvin, Edwards and Emerson preached, they could believe that they were actually encountering the Creation that had been little altered since God made it, then believed to have occurred 6,000 years ago. Darwin and modern geology, however, have changed all that.

In Southern California, it is a Disneyland fantasy to believe that any part of the natural world is little altered from even a few hundred years ago, or that any areas could be restored to a truly wild condition. America's leading environmental historian, William Cronon, declares that Orange County is a new "form of nature: nature as virtual reality." Recognizing the deep tensions in environmental thinking, Mr. Cronon now recommends that he and his fellow environmentalists abandon the "unexamined, sometimes contradictory, assumptions at the core of our own beliefs" relating to the moral value of wilderness and other areas previously characterized as natural....

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Oscar Chamberlain - 10/29/2007

Cronon has a point, but environmentalists aren't the only ones with illusions. Many of the people who move into these areas pursue their own form of cohabitation with nature, one that does not match the environment well.

I think this is an insoluble problem. Fire is a natural part of that environment regardless of humanity's presence or actions. Population increases as well as the desire for a "natural" vista will lead people to settle in the presence of that danger, just as others still move to the Gulf and Atlanatic coasts despite the clear and present danger from hurricanes.