Surprise: Environmentalists and industrialists are brothers under the skin.
One of the environmental movement’s most interesting recent campaigns has been to save the view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Monument. The federal government permits mining in Death Valley and the Tenneco Corporation, which mines borax, has staked a claim in a direct line of sight from Zabriskie Point, with the intention of opening a strip mine.
This is not the first time that environmentalists have rallied around a view. Not too long ago a group of energy companies proposed to build a huge coal-fired power plant on the Kaiparowits Plateau in southern Utah, some forty miles distant but in full view of the viewpoints in Bryce Canyon National Park. The environmentalists marshaled their forces, which included not only most of the important environmental organizations but Robert Redford as well. The battle received nationwide publicity, and the power companies, overwhelmed by protests, the threat of lawsuits, and a bad press, eventually abandoned the project.
What is interesting about all this is not the battles themselves, which are typical disputes pitting one group of lobbyists against another, but the vague, intangible quality of what they are being fought over. A view is not a physical “thing” in the sense that the rare, endangered species of flora and fauna which environmentalists also battle to preserve are “things.” Nor is it part of the environment and its interrelationships, what we call its ecology; ecologically unbalanced, even dying environments may still attract viewers, while perfectly balanced environments may have no scenic qualities at all. A view is not, then, a functioning, integral part of the natural world; it is nothing more than a purely visual relationship among those parts, a visual relationship seen from a certain vantage point called a “viewpoint.” What defines the view as a view is, of course, man. The view is a cultural artifact. Nature does not make views; we make them.
We make them according to certain criteria that are even more vague and intangible than the views themselves. The places we think of as being particularly agreeable as views are “beautiful,” “inspiring,” “sublime,” “spectacular,” while other parts of the world, presumably, are not. We would be hard put to define what we mean when we use these words. The Bureau of Land Management, in its environmental impact statement on the Kaiparowits project, tried to grade what they called “scenic viewing values” on a scale of four degrees—exceptional, excellent, moderate, and slight—by comparing certain abstract visual characteristics such as line, form, color, and texture; but this is hardly more precise. Beauty, not to mention the “inspiring” or the “sublime,” is in the eye of the beholder. Most people (though not all; I have heard it dismissed as nothing more than “a big hole in the ground”) think the Grand Canyon is beautiful, but the first Spanish explorers saw it, quite unappreciatively, as simply a barrier to further treasure-hunting (which suggests the corollary that one cannot see something as beautiful until it has ceased to be irritating).
The criteria which define views, in other words, are obviously subjective, and different people have different opinions of what is worth viewing. The Tenneco Corporation has capitalized on this fact by proposing, with w hat one can only call inspired presumption, to build a special viewing platform so that visitors to Zabriskie Point can see their stripmining operation more clearly. And why not? A number of well-known artists—the late Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer—have built or are building “earthwork" sculptures, with bulldozers, in the middle of various empty landscapes, and no environmentalists have yet complained that they are destroying views.
What is the aesthetic distance between a strip mine and an “earthwork"? The prehistoric amphitheaters dug in the earth in Peru, which look very much like strip mines, arc major tourist attractions. Why are ancient amphitheaters “inspiring" but modern strip mines not? Many people who like to watch construction and industrial operations might well find the Tenneco operation “inspiring.”What makes a view is a matter of taste, and people’s tastes differ. There is no self-evident reason that the Tenneco mine would spoil the view.
The problem is that environmentalists tend to take the values they see in views for granted. To them it is self-evident that a strip mine spoils a view. They have not examined their own assumptions, and they are vulnerable on that account. No one has asked the elementary question, for example, why only some places and not others are worth viewing: why Colorado is full of viewpoints but Kansas, which adjoins it, has not one. The answer only seems obvious: Kansas is flat and boring, Colorado vertical and spectacular. That tells us nothing about our peculiar predilection for mountains, our peculiar aversion to plains. Are such preferences immutable characteristics of human nature, or are they merely episodes in the history of taste, soon to be superseded by new trends in aesthetic sensibility?
When we do examine these preferences it quickly becomes apparent that they are, indeed, uncomfortably culture-bound. Our taste for mountain scenerycan be traced directly back to Romanticism—to Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, to landscape painters such as the German Caspar David Friedrich or the American Thomas Cole, and to explorers and travel writers such as Alexander von Humboldt. Before their time hardly anyone “appreciated" mountains; landscape painters painted not mountains but pretty, domesticated countryside, pastoral scenes with cows, sheep, and cottages, rural retreats, quiet, tame places. Poets wrote not about the Alps or the Caucasus, where Shelley set Prometheus Unbound, but about gardens and meadows, the peace and calm of the country. Were we living in a pre-Romantic rather than a postRomantic period, the places to see, the tourist attractions, might well be the whcatfields of Kansas or the cornfields of Iowa.
Interestingly, a survival of this earlier attitude was responsible for the preservation of an area we nowthink of exclusively as wilderness. The area is Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872. The first accounts of Yellowstone described it not as wilderness at all, but as something akin to English parkland, complete with natural “ruins” (rock formations like the basalt columns of Shecpeater Cliffs), “fountains” (the geysers), falls, and great lawnlike meadows. To the early travelers and the rest of those who fought to preserve it, Yellowstone was not wild, primitive, grand, but picturesque, in the pre-Romantic sense of the term. One hundred years later Yellowstone remains a tourist attraction, of course, but for entirely different reasons. Now people go there for the natural “wonders” and the wild mountain scenery. Now we clearly prefer mountains to parkland; we prefer dramatic vertical rises, fathomless pink canyons. We like to climb up and see a long way; one pioneer wrote that he could see “all of God’s creation" from Zabriskie Point, while at Bryce Canyon, overlooking the Kaiparowits Plateau where the power plant would have been built, the horizon is more than eighty miles away. Our favorite views are all spectacular in this sense, encompassing amazing heights or distances.
They are also devoid of any sign that human beings have ever been out there in the view. They contain no housing developments, no church steeples, power lines, highways, certainly no strip mines. We insist that views be pristine; the world must seem to be untouched, as if it were being viewed for the first time. It is not hard to sec that a hidden myth is at work here. We are in the beginning of things (“In the beginning all the world was America,”said John Locke), and nature is not the familiar, ordinary nature of one’s back yard but nature at its best, an exalted, virginal nature. The viewer stands looking out over Paradise, in sum, and who can he therefore be but the first man, alone with the world; who can he be but Adam?
One world not want to press this idea too hard. The typical tourist, standing in a typical crowd of fellow tourists at a typical viewpoint overlooking, say, the Yosemite Valley, could hardly imagine himself, at least consciously, as a new Adam alone with the glories of Paradise. The myth would have to operate below the conscious level. The people who have thought about this subject agree, nevertheless, that it does in fact operate. Paul Shepard, in his book Man in the Landscape, says that those tourists out there driving from viewpoint to viewpoint are in reality “reenacting and recapitulating in a mytho-historical sense" the drama of search and discovery of the first American explorers, and ultimately Adam’s original discovery of the world. The fact that a large part of the environmental movement’s efforts are devoted to guarding the virtue of virgin landscapes suggests that Shepard is right. The landscape photographer Philip Hyde, writing in one of the Sierra Club picture books about the Escalante Wilderness (which is in the same general area where the Kaiparowits power plant would have gone), says, “. . . if you do go there . . . leave so little trace of your passing through that the next one in may fancy himself almost the first to come there.” Hyde’s remark makes the meaning of the experience explicit. You are the first one there, the first person to see this part of the world. What you see is, therefore, by implication, yours.
All of this is easier to notice in art and literature than it is in the mass phenomenon of tourism. In Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting of 1818, The Traveller Looking over the Sea of Mist, a lone figure stands on a mountain gazing out over a vast, misty valley receding toward a range of mountains in the distance. He is alone, his back is to us, he contemplates the view. It is an image of mastery much more than of reverence. The viewer stands above the world; his posture as he leans slightly forward, one foot up on a rock, is erect and alert, yet casual; his figure dominates the scene. Clearly he is in some sense the lord of all he surveys. The image is Romantic with a capital “R” and might have come straight out of Byron; but we are the heirs of these Romantic attitudes toward nature.
Today we not only climb mountains to stand above the world, we even “buy” views, spending some thousands of dollars more for a house that commands a good view than for an identical house without one. We are the lords of all we survey; we are the masters of nature. This attitude is exemplified even in the mind of the common tourist. Like Friedrich’s “Traveller,” at the viewpoint he also silhouettes himself against the sky, stands in single confrontation with the great unknown world, and dramatizes his domination of it, his (as it were) literally superior position in the hierarchy of being. Perhaps it hardly matters that a mass of fellow tourists share his experience. We are all so used by now to traffic jams and subways and high-rise apartment buildings that we have no difficulty isolating ourselves in a crowd.
It is the meaning of this experience that the environmentalists want to save when they rush to protect a view. The environmentalist sports what he himself believes is a reverence for the natural world in his desire to leave it untouched; but beneath this attitude lies a consciousness of superiority and lordship which contradicts his humility. In the view, man puts nature at a distance. It becomes not the environment in which he lives and has his being but an object, an Other. It stands out there apart from him, and he does not belong to its order and is not subject to its authority. He owns it, he is its master.
The same attitude informs the industrialist’s conception of nature as a resource to be used for the economic benefit of man. The industrialist and the environmentalist are brothers under the skin; they differ merely as to the best use the natural world ought to be put to. For the environmentalist, the best use is “appreciation”; to the industrialist it is that other sort of exploitation known as economic. Both assume that nature is the passive instrument of our own comfort and delectation, that nature was created for our benefit. Both assume that nature is only something meant for use.
It is not my purpose here to attempt something so grand as a redefinition of our relationship to the natural world. I am myself, after all, deeply implicated in these attitudes. I love views as much as any man; I have been high on Mt. Rainer, seen Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens climbing magnificently out of the clouds twenty, thirty, and forty miles away and been struck dumb by the immense beauty, the glory of the scene; I have been on numerous other mountains, too, in search of views, and have driven, a common tourist, from viewpoint to viewpoint in the national parks. The love of views is a disease with me. Who am I to say that this love is ambiguous?
Yet it is precisely this ambiguity which has put the survival of nature, and ourselves as part of nature, in doubt. A view is an isolated—one might say a “framed”—piece of the world, a place we set apart as having special aesthetic or “primitive” qualities that ought to be preserved. To think of the world in this way, as being divided into views and non-views, picture and background, allows us to ignore what we are doing to the world as a whole. Colorado is joined to Kansas; the world is everywhere continuous. All over America land of no aesthetic distinction whatsoever, having no value as a view, is being given over to shopping centers, parking lots, housing developments, industrial parks; to unplanned, indiscriminate, thoughtless use. We gobble up land as if land were limitless. We have no real respect for land or for nature; if it is not beautiful, not obviously “scenic,” we display little or no interest in what happens to it.
What we need to preserve are not particular gorgeous views but the world in its interdependency and continuity. We must come to understand that we are not transcendent beings, the lords and masters of creation, but natural beings, as much products of the world as maples or grasshoppers or coal, and as much subject to its laws. The world is one; part is intimately, inseparably related to part. We could never have made anything so complicated, so well-balanced, so lovely. All we have the unfortunate power to do is to destroy it. It contributes little to the preservation of the world and nothing to our respect for it to concentrate our environmentalist love on places like Death Valley or Bryce Canyon, however inspiring or beautiful they may be. What we might better work on are our own ambiguous attitudes, which remain the ultimate source of all threats to the environment. □