Wilderness and western society: the essential role of myth in a cultural contructivist approach

Wilson, Emma Lucy (2006) Wilderness and western society: the essential role of myth in a cultural contructivist approach. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


The relationship between western culture and nature has historically been one of conflict and domination. Western culture, specifically that which has arisen from Europe and the United States of America, has tended towards a rapacious and destructive approach to the natural world. It has been increasingly exported around the world economically, socially, industrially, and in a western view of nature and wilderness which has been increasingly predominant in the global arena. This study asserts that this worldview is largely responsible for what is clearly by now a global ecological crisis.
Wilderness is the focus of this study as it is identified as being the fundamental basis of our understanding of nature in general. Wilderness is at the boundary of the interaction between humans and non-human nature. It is initially how we dissociated ourselves as social creatures from nature. It is therefore an appropriate framework to use in a discussion of our relationship with the natural world.
This study examines the role that culture has played in constructing our understandings of and behaviour towards wilderness. As culture is highly complex, the search for a singular, universal disposition towards wilderness is inappropriate. The study claims that contemporary theories such as deep ecology, ecofeminism or social ecology do not take into account the full range of cultural influences in their explanation of a global ecological crisis, and that they tend towards the simplistic and prescriptive in their approach to possible solutions. Furthermore, this study claims that they neglect the mythic element of culture, which plays a central role in forming our conceptions of wilderness, and that we must address this mythic element if a more complete understanding of our behaviour is to be reached.
To this end, the study uses the theory of cultural constructivism. A cultural element is essential in addressing the mythic; myth being interpreted as the social explanations of our experience of the natural world. A constructivist approach is equally essential in exploring the foundations of these social explanations.
The case studies in this thesis are the United States and Britain. An examination of wilderness myths in these two countries focuses on artistic representations, including landscape art, literature, and film. A range of responses towards wilderness is identified which has directly affected our modem perceptions of ecological problems. Individual cases are explored that demonstrate the cultural plurality and the complexity evident in the construction of myth. Such complexity means that there are plural cultural influences that affect our responses and guide our decision making processes.
This study claims that the acknowledgement of a cultural plurality and complexity suggested by a cultural constructivist approach has the potential to guide societies towards more measured and inclusive decision making processes. These processes, it is hoped, can more fully recognise the range of considerations we must make, a range that will include the ecological health of the world. The study concludes that only by acknowledging a wider range of influences that include a consideration of the mythic can a more inclusive standpoint be adopted. This is essential to ensure that decision making processes have social and cultural resonance and relevance within their host cultures, and, it is hoped, lead towards ecological sustainability for our collective futures.

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