Should environmentalism promote pristine wilderness or more urban parks?

Debates over the legacy of John Muir pose an interesting question for environmentalists: to support pristine wilderness or more urban parks?

Christensen and others see Muir’s beliefs as antiquated in the face of 21st century environmental challenges that the bushy-bearded Scot could not have imagined: population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts, climate change.

The debate boils down to Muir’s primary ethic: The wilderness is a temple to be left undisturbed, so man occasionally can experience nature in its purity. That precept helped shape a century of conservation, ensuring that there would be unspoiled wilderness for succeeding generations…

To Christensen and others, however, Muir’s notion that immersing people in “universities of the wilderness” — such as Yosemite — sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces…

Critics also see a correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir’s writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations — mainly aging, white Americans.

The Sierra Club, which Muir founded, and the Audubon Society are struggling to connect with California’s diverse population, particularly Latinos, who polls show are among the most devoted environmentalists in the state. A strong and diverse membership in California, where Latinos are expected to become a majority by 2050, is important to influencing political decisions and raising funds to support missions of conservation and environmental education.

Interesting issue. A few thoughts:

1. One could argue that there really aren’t many natural places completely undisturbed by human activity. Even the supposed “pristine wilderness” of the New World discovered by Europeans was really land that had been cultivated and altered by people for a long time.

2. The majority of people in the United States and in many countries now live in urbanized areas where they may have little time or resources for “pristine nature.” But, urban nature is a very human-altered form: for example, the design of Central Park in New York City is very intentional with its rock formations, water features, and set of paths and pedestrian areas (let alone space for vehicles and large buildings).