Critical Reflections on Human Rights and the Environment series
Chapter 6: The unowned: the romantic idea of wilderness
Let us turn back now, as I promised, to chapter 3. There I considered some aspects of gardening, and I hope to have shown that the essence of gardening is to claim, or reclaim, a plot of land, to attach it to oneself and make it serve some human purpose, whether utilitarian or aesthetic. It is thus ownership in action; and this is as true of the small plot belonging to a cottage as it is of the rolling parklands that surround a mansion. But alongside the desire to tame and improve nature, and more or less contemporary with that particularly painterly approach to the improvement of property which saw it primarily as something to be looked at, as picturesque, there was a growing and near-contradictory sense that nature is almost sacred, and should as far as possible be left alone. There was a growing belief that the intervention of man to improve nature in fact inevitably despoils it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that alleged progenitor of the French Revolution, became notorious also for the first expression of such ideas. His first publication of them was in his entry for a prize essay competition, in 1754, entitled The Discourse of the Origin of Inequality among Men, in which he attempted to look back to a time when men lived in a state of nature; but he elaborated them far more influentially in his two novels, which achieved huge popularity in pre-revolutionary Paris.
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