Kilometers of highways connect the major cities of the United States with the famous national parks. When you arrive at them, the feeling of having left behind the artificiality of the city to be immersed in ‘nature’ is inevitable. It is difficult to notice, amid the magnificent landscapes, that the 'natural experience' that we live in these places has been as humanly designed as the cities from which we fled; and the deep philosophical implications of this design escape even further from our grasp.
For more than 100 years, under the slogan 'public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of all people', parks like Yosemite in California have been the banner of the conservation movement. The figures of national park or protected area have been praised as one of the most visionary actions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, beyond the concern for nature, the history of these concepts is marked by the characteristic anthropocentrism of modernity.
The history of Yosemite, the first protected area in the world, as we know it today, is directly associated with the gold rush in California and the consequent industrialization and indigenous massacre it caused. Following the discovery of gold on the west coast of the United States, thousands of ambitious Americans moved from one coast to another, crossing the Sierra Nevada, in search of the desired metal. Very soon there were territorial clashes between the natives of the area and the new colonizers. In less than half a century the white man murdered and uprooted thousands of indigenous people from the West until their nations were exterminated. By 1855, Yosemite was already white territory and the fame of its paradisiacal grandeur had been extended to the point of organizing the first tours to the area. That is, the region ceased to be home to become a recreation area.
This tourism venture would become one of the main engines giving value to this area. Furthermore, the attributes of pristinity and natural aesthetics were added to the discourse of those who defended the preservation of this zone against the violent industrialization and resource extraction happening in the west. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln signed an act designating the protection of Yosemite, this was the first time a boundary was traced with the intention of 'protecting' nature. Later, in 1890, John Muir and the group of Sierra Club managed to achieve the status of National Park for the area. Since then, the figure of national parks has been associated both with the concepts of pristine and eternal, as well as of nationalist pride; a recipe that was quickly exported to the rest of the world.
Many national parks around the world share a similar history of indigenous expropriation, colonialism and territorial designation at a governmental level; following exclusively aesthetic criteria for their declaration. It was not until the 1980s that the term 'biodiversity' came to replace the elitist aesthetic perceptions as a foundation and justification for protected areas.
The mad extraction of resources and destruction of lands that the 20th century witnessed turned these protected areas into the last habitats with high concentrations of biodiversity, emphasizing the need for their protection. Faced with the extractive and industrialist reality in which we live, the parks turned out to be, indeed, a visionary action to preserve at least some spaces for the rest of the species (despite its dark history).
Even so, beyond its effectiveness, the heritage of these parks also carries philosophical aspects about the way in which modern humans have organized their relationship with nature in this industrial age. The border that delimits the protected areas is, in a way, symbol of the dualistic limit that has been established between humans and the rest of nature, positioning the former above, as master and administrator of all things. This ethic, however, is being strongly shaken by the current environmental circumstances, which show the undeniable connection between everything that inhabits our planet. The excessive impact of modern human beings in their environment is becoming evident more than ever through the ecosystem feedback, which is reacting in ways that increasingly escape human anticipation.
Given these circumstances, the dualism mentioned above has come under heavy scrutiny by many natural and social scientists. The ethics of tracing lines between human beings and nature as two disconnected and hierarchical entities require some rethinking, such as that already suggested by eco-feminism, deep ecology and even animistic cultures. National parks, as one of the main modern manifestations of the relationship between human beings and nature, should not be the exception to this rethinking. Although for more than a century they have had an undeniable function of safeguarding habitats from industrial destruction, their philosophical foundation still rests on an ethic of division and prioritization of the human elite, which has come at a high cost: fragmentation of ecosystems, exclusion of indigenous peoples and the alienation of the rest of non-human species.
The impact, comfort and expansion to which modern humans have become accustomed has reached even the areas where they pride themselves of 'protecting' nature, leaving indelible traces. For these protected areas to fulfill a unifying role today, they must be re-thought ethically and philosophically as manifestations of a civilization that has not been able to coexist fairly with the rest of the species, but that instead has been based on an alienation of the 'others' (human and non-human) in their own world. The parks are the corners where we have relegated 'nature' while devouring inconsiderately the rest of the planet. In a civilization truly in coexistence with all species, would it be necessary to have such a narrow and abrupt designation of the place for each of them?