The Walt Disney movie Bambi, one of the best-known films of all time, is more than a treacly childrens fable. The tale of Bambi and Thumper is also a parable about habitat destruction, as seen through the eyes of various furry critters. One of the movies dramatic high points comes in a scene which I still recall vividly from the first time I saw it at age seven. All the animals are grazing peacefully in a meadow at the forest’s edge when the soundtrack shifts to ominous tones. Suddenly the creatures scatter in every direction, and after several harrowing moments of chaos and confusion, Bambi finds his way back to his mother. Shaken, he asks her what happened. In a grave voice she responds: “Man was in the forest.”
This one line, spoken by a cartoon doe and absorbed by generations of children, epitomizes much that is wrongheaded and dangerous in North American environmentalist thought. “Man was in the forest” signifies, to Bambi and to the audience, that the mere presence of humans in a natural landscape is threatening and dangerous. The message this sends, the ideology it projects, is that human interaction with the natural world is by definition destructive. In much more subtle and sophisticated forms, this same notion animates an alarmingly large proportion of contemporary environmental activists. People as such are bad for animals and ecosystems alike.
Aside from revealing a thoroughly Disneyan contempt for historical and social specificity, this view is literally ecologically hopeless: the only choice it leaves us is despair. This view means that stemming and reversing the environmental crisis, and undertaking an ecological reconstruction of the devastation that “Man” has wrought, are simply impossible. If humans are per se hazardous to the earth, there is no point in trying to reshape societal structures or change environmental practices; habitat destruction, species loss, and a poisoned planet are just inevitable as long as we’re around.
Unfortunately, such misguided attitudes often reach their peak in the crucial issue of wilderness defense. Many environmentalists most active and militant in this arena—an immensely important one for the radical ecology movement as a whole—are inclined to portray wilderness as those regions that are untouched by human impact of any sort. In keeping with the patriarchal terminology of “Man’s” inevitable destructiveness, the notion of “virgin forests” propagates the false idea that the remaining large tracts of old-growth trees have reached their supposedly pristine state without any human influence, and that the best way to protect such areas is to reduce or eliminate all forms of human contact with them.
This perspective is not just historically naive; it also surreptitiously endorses the imperialist view of the North American continent put forth by the European conquerors. For these grand forests that today appear as wilderness were, of course, populated for millennia by indigenous peoples who left their mark in myriad ways on the landscape. In fact, the symbiotic relationships established between indigenous communities and the woodlands they lived in often enhanced, rather than detracted from, biodiversity. Far from representing some mythical untouched terrain, remaining old-growth forests should properly be seen as the product of particular human influences. (Of course, there are also many historical examples of indigenous practices that had dire environmental effects; the romantic image of native peoples as ecological saints is yet another, equally racist, myth.)
If we want to avoid this sort of historical ignorance, radical ecologists need to resist the tempting simplifications of Disney Ecology. In our engagement within environmental movements, in social struggles of various sorts, and in interactions with our coworkers and neighbors, we can offer an alternative to the ideology of humans-as-cancer. Social ecology’s insistence on the societal roots of environmental disruption, and the vision of social and ecological reconstruction it upholds, point to a fundamentally different way of understanding the ecological crisis and our possible reactions to it. Building on social ecology’s insights, radical environmental activists can help to create and promote a coherent alternative to Disney Ecology: an ecological humanism.
This won’t be a simple task, but it is a vitally important one. Several decades ago, when I first saw Bambi, the goal of environmentalists was to convince people of the seriousness, indeed the reality, of the ecological crisis. That struggle, of course, has not been definitively won, but it has shifted into a new phase. The challenge we face today is to formulate an appropriate analysis of and response to this crisis—one that is radical, emancipatory, and sustainable. Social ecology offers us the critical tools to help meet that challenge in the years to come.