I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s classic 1996 book Into the Wild. The book chronicles the adventures and eventual demise of Christopher McCandless, a young man who reinvented himself as “Alexander Supertramp” and spent two years wandering the United States before embarking on a final trip into the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless was experimenting with dropping out of society, and part of this experiment was to see if he could live on his own and unaided along a section of Alaska’s Stampede Trail. He survived for over 100 days supplied with only basic outdoor gear, a few pounds of rice, and a low-caliber rifle before eventually succumbing to starvation; his starvation suggests that he was not obtaining adequate nutrition from the wild, but there is also speculation that he inadvertently consumed toxic seeds which precipitated his demise.
Opinions vary greatly on McCandless’ life and eventual fate. At one extreme many people expressed that McCandless essentially “got what he deserved” for failing to educate himself about and respect the power of nature. On the other extreme are those who lionize McCandless for his visionary travels and his attempts to get back in touch with nature. My interest in McCandless is part psychological, part socio-cultural, and part ecological.
Psychologically I find McCandless fascinating. Krakauer’s book does a fabulous job of connecting McCandless’ inspiration and worldview to the writings of Tolstoy, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. What these writers hold in common is a mistrust for society and a vision that humans are happiest when they return to nature. In the works of these writers, wild places are a kind of sanctuary from the baser and meaningless pursuits of civilization: nature is where a man can find himself and be truly happy. This view of nature echos the central tenets of evolutionary psychology, which suggest among other things that humans have evolved and therefore are best matched to live in wild ecosystems. Krakauer depicts McCandless’ frustration with modern civilization and his yearning for the happiness of the wild. Into the Wild has — perhaps ironically — become a cult classic for those who still seek redemption in the wilderness.
What is, of course, ironic about this view of wilderness is that it was the wilderness and McCandless’ inability to eek out a living from it which led to his demise. This reality frames my socio-cultural interest in Into the Wild. A large part of the mythology which drove McCandless into the Alaskan wilderness centered around the idea that humans are mismatched to modern society, and that a man can be happy if he embarks on a journey out of society to live simply off the land. But McCandless’ failure to thrive and survive during the most abundant season provided by his Alaskan paradise points out several problems with his romantic view of nature and oversimplified condemnation of modern society. The first is that society and the culture that it contains are the basis for survival wherever one chooses to live: whether you live in a dense urban center or a remote semi-pristine wilderness, survival requires obtaining the cultural knowledge and social connections needed to thrive in a particular environment. Like many explorers before him who left modern civilization behind in favor of a life in the wild, McCandless arrogantly assumed that he could figure out (perhaps with the aid of a couple of botany books) how to live off of the land. As it turns out, it takes a very deep cultural knowledge to do so; it probably also helps to work cooperatively in a small group of other humans. McCandless’ fundamental distaste for both technological culture and human social communities led him to his own demise. The myth that we can easily survive on the land without the aid of each other or cultural technology is mistaken.
This leads me to the final and perhaps most interesting element of Into the Wild: the view it provides of the current state of our ecosystems and our relation to them. Krakauer makes the point that McCandless actually had to work fairly hard to achieve the wilderness experience he desired, because even in the rather remote area of Alaska he chose to venture into the influence of modern civilization is fairly inescapable. For example, according to Krakauer, McCandless had to conspicuously avoid the use of maps, because a map of the area would have revealed the many resources provided by modern society within only a few miles of his encampment. Back in 1992 McCandless seemed to intuit what ecologists now generally agree is true: there is no more wilderness, as every ecosystem has been profoundly impacted by the activities of human civilizations. Although it is not entirely clear that McCandless died because there was not enough food available to him (he may just have been ignorant of the food that was there), Into the Wild suggests that human impacts may have rendered even the most remote areas unsuitable for subsistence. In our success — most of which has been driven by the ability to domesticate nature via agriculture — we have made it almost impossible to return to living solely off of untended ecosystems. It would be foolish to take McCandless’ solitary story as proof that subsistence living off of untended ecosystems is mostly impossible, but the story is paradigmatic of what might be a larger reality. This is an interest of mine: to answer the question “are there any places on the earth where a person can live solely off of the resources provided by the ecosystem?”. I do not doubt that the answer is “yes” in some places, but how many of these places exist (and how many people they could support) is worth knowing.
I tend to think that humans are so fundamentally cultural and cooperative that errands of the kind undertaken by McCandless are inherently foolish. Into the Wild tells a story that provides anecdotal support for that contention. But like Krakauer I cannot simply boil down Christopher McCandless’ story to one of foolhardy ignorance and hubris: like McCandless, I am curious about whether human beings still retain the ability to walk into the wilderness and survive without the support of material culture and society of modern civilization. Have we evolved (at least culturally and maybe even biologically) so much that we no longer retain the ability to live, animal-like, as our ancestors once did? And have we so profoundly changed ecological systems that they no longer contain the resources sufficient to allow us to subsist? Are we fundamentally dependent on civilization?