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Even as nineteenth-century Americans were cutting forests, damming rivers, and paving roads, leading thinkers were sanctifying nature. Environmental historian William Cronon writes, “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [the wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation”—in particular the creation of nineteenth-century romanticism. “Wilderness fulfills the old romantic project of secularizing Judeo-Christian values so as to make a new cathedral not in some petty human building but in … Nature itself.” That people “who regard themselves as agnostics or even atheists nonetheless express feelings tantamount to religious awe when in the presence of wilderness … testifies to the success of the romantic project.”
Logically, the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea should make every European fortunate enough to live in the European Union (EU) extraordinarily grateful. The kind of geopolitical jockeying, territorial land-grabs, and greater-state fantasies that ruled the day since Charlemagne have no place in EU Europe.
Such acts, so difficult to comprehend, may seem at first sight unworthy of serious consideration. But rushing to this conclusion would be a mistake. It is not only that by dismissing acts of self-sacrifice as unintelligible we disavow a prevalent and influential human phenomenon.