What Will The Wilderness Look Like In The Future?

Your imagination is required to think about the future of our wilderness.

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What will wilderness look like in the future? We collected your hopes and fears for the system, and came up with some humble suggestions—plus one truly visionary idea.

  • Tax credits for visiting
  • Change aircraft flight plans to avoid all wilderness areas.
  • Send each American an annual, personal invitation to visit.
  • Forensic testing to catch litterbugs.
  • Change the law so citizens can designate wilderness by referendum.
  • All high school graduates get a wilderness starter kit: backpack, tent, sleeping bag.
  • Route all military surplus gear into a national gear exchange.
  • Reintroduce grizzlies— everywhere.
  • Connect all ecosystems via wildlife corridors.
  • Strictly enforced no-complaining law, especially in regards to temperature, fatigue, and bugs.
  • Push the borders farther back and make it harder to earn your views.
  • Affordable housing in nearby towns.
  • A week of wilderness orientation for all freshmen congresspeople.
  • Eliminate grazing.
  • No cellphone reception.
  • Hammock-only camping zones.
  • Don’t change a thing.

When Wilderness Rules

Keeping it simple, there are two main ways to think about the future of people and nature on Earth. One scenario is the wasteland. A thousand years from now, we end up with a ravaged planet populated by the remnants of a desperate species that has devastated the rest of the ecosystem. Perhaps the Earth has been used up and discarded. A vanguard of humans moves on through the stars in search of new frontiers to plunder. More likely, a nuclear or biological war takes most forms of life down and out.

The garden scenario is the other path. Our species has turned the planet into a bountiful, sustainable garden. Soil fertility is well maintained, and although there are many dams, carefully managed rivers flow clean and pure. Ecological processes, from weather to the creation and evolution of life, are tightly controlled. There are lots and lots of people, and thanks to new technologies, they live everywhere. The only big animals around are those they eat. Wilderness, and the diversity of life it supports, is long gone.

But I have another vision: of a high-tech, low-impact way for humans to occupy Earth—a way that protects wilderness. I call it Island Civilization.

The central idea is implosion. A thousand years from now, humans—hopefully fewer of them—could occupy several hundred concentrated habitats, perhaps 100 miles in diameter. Integrated into each would be closed-circle systems for producing food, water, and energy and for disposing of waste. In a sense they would be spaceships on Earth. The rest of the planet—indeed almost all of it—would be wilderness.

I am confident that we will have the intelligence to make the islands themselves marvelous. Island Civilization puts limits on the extent of the civilization process, not on its quality. Think about the best of our urban environments today and extrapolate way beyond that.

The new way of living would be particularly protective of the wilderness outside the islands. For example, if someone wanted to leave the habitats, he or she would have to accept, not change, wilderness conditions. This person would be, in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964, “a visitor who does not remain.” No settlements, no herds, no mechanized terrestrial transportation beyond bicycles and rowed boats. Perhaps a couple of wilderness years might be worked into the education of young adults as a kind of mission. These visitors would not have to “live off the land” out there, but it’s encouraging to think they could, that the health and diversity of life which sustained our species for millions of years would have returned.

At a time when the environmental movement seems to be against everything, Island Civilization offers something to be for. It opens a future in which humans, finally, can become good neighbors in the ecological neighborhood. It’s a gesture of planetary humility, an admission, finally and thoroughly, that wilderness is important for its own sake. How do we get there? I don’t know. But it starts with a vision. And it starts now.

Roderick Nash, Environmental historian
Adapted from the epilogue of Wilderness and the American Mind, 5th edition by Roderick Frazier Nash. Copyright 2014 by Yale University. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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