Wilderness in the Anthropocene: What Future for its Untrammeled Wildness?
By Roger Kaye
My aim in addressing this question is three-fold: First to stimulate your thinking about the future of Wilderness in the next century of the Anthropocene. Second, to alert you to the “dilemma of wilderness stewardship” that confronts us. Third to convince you that we should take steps, now, to protect the most essential and most threatened quality of Wilderness—its untrammeled wildness.
Let’s begin with the Anthropocene. Atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen co-coined the term and has done the most to promote it. He and other Earth-system scientists proposed the Anthropocene to describe a new epoch wherein “Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita.” In this emerging epoch of Earth history, human activities have become a dominant, disturbing, and destabilizing force upon the entire Earth system.
Every year more of the Earth’s surface is modified to serve human purposes. More of the chemical, biological, and thermal properties of its atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and ecosphere are being pushed outside their historic range. Many Earth system scientists believe the rate of environmental and technological change is accelerating exponentially.
The Anthropocene was intended to both describe this emerging Earth state and prescribe a stewardship approach to it. While it’s scientific term offering a name for the totality of human-Earth interactions, the Anthropocene also challenges us to rethink our current conservation paradigm, our role in the biosphere, and our long-standing, but increasingly problematic notion of nature.
Already in the Early Anthropocene, we are part of a post-natural world in which anthropogenic and “natural” effects on the Earth system are ever more intertwined and inseparable, evolving ever more synergistically with humans. A post-natural world? It’s hard to accept. But our footprint is everywhere and expanding. There is no longer any nature separate from us. On this increasingly hybrid planet, the venerable distinction between what’s natural and what’s human becomes less and less viable.
Then try to imagine the future of “nature” in the next century of the Anthropocene, 2100. Imagine our continuing ecological effects coalescing with designer ecosystems, assisted evolution, synthetic biology, geoengineering, and who-knows-what. What will be the “new natural” on this ever-more altered, manipulated, and managed planet?
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge first confronted me with the Anthropocene and this troublesome issue of naturalness. I first visited this landscape on a hunting trip 41 years ago and have worked on it for the last 33 years as a U.S Fish and Wildlife Service planner, pilot, and wilderness specialist. Renowned as the Last Great Wilderness, the Refuge is widely regarded as the nation’s archetypal natural area. Since the Refuge was first established in 1960, it has been the agency’s mission, and it became my mission, to keep it this way. Keep out developments and harmful uses and it will always be natural—so we had long thought.
However, five years ago, as the Refuge’s scientists began to summarize observed and predicted changes for a conservation plan for the Refuge’s future, reality took hold. They documented the many impacts of human-caused global-scale change, ranging from glaciers melting away to shrinking coastal ice and polar bear habitat. More alarming were the projected changes: thawing permafrost, eroding shorelines, shifts in the range and composition of both plant and animal communities, decline in wetlands and soil moisture, changes in water temperature, chemistry and alkalinity, increased fire frequency and intensity, more likelihood of invasives and pathogens—the list goes on.
This is the best science, the most likely future, I had to accept, of the Arctic Refuge.
This iconic landscape now confronts us with previously unimaginable Anthropocene questions. Questions like, how long will we be able to consider this preeminent wilderness “natural” by the common meaning of natural—that is, not shaped by or substantially changed by human activities?
The Anthropocene fact is this: All wilderness areas will continue to become less and less natural. (Though because global scale effects are amplified in the Arctic, change is coming faster to the Refuge.) This loss of naturalness has led to what is now recognized as “the dilemma of wilderness stewardship.” Should we intervene in wilderness to try to maintain or restore natural historic conditions? Or should we just allow wilderness ecosystems to adapt and evolve as they will? If the latter, we would need to accept, as one example, that some of our preferred species may be extirpated and eventually replaced by others more suited to the changing conditions.
Interventions and restoration efforts efforts include manipulating vegetation, suppressing or managing wildfires, removing or introducing wildlife, and modifying the flow or chemistry of water. A recent study of US Wilderness Areas showed that already, 37% of Wilderness units engaged in such management interventions in response to global-scale change. On the horizon are proposals for assisted migration and genetic engineering of plant and wildlife to enable them to persist in their changing environments. Who knows what will follow? But when considering such actions intended to perpetuate or restore “natural” conditions, we must remember that every intervention, however important the resources or uses it seeks to protect, diminishes an area’s wildness.
What then is wildness? It’s a state wherein the landscape remains free from the human intent to alter, control, or manipulate its components and ecological and evolutionary processes. But it’s not the absence of all human effect: Wildness persists in environments influenced by human factors such as climate change—as long as we refrain from interfering with the ecological system’s autonomous response. So while interventions and restoration actions are intended to maintain “natural” conditions, that is, the products of evolutionary creativity at one point in time, maintaining wildness is about perpetuating the very process itself. In short, wildness is unfettered evolution.
There were two great milestones in establishing this process as a landscape entity of intrinsic value. One was the campaign to enshrine the wilderness idea in federal law, resulting in the Wilderness Act. The other was to establish a Last Great Wilderness in northern Alaska, resulting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These concurrent and controversial efforts sought to perpetuate wildlife, ecological, scenic, recreational, and spiritual values in the face of the 1950s post-war march of progress.
They were a response to the era’s accelerating loss of natural areas, to destructive logging, mining, and agricultural practices, to pollution and pesticides, and to the awful power and fallout of the Bomb. Ultimately, they were a reaction against what is called the Dominant Western Worldview—the belief in human separateness from and right to dominate nature, a confidence that consumption, growth, and progress can continue as it has, and the assumption that science and technology can solve any environmental problems incidental to progress.
Howard Zahniser and Olaus Murie, co-directors of The Wilderness Society and leaders of both campaigns, were among those beginning to question whether future generations would even inherit the same Earth. They argued that a new ethic was needed to guide human-Earth relations for the changing world.
Foreshadowing Anthropocene thinking, Zahniser and Murie’s writings often placed their advocacy in the larger context of the globe, the planet, the world, the Earth. In fact, at the height of the Arctic Refuge campaign, Murie summarized the controversy over the area’s future as emblematic of “the real problem . . . of what the human species is to do with this earth.”
They were concerned about how we relate to—and know ourselves in relation to—the larger world. This explains why Zahniser, who became the principal author of the Wilderness Act, chose untrammeled as the key word of the Act’s “DEFINITION OF WILDERNESS,” It states “A wilderness is . . . an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . .”
Untrammeled became the main descriptor of designated Wilderness because Zahniser’s intent for the designation went beyond maintaining an area’s natural condition. More important was to respect and perpetuate the freedom of its ecological and evolutionary processes, its wildness. But beyond that, Zahniser hoped that designating some areas for this purpose would serve as a step toward expanding thinking about our role within, as the Wilderness Act says, “the earth and its community of life.”
Untrammeled adds a transcendent dimension to Wilderness because it describes areas that are wild because we have consciously chosen to restrain ourselves and our will to subdue and dominate. At heart, untrammeled is the inter-relational dimension of Wilderness. More than what is kept alive in wild places is also something of ourselves—a way of relating to the larger world and its other inhabitants, and a way of being when we find it within ourselves to allow some of it this freedom from our willfulness.
Untrammeled wildness is a manifestation of respect for the autonomous creativity of unwilled processes, and a relationship to those timeless forces that formed and shaped—and connect—our species, all species, all the Earth. It’s a relationship of deference to an area’s non-anthropocentric reason for being, a recognition of its intrinsic value. It’s a measure of that better part of us that still holds reverence for something outside human utility and desires.
Thus, the deeper purpose of wilderness, as historian Roderick Nash summarizes it, was to serve as “an important symbol of a revolutionary new way of thinking about man’s relationship to the earth.” And today, the Anthropocene has become a symbol of revolutionary thinking, reminding us that, as the Earth system scientist Paul Crutzen emphasizes, “We must change the way we perceive ourselves and our role in the world.” These insights from the past and of the future speak to the need to question the assumptions underlying the human hubris and willfulness of the Dominant Western Worldview now enveloping the planet as thoroughly as its changing atmosphere.
Perhaps perpetuating some areas of untrammeled wilderness as the far end of the spectrum of human-Earth relations will be part of the legacy we leave. If so, we need to address that dilemma of wilderness stewardship.
I have reluctantly, grudgingly, come to the conclusion that in the disconcerting non-analogue future we face, the trend toward more intervention in Wilderness—and loss of wildness—will continue. As more resources within and near the boundary of Wilderness are threatened by change, there will be more calls to take action. I wish it weren’t so, but the entire Wilderness system is not and cannot be practicably maintained in the untrammeled state Zahniser and the other wilderness movement leaders intended. They were visionaries, certainly, but couldn’t have foreseen today’s growing tension between perpetuating wildness and “natural” conditions.
So what should we do? We need to develop a process to identify some Wilderness Areas where limited and temporary interventions may be permissible to maintain desired historic conditions or high-value species. But some areas should be dedicated to untrammeled wildness, designated as strictly hands-off, non-intervention areas. Within them, our role would be as humble guardians, to watch and learn as wilderness systems transition as they will, not according to our will.
Which Wilderness Areas should remain as true hands-off wild areas? Hard decisions and tough tradeoffs will need to be made. They’ll need to be informed by science but made through public process and in consideration of many factors, including probable effects on adjacent lands and the presence of high-value resources or vulnerable species. This approach may be the only viable means to ensure that the multiple values of the untrammeled wild condition are perpetuated in some Wilderness Areas.
But first, if we are to maintain this ineffable, invisible, and immeasurable quality of wilderness, then the reasons for perpetuating untrammeled wildness need to be fairly considered along with the more tangible reasons for intervening and controlling. We must better understand and articulate the functions and values of untrammeled wild areas. For one, untrammeled wild areas can serve the future, as Aldo Leopold espoused, as a scientific laboratory for understanding how ecological systems function, transition, and respond to anthropogenic change when left alone. Thus one of the reasons Murie argued that the Arctic Refuge should be preserved as “a little portion of our planet left alone” was that it would enable us to “see how Nature proceeds with evolutionary processes.”
But as our descendants move further into the terra incognita of the Anthropocene, the potential of untrammeled wild areas to serve as an anchor point may prove even more important. As humanity reshapes its world, it will also reshape itself.
So consider also today’s trends and projections for future humans, now that we are directing our own evolution. Think beyond to when genetic engineering, computer-brain interfaces, artificial super-Intelligence, synthetic neural algorisms, and-who-knows-what will have changed our minds and bodies. Might not the heirs of this Brave New World appreciate inheriting some refugia of wildness? Might they not benefit from some areas whose freedom from human agency provide the ultimate contrast to the dominant value-and-manage-everything-for-us paradigm? Might they not value a few authentic remnants of this Earth? Might they not cherish these areas whose authenticity is not based on some historic or desired condition, but rather grounded in their unbroken connection to the autonomous creativity of their genesis and unfolding?
Areas of untrammeled wildness could become evolutionary heritage sites. Such areas could be like places that, across cultures and throughout history, have been set apart as sacred groves, shrines, monuments, and memorials. They could serve as places to remember and reflect. They could serve to keep in memory conditions and ways of the past that provide insight into our species’s origin, its nature, and how it became as it is. They could serve as an archive and reminder of their co-evolutionary kinship with all lifeforms.
For those who visit, the main values of the “Wilderness Experience” within these monuments to untrammeled wildness may lie in the nowhere-else opportunity they provide for an atavistic, experiential glimpse of the world in which their evolutionary journey began, and to feel the sheer otherness of a place that is there for itself.
As places set apart from human willfulness and hubris, their otherness can serve Zahniser’s hope for enhancing understanding of how these traits have distanced humankind from its sense of dependence on and interdependence with the rest of life. No, we cannot know what ethics or perhaps algorithms might guide our descendants. But untrammeled wild areas will be there—if we are willing—for perspective as they decide what of their culture, genome, and world will be passed on.
And untrammeled wild areas can be there as an encouraging demonstration of our capacity for restraint. They can stand as symbols of the willingness to think outside our utility and beyond our time that is needed to further the emergence of a new planetary sensibility. It is what Zahniser hoped might open us to “a sense of ourselves as a responsible part of a continuing community of life.” It is what he and Murie knew is the essential precondition for entering into a sustainable relationship with this finite and conflicted Earth system we share.
Roger Kaye has worked for the USFWS in Alaska for 41 years, as a planner, pilot, Native liaison and in recent years, as the agency’s Alaska wilderness coordinator. He has a Ph.D from the University of Alaska where he has taught courses on wilderness, environmental psychology, and the Anthropocene. He is the author of Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and numerous journal and popular articles related to wilderness. Currently, he is working on a book considering the future of the wildness of Wilderness in the Anthropocene.