Roderick Nash, Ph. D.
Professer and director, environmental studies program
"Earth is not threatened as in the age of the dinosaurs by an errant asteroid, a death star. Now, we are the death star, but we could change its course."
By Roderick R. Nash, Ph. D.
A presentation to the Simon Fraser Institute for the Humanities, Oct. 16, 2008
"What we call wildness is a civilization other than our own." Henry David Thoreau (1859)
"Darwin's dice have rolled badly for Earth." Edward O. Wilson (1998)
"The beauty of Island Civilization is that it permits humans to fulfill their evolutionary potential without compromising or eliminating the oppotunity of other species doing the same." Roderick Nash (2001)
The new, third millennium we are just entering affords an excellent opportunity to think big about about the history and future of wilderness and civilization on planet Earth. Of course a millennium is an entirely synthetic (as opposed to astronomical) concept. Measuring time in thousand-year units only began in 1582 when Christian officials arbitrarily fixed a date for the birth of Christ. So there was nothing special about December 31, 999; it wasn't even recognized as the end of the first millennium. But we made a big deal about the end of the second one a thousand years later on December 31, 1999. Here was an opportunity to transcend our species' characteristic myopia. Rarely do humans make plans more than a couple of years in advance. And we don't do history very well either. It's a safe bet that you can't name two of your eight great-grandparents. Right? Similarly, we don't often think in the wider angles that encompass our species as a whole.
So my mission here is to review the history of human-nature relations and to extend our concern to the big picture. What could the human tenure on Earth be like a thousand years from now--at the start of the Fourth Millennium? My proposal involves some really major changes and will be controversial. At first glance you may think Island Civilization is crazy and impossible. But not so fast, my friends; don't stop with criticism. The whole purpose of this essay is to put forward for discussion a strategy for occupation of this planet that will work in the very long run and for all the natural world. This is simply the greatest challenge facing our species, and, in a sense, facing evolution on Earth. If you disagree with some or all of my vision, create your own. Particularly, if you think staying the present course is the way to go, put forward your evidence and reasoning. The essential thing is that we occasionally lift our eyes from everyday details and five-year plans to the far horizons of planetary possibility. Having such a goal is a vital first step to solving problems. Without it we lack direction and the means to evaluate options as they come into focus.
As a starting point let's consider wilderness. It's a state of mind, a perception, rather than a geographical reality, and prior to the advent of herding and agriculture about 10,000 years before the present, it didn't exist. But after we began to draw mental lines between ourselves and nature, and to place walls and fences on the land, the idea of controlled versus uncontrolled environments acquired meaning. The root of the word "wilderness" in Old English was something that had its own will. The adjective that came to be used was "wild." For example, wildfire, wild (undammed) rivers, wildcats. You can't herd them! The other important part of the word, "ness," indicates a condition or place. So "wilderness" literally means self-willed land, a place where wild (undomesticated) animals roam and where natural processes proceed unincumbered by human interference.
Lost in the celebration of westward expansion, however, was the possible irony in the process. When does success in too great a dose produce failure? We always thought of growth as synonymous with progress, but maybe bigger is not better if it creates a civilization that is unsustainable. Maybe what really needs to be conquered is not wilderness but rather our technological, capitalist-driven culture in its cancer-like tendency to self-destruct.
As the 20th Century began a scarcity theory of value began to rehape the relative importance of wilderness and civilization in the United States. It explains the national angst over the ending of the frontier. Attitude toward wilderness was passing over a tipping point from liability to asset. Of course the pioneers did not go camping for fun! Wilderness appreciation, and later preservation, began in the cities where wild country was perceived as a relative novelty and substantially less threatening.
In essays written in the 1920s and 1930s, and particularly in his book A Sand County Almanac (1949) wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold became the major American articulator of what he called "the land ethic." It is significant that wilderness preservation was one of Leopold's highest priorities. It constituted, Leopold argued, "an act of national contrition" on the part of a species notorious for "biotic arrogance." In the 1960s the emergence of Leopold's book as a best-seller, along with the popularity of ecologist Rachel Carson, particularly her Silent Spring (1962), evidenced a changing American attitude toward nature. "Conservation," around as a term since 1907, had been been strictly utilitarian in its emphasis on national strength and prosperity. "Preservation," which John Muir favored, implied human benefit from uncontrolled and unutilized environments. A new l960s word, "environmentalism," took a broader view of utility, gave rise to the term "pollution" (which impacts many species), and added momentum to the idea of the rights of nature. Theologians and philosophers joined environmentalists in arguing that the nation's natural rights tradition, which had extended the moral community in the past to include black people, natives and women, should now turn to the task of liberating another oppressed minority: nature. The phrase "deep ecology" appeared in l973 to describe a belief in the right of every life form to function normally in a shared ecosystem. Some philosophers extended their application of natural rights to land forms like rivers and mountains and to ecosystems.
There is a third scenario that has captured the imagination of some thoughtful environmental philosophers. It might be called the future primitive . It involves writing off technological civilization as a 10,000 year bad experiment. Either by choice or necessity small numbers of humans resume the kind of hunter and gatherer existence that indeed worked quite well for our species for millions of years. But the downside is that the extraordinary achievements and breath-taking potential of civilization are lost. A better goal, I feel, is Henry David Thoreau's who wished "to secure all the advantages" of civilization "without suffering any of the disadvantages." Don't humans have as much right to fulfill their evolutionary potential as other species? The vital proviso is that in so doing we don't compromise or eliminate the opportunity of other members of the biotic community to fulfill theirs. This means not discarding technology but using it responsibly.
The fourth scenario for the Fourth Millennium I call Island Civilization. It's a vision, a dream, if you prefer, like Martin Luther King's, and it means clustering on a planetary scale. Boundaries are drawn around the human presense not around wilderness. Advanced technology permits humans to reduce their environmental impact. For the first time in human history, better tools mean peace rather than war with nature. Of course Island Civilization means the end of the idea of integrating our civilization into nature. The divorce that began with herding and agriculture is final! Since we proved clever enought to create our environment, rather than adapt to what nature provided, we've taken that option to the logical extreme. We impact only a tiny part of the planet. The rest is self-willed. The matrix is wild not civilized.
Of course a change like this one involves compromises with human freedom. On a finite planet, shared with millions of other species, only limited numbers of humans can enjoy unlimited opportunities. The first step toward Island Civilization is to check population growth and turn it back to a total of about 1.5 billion or a quarter of the present level. Of course this can be done! Here's one problem for which we know the cause and the solution. It's the motivation that is thus far lacking. A new, expanded earth ethic and plain fear about the crash of a bloated species might change things around. The essential first step is to put nature above people: Earth First! As it is humans increase and multiply at the rate of 10,000 per hour, a rate that wipes out any gains friends of wildlife and wilderness try to make today. Limiting (either politically and ethically or biologically with an chip implanted at birth) every woman to the use of one egg for reproduction would in a century bring things back into the balance Island Civilization demands. Do the math! Two people have one descendant. We could reach that l.5 billion level in a century. Want a bigger family? Then buy a reproductive right from a woman with no birth expectations.
Exciting as the possibilities are for this new way for humans to live, it is what's outside the islands (or more clearly what is not outside them!) that is especially compelling. Sprawl is over; the human presense has imploded. Fences are down. Dams are gone. Roads, railroads, pipelines, telephone lines, ocean-going ships indeed all terrestrial forms of transportation will be unnecessary in a millennium. I'm counting on amazing new technology to make all this possible. Nuclear fusion may be just the tip of the new technological iceberg. Science fiction? Well, consider what was said about television and computers a century ago. And the pace of technological change is accelerating dramatically. Of course I can't prove marvels such as transportation by teleportation will exist in a thousand years, but by the same token you can't deny they won't. Turn our best minds loose on the technological challenges of Island Civilization (rather than repairing the old, dead-end paths) and miracles will happen. It is not necesary to go back to the Pleistocene to live with a low ecological impact. Technology is essentially neutral; it's what we do with it that is the problem. So why not expand our ethics, end mind pollution and take the high tech road to minimal impact., And start right now protecting what we want to coexist with for the long haul. The result could be the conservation biology dream. The frontier reappears, and this time it is permanent. Rivers are full of salmon and the deer and antelope play on the plains, but we don't need to hunt them any more. The big predators are back too and, without human interference, perhaps evolving into some of the Pleistocene megafauna we never got to know. As we were before herding and agriculture, humans in the year 4000 are once again good neighbors in the ecological community. Homo sapiens is healthy and enjoying its version of liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and so are all the other components of the natural world.
But what, the question frequently arises, are your options if you don't want to live on densely-populated islands in a matrix of wilderness? The short response is that if you wanted to live a technological lifestyle in 4000 you wouldn't have a choice. According to the terms of a new, ecological contract, we'd surrender some freedoms like herding cows on the open range or living in a sprawling ski resort. (If you wanted to ski you'd chose to live on the island built into, say, part of the Alps.) But you could leave the islands to enjoy minimum-impact vacations in high-quality wilderness. You could even live out there for a while or forever. The condition is that you'd have to do it in wilderness conditions. That means a resumption of the old nomadic, pre-pastoral ways. No settling down, no towns and walls, not even cottages in the woods.. We would have finally learned what the l964 Wilderness Act meant about people being " visitors" who do not remain in someone else's home. Perhaps humans of the distant future could choose on a seasonal basis between ways of life centered on computers or campfires. And young people of that society might be required to take a two-year mission into the wild. Completely out of contact with the civilized islands, they would learn the old hunting/gathering ways and the old land ethics. Here is where we do go back to the Pleistocene! Is it possible people could support themselves out there for that long, living off the land? The answer is of course they could, considering that the healthy land and sea that nourished their ancestors was back again.
I have long been a supporter of the wilderness preservation movement and, more recently, of conservation biology and the rewilding idea. But it seems increasingly evident that the admirable scientists, philosophers and public servants involved in these efforts shy away from the full implications of their own ideas. Worrying about fragmentation of wildlife habitat, they neglect the option of fragmenting us! Trying to create connections between wild islands, they pass up the possibility of making civilization an island on a wild Earth. It is hard for me to see the important goals of conservation biologists for the self-willed components of this planet being realized without a major restructuring of human lifestyles and expectations. Island Civilization may not be the only answer to the big questions hanging over our species, but you can't deny it is an answer.
So we stand at a crossroads not merely of human history but of the entire evolutionary process. Life evolved from stardust, water and fire over billions of years until one clever species developed the capacity to bring down the whole biological miracle. But amidst the fear associated with this reality of a sinking ark, there is one comfort. Earth is not threatened as in the age of the dinosaurs by an errant asteroid, a death star. Now, we are the death star, but we could change its course.
Imagine, in conclusion, this planet, in the desperate frame of mind contemporary conditions warrant, sending a "personals" advertisement out into interstellar space:.
TEMPERATE BUT ENDANGERED PLANET
Well, maybe it could still be us! Maybe biocentric ethics and reverence for self-willed nature (along with a healthy dose of fear for our future!) could turn us from cancerous to caring. So let's be really sapient apes and respond to this plea. Earth might just be ready to receive a proposal for Island Civilization.
Professor Emeritus of History and Environmental Studies. Chairman, Environmental Studies Program, 1970-1975, 1992-1993. University of California, Santa Barbara.
Contact Roderick Nash, Ph. D.
A national leader in the field of environmental history and management and environmental education, Dr. Nash has a special interest in problems relating to wilderness and its preservation. He played a leading role in Santa Barbara's response to the oil spill of 1969, writing the internationally publicized Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights. In 1970 Dr. Nash led the way in the creation of a problem-oriented, interdisciplinary major called Environmental Studies at UCSB. He chaired the program for five years. Recognized as one of the first and most comprehensive undergraduate programs of its kind, Environmental Studies has graduated more than 3000 students. Roderick Nash is considered America's foremost wilderness historian. Among his ten books and over 150 essays, Professor Roderick Frazier Nash is best known for Wilderness and the American Mind, which has received many reprintings, revised editions, and foreign translations. Dr. Nash, a past Lindbergh Fellow, serves on the editorial boards of the following publications: Journal of Environmental Education, Environmental Review, Journal of American Culture, Environmental Ethics, and Pacific Historical Review. He is associate editor of the International Journal of Wilderness, and teaches on occasion for the Aspen Institute. He has been president of the Wilderness Public Rights Fund and has helped direct the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Yosemite Institute, the American Studies Association, the Southern Utah Wilderness Association. He has served the Rockefeller Foundation as a consultant on global environmental problems. He is presently a member of Harvard University's Committee on the Environment. His lecture "The Meaning of Wilderness and the Rights of Nature," is in wide demand from historical and environmental audiences. Selected Publications: (Organizational affiliations listed for purposes of identification only.)
A national leader in the field of environmental history and management and environmental education, Dr. Nash has a special interest in problems relating to wilderness and its preservation. He played a leading role in Santa Barbara's response to the oil spill of 1969, writing the internationally publicized Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights. In 1970 Dr. Nash led the way in the creation of a problem-oriented, interdisciplinary major called Environmental Studies at UCSB. He chaired the program for five years. Recognized as one of the first and most comprehensive undergraduate programs of its kind, Environmental Studies has graduated more than 3000 students.
Roderick Nash is considered America's foremost wilderness historian. Among his ten books and over 150 essays, Professor Roderick Frazier Nash is best known for Wilderness and the American Mind, which has received many reprintings, revised editions, and foreign translations.
Dr. Nash, a past Lindbergh Fellow, serves on the editorial boards of the following publications: Journal of Environmental Education, Environmental Review, Journal of American Culture, Environmental Ethics, and Pacific Historical Review. He is associate editor of the International Journal of Wilderness, and teaches on occasion for the Aspen Institute. He has been president of the Wilderness Public Rights Fund and has helped direct the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Yosemite Institute, the American Studies Association, the Southern Utah Wilderness Association. He has served the Rockefeller Foundation as a consultant on global environmental problems. He is presently a member of Harvard University's Committee on the Environment.
His lecture "The Meaning of Wilderness and the Rights of Nature," is in wide demand from historical and environmental audiences.
(Organizational affiliations listed for purposes of identification only.)