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Technology compromises the wilderness experience

This is an excerpt from Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming by Bruce Martin & Mark Wagstaff.

Does technology compromise the wilderness experience?



The Growth of Technology and the End of Wilderness Experience

Howard T. Welser, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, United States


Between 1993 and 1998, my climbing friends and I would spend the month of January bouldering and camping at Hueco Tanks State Park near El Paso, Texas. The warm sun, brilliant problems, supportive climbing culture, and stark desert beauty brought us back. Every year, more climbers made the pilgrimage, inspired by advances in bouldering pad technology, the rapid expansion of indoor climbing gyms, and promotion of the bouldering scene in the popular climbing press. These technological developments helped spur the growth of a worldwide bouldering community, which increased demand for more bouldering, which spurred even more development of technology. Eventually, campsites were always full, the water supply started to dry up, portable toilets overflowed, litter proliferated, and vegetation was trampled. The overuse led the state park to sharply restrict the access of all users, and the locust swarm of winter bouldering shifted elsewhere.


Of course, Hueco Tanks State Park was not a wilderness area, nor were the climbers interested in wilderness experience per se. Climbers came to boulder and camped for comfort in the improved sites with electric space heaters, espresso machines, and automatic bread makers. The wilderness sensibilities of the climbers ranged from urban punk rockers to professional outdoor leaders, and most were appreciative of the natural world. Despite a general desire among climbers to minimize the negative effects of climbing in the park, the collective effect of the uncoordinated actions of all led to crowding, degradation of the resource from overuse, and an inescapable awareness of the presence and impact of people in the natural environment. Beyond the park, suburban El Paso encroached, lowering the aquifer and increasing the desertification of the surrounding plains. In the popular media, photo essays and stories continued to trumpet the virtues of Hueco bouldering even as access was sharply curtailed. The popularity experiment at Hueco Tanks does not simply represent problems of overuse in recreation areas. It highlights how our actions can be unintentionally detrimental to recreation and wilderness and how technology used inside and outside of wilderness spaces can accelerate those losses.


The Hueco Tanks bouldering example is a small part of a much larger trend. In large and small ways, technological development is leading to the unintended yet inevitable degradation of wilderness spaces and the demise of the potential for wilderness experience on Earth. To the extent that technological development continues unabated, this progress will eventually result in the extinction of wilderness spaces and the loss of our collective capacity to enjoy the aesthetic and practical dimensions of wilderness experience. The degradation of our collective capacity for wilderness is a particular example of a large class of situations characterized as “tragedies of the commons” (Hardin, 1968). Such tragedies involve people pursuing individually reasonable courses of action that inadvertently and inexorably lead to negative collective outcomes. The tragic dimension of the phenomenon is that although we might be aware of the negative collective implication, we are unable to prevent it (Kollock, 1998). Use of common pool resources does not always entail tragic ends (Manning, 2005; Ostrom et al., 1999). However, the challenges of preserving wilderness spaces are especially daunting.


This argument highlights four inherent conflicts between the progressive development of technology and the individual and collective capacity for wilderness experience:

1. Nonrecreational technological development is increasing the potential for high-impact instrumental use of wilderness spaces.

2. Technology used in recreation has the potential to expand the range, intensity, and scope of recreational uses.

3. In the larger society, the development of social media and increased communication technology is driving increased interest in and use of unusual wilderness destinations.

4. The increasingly unavoidable use of and access to mobile communication technology in wilderness recreation undermines core dimensions of the wilderness experience.


Defining Wilderness

Wilderness has both practical and aesthetic dimensions. On a practical level, wilderness spaces can be defined as geographic contexts where the processes, conditions, and organisms of the natural world predominate and where the infrastructure, alterations, and organizations of human society are absent or severely minimized. Recreation in wilderness implies reliance on the self for basic needs—food, shelter, and safety—because the external systems we rely on in civilization are largely absent in wilderness. The Antarctic Treaty System (since 1959; Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, 2011) and the Wilderness Act of 1964 contribute notions that wilderness should be untrammeled, that instrumental uses should be curtailed, and that permanent human constructions should be minimized. Although treaties and acts such as these helped establish guidelines for the defense and maintenance of wilderness in a practical sense, they also reinforce the notion that the aesthetic dimensions of wilderness should be valued. Contemporary organizations such as the Wild Foundation advocate for practical and aesthetic values of wilderness as well as the notion that wilderness spaces should be biologically intact (Wild Foundation, 2011). This notion reflects that the survival of the ecological living systems is a value that takes priority.


Somewhat in contrast to that notion, advocates of wilderness recreation are more focused on the impact of human actions on human users of wild spaces. This focus results largely from considering how aesthetic arguments relate to recreation in the wilderness experience (Nash, 1967). Notably, Aldo Leopold (1949) offers several justifications for wilderness, two of which are especially relevant to the aesthetic dimensions of wilderness recreation: recreation in wilderness opens our historical imaginations by giving us a sense of what things used to be like, and, contextually, the physical reality of the wilderness gives us a sense of perspective that transcends the limitations of our current social world. By contrasting with business as usual, wilderness space offers an external perspective on the social reality of civilization, our cultural heritage, our place in the universe, and the potential for a higher purpose. The sense of distance from our historical moment and our social world is a key source of the aesthetic dimension or art (Marcuse, 1978) and potentially of wilderness recreation. One key virtue of that aesthetic dimension is the capacity to view our everyday lives from the outside and develop an independent set of values.


One of the best contemporary examples of extensive wilderness space is Antarctica. The majority of the continent remains unimproved by infrastructure, alterations, or social organizations. In wilderness such as the Antarctic, the conditions and influences of the natural world predominate. The Antarctic Treaty attempts to maintain this condition through prohibiting military, extractive, and proprietary ownership claims and valorizing peaceful and scientific uses while extending environmental protections. The reliance on a treaty to enforce the wilderness state of Antarctica and to restrain parties from unilateral exploitation demonstrates some of the difficulty inherent in maintaining wilderness in general. Without the imposition of formal agreements, social actors tend to use spaces for purposes that undermine the wilderness attributes. Many extant wilderness spaces are also formally designated wilderness areas that prohibit substantial human alteration, restrict the use of particular tools, and limit access.


What are the defining attributes of wilderness experience in outdoor recreation? If a geographic space lacks infrastructure, alterations, and organizations of society, wilderness users will not have access to the advantages those resources normally provide. As wilderness users, we must either forgo or be prepared to provide our own medical care, food, shelter, and security. The act of entering a wilderness space for recreation then entails, to varying extents, both a practical reality of self-reliance and a subjective awareness of the need for such self-reliance. It also entails an aesthetic dimension where we recognize and reflect on the relative absence of human infrastructure, alterations, and organizations. For instance, a telephone booth in the wilderness damages the wilderness experience of hikers on three of these dimensions: it robs us of the necessity for self-reliance, it prevents us from experiencing our connection to “how it used to be,” and it intrudes on the aesthetic of wilderness, which is defined partly by the absence of such alterations (figure 10.1).


Lasting Evidence of Instrumental Uses

Technological development increases incentives for instrumental use of remaining wilderness spaces. Numerous social and corporate actors have strong material interests that motivate them to use wilderness spaces in ways that can seriously compromise the practical and symbolic attributes of existing wilderness spaces. Advances in technologies of resource extraction, communication, energy generation, travel, agriculture, and development will increase the pressure to open more of the landscape to high-impact, instrumental uses.


The aesthetic dimensions of wilderness experience are susceptible to spoilage due to prominent signs of human impact and alteration. For example, not only do oil-covered beaches degrade the environment, they can signify the conflict between the instrumental use of technology for private gain and risk of public loss. Unlike crowding, which can abate, spoilage in the forms of visible infrastructure, waste, and destruction of natural terrain can have long-lasting effects.

The potential for spoilage derives from the meaning of wilderness experience. To the extent that we value aesthetic dimensions that connect us to the historical absence of human impact and that connect us to the capacity to feel nature without the intervention of the impacts of civilization, wilderness experience will remain an extremely fragile type of public good.


The tragic oil spill in Prince William Sound presents a lasting reminder that the largest and most serious technological threats to the preservation of wilderness spaces and to our capacity for wilderness experience come from social actors who do not share wilderness values (figure 10.2). The expansion of human infrastructure and the effects of resource extraction, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation indelibly touch an increasing portion of the globe every year. Increases in technology expand the reach and impact of these endeavors. For instance, on the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico, more than 3,800 oil-drilling platforms are currently active, and many operate in conditions that were technologically prohibitive in earlier decades (see Boland, 2006). Each platform brings immediate localized impacts as well as potential for much broader degradations to the environment. Green power, derived from the wind, rivers, or tides, is not impact-free: technological advance and profit motives bring extensive infrastructure that invades view-sheds and natural systems.


The geographic area that lacks substantial infrastructure, usage, or impacts is constantly decreasing. Technology exaggerates the loss of wilderness space in both a direct sense and an indirect sense in that technology enables population growth and encourages further uses. Organizations apply pressure to open access to wilderness spaces in order to further their interests. The geographic area that combines all formal wilderness areas and informal wilderness spaces represents the maximum size of future wilderness space; this area is likely to continuously shrink as organizations compete for increasingly rare opportunities in our finite world. Even formally designated wilderness areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, remain under constant threat of being opened to uses that would bring significant practical and symbolic degradations. Other areas, such as the Everglades, are subject to the inadvertent effects of agriculture and water uses in adjacent territory, which degrade the wilderness attributes of the protected area.


Learn more about Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming.