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The Trouble with Virtual Wilderness


Soul of the Wilderness
April 2024 | Volume 30, Number 1

In a recent article for IJW, “Virtual Reality and the Movement Toward New Conceptualizations of Wilderness,” Keely Fisher explores the psychological and social implications of virtual reality (VR) wilderness. VR technology allows the user to enter a highly immersive, realistic computer simulation of a natural area while wearing wraparound goggles from the comfort and safety of their living room. Although Fisher does not think that VR wilderness could ever be a perfect replica, she thinks that it is a new way of experiencing wilderness that is likely to change our previous understandings and conceptualizations of it. Fisher cites case studies in which VR users report feelings of awe, wonder, and nature connectedness similar to what people experience in real wilderness, without the danger, physical hardship, or skills that are typically considered constitutive of an authentic wilderness experience. VR wilderness can thus confer the human psychological and mental health benefits of wilderness while also giving previously excluded groups, such as the elderly, disabled, or less financially well-off easier access to the benefits of wilderness. Although Fisher is aware that the very idea of VR wilderness may repulse many wilderness advocates, she regards the psychological and democratizing benefits of VR wilderness as worthy of serious consideration. VR’s experience-sharing capabilities may fundamentally change how people conceptualize wilderness and how they choose to interact with both real wilderness and VR wilderness” (Fisher 2022, p. 41). Fisher concludes that it is “not productive” to treat VR wilderness as a “direct challenge” to wilderness, because doing so “will limit how we think we can connect with wilderness” (Fisher 2022, p. 48).

Although Fisher’s article provides important information about VR technology and its potential implications for wilderness, more discussion is needed on this important topic. Fisher’s take on VR wilderness is, on the whole, positive. I am among those who are repulsed and take a more critical stance: we also need to take seriously the possibility that VR wilderness might distract from and potentially undermine important wilderness values, and even threaten to replace actual, real wilderness. In fact, Fisher’s argument as proposed lends more justification for such replacement than the reverse. I will attempt to show why, and then show how the history of the 20th-century wilderness movement might give us different moral guidance as we confront this new technology.

Virtual Wilderness and Real Wilderness: Blurring the Distinction

A significant problem with the perspective represented by Fisher’s argument is its blurring of the distinction between VR wilderness and actual, real wilderness. This is not a mere nitpick about words but is, in fact, central to any discussion of the potential social impacts of VR wilderness. Although Fisher distinguishes VR wilderness from real wilderness throughout the paper (for example, that the latter requires “physicality” and is “outside”), the thrust of her argument is to play devil’s advocate and leave the distinction open to question. The standard argument, she says, is “that VR wilderness is not a real wilderness, no matter how real it seems. But why is this?” (Fisher 2022, pp. 40, 41). She goes on to say that VR wilderness, despite making no physical demands on the user and being indoors, can “match” characteristics of wilderness such as grandeur and peacefulness, and give the user a sense of being “completely alone with the natural world.” These are modest claims, but she later elides these into stronger claims that wilderness gives one access to wilderness itself. For example (my emphasis added):

It is through this technology that people can access wilderness and natural spaces without ever having to physically enter those areas or, in many cases, even leave their homes. . . . This technology creates a more physically, financially, and temporally accessible wilderness and opens remote spaces to those who without this technology would not be able to access these protected areas. (Fisher 2022, p. 40)

In this passage, “wilderness,” “natural spaces,” “remote spaces,” and “protected areas” are left as freestanding terms without qualifiers such as “albeit second hand” or “albeit virtual,” as occur elsewhere in the article. This seems to suggest that VR gives one “access” to actual – not virtual – wilderness. While it is uncertain whether this blurring is intentional or accidental, it is repeated elsewhere. For example, she writes (my emphasis added):

VR takes the virtual wilderness experience a step further by creating a fully immersive, multi-dimensional trip into a version of the natural world. These capabilities can connect people both to VR wilderness and, importantly, real wilderness. (Fisher 2022, p. 43)

Here we see the elision of an already contestable claim, that VR provides another “version” of the natural world (she also says that a fishing video game is “simply a different way of experiencing nature”) into the much stronger claim that VR can connect people to “real wilderness.” But this seems like a contradiction: as Fisher herself acknowledges, VR wilderness is not real wilderness, so how can it connect people to real wilderness?

One possibility is that VR wilderness could cause a person to value and support wilderness, or perhaps inspire them to visit an actual wilderness area. In this sense, VR wilderness could be said to “connect people to real wilderness,” indirectly. The central claim of Fisher’s argument, however, is that wilderness tends to elicit certain characteristic emotions in us, among them awe, wonder, and transcendence, which VR wilderness can successfully replicate. So, while VR wilderness does not give us direct access to physical wilderness, it can give us direct access to powerful, subjective, emotional experiences that are uniquely associated with being inphysical wilderness. In this way – via our emotions, feelings, and memories – a simulation can immediately connect us to the thing that is simulated.

“The lesson from the wilderness movement of the last century is not that we should adapt our conceptualizations of wilderness to whatever the emerging consumer trends are. The lesson is rather . . . the conceptualization of wilderness as a critique of and check on modern consumer trends means we should be just as skeptical and critical of VR wilderness as early wilderness activists . . . were of motorized recreation.”

Feelings like awe and wonder, the feeling of being so small in such an important and grand place, can connect people with themselves, with their culture, with wilderness, and with the world. Emotions resulting from our experiences in wilderness are an integral part of how people interact with the natural world. These feelings are not reserved for experiences in real wilder- ness. Users of VR wilderness have been found to experience feelings similar to those felt in real wilderness. (Fisher 2022, p. 43)

Fisher seems to be suggesting something along the following lines: if I were presented with a perfect lifelike simulation of a loved one, and my emotional response to the simulation was indistinguishable to the emotional response I would have in the presence the actual person, then I would have something like “access” to the actual person.

Conceptually, such an argument verges on Berkeleyan idealism, the view that all reality is mental (or emotional in this case), and that all we really have access to is the content of our experience. What is left out is what the experience is an experience of. To illustrate, let us assume a perfect wilderness-experience machine. We can simply stipulate that there are no technological limitations to the simulation; the simulation is indistinguishable from the real thing. All five senses are engaged, and one is free to move about and so on. This machine would nonetheless not deliver a veridical experience of wilderness. It is a fake wilderness experience. The fabricated experience may generate the subjective experience of the real thing, and it may confer positive psychological and health benefits for people who cannot access real wilderness areas. However, it does not follow that the fabrication gives one “access” to real wilderness. Such virtual wilderness experience might point to real wilderness as something worth connecting to but would not itself be a connection with wilderness at all. A person who valued wilderness who was successfully deceived by the machine would be short-changed, not in contact with what they value (Elliot 1984). In examples of VR wilderness, the users are aware that they are in a simulation; there is no deception involved. In any case, they are not accessing or experiencing real wilderness, even though they may report feeling as connected to wilderness as someone who actually is.

This point may seem too obvious to spell out, but its ethical implications need underscoring. As Robert Elliot (1984) argues in his well-known paper “Faking Nature,” it is not simply the positive states of mind that nature can produce in humans – awe, wonder, aesthetic appreciation, feelings of transcendence, and so on – that explain its value, although these may be reasons to value nature. The fuller explanation is that wilderness has “a certain kind of causal history that explains its existence,” namely, its nonhuman “genesis” (Elliot 1984, p. 88). Wilderness is a place pre- dominantly (though not always entirely) shaped by natural processes, self-willed land. What is admirable and valuable in wilderness are (among other things) the other-than-human forces that have contributed to its making independently of human purposes. A wilderness experience machine, on the other hand, is (qua a machine) wholly the product of human purpose, intention, and design, which explain its very existence (Katz 1992, 1993). A wilderness experience machine therefore logically (not merely practically) cannot deliver an authentic wilderness experience. The proposition is self-defeating.

Any argument that overemphasizes the subjective, emotional content of the experience of wilderness risks obscuring the objective difference in meaning and value between VR wilderness and actual wilderness – namely, their different causal genesis and relation to human purpose. This difference has a profound ethical implication: VR wilderness can fulfill its purpose without actual wilderness existing at all.

Virtual Wilderness and the Social Construction of Nature: A Happy Marriage

I had a rude awakening on this topic several years ago when I got into a friendly argument with the host of a Christmas party who was a prominent academic in the field of environmental sustainability. I could not get the professor to agree that protected natural areas, such as parks, nature refugia, and wilderness reserves, were an important part of environmental sustainability. This shocked me, given this person’s reputation in this field. So I sought to establish a limiting moral case: Wouldn’t the substitution of digital trees in virtual reality for real trees be going too far and amount to sustainability failure, not success? Not necessarily, was the reply, because the difference between a real tree and a virtual tree is a “social process of meaning constitution.” I then asked, “What kind of planet do you want sustained?” I was expecting an answer such as “a planet rich in biodiversity” or “a planet with living room for grizzly bears and other large predators,” but the response I got was: “The planet I want sustained is the one we all agree to create, having regard to our best understanding of the consequences of creating it.”

To be clear, in rejecting my distinction between real trees and virtual trees, my host was not claiming that humans could survive without the biophysical environment, which would violate the laws of thermodynamics. But the choice of words was telling: humans “create” the world; there is no given world out there that needs protecting or defending from our creations. This was my first flesh-and-blood encounter with a social constructivist account of nature, the view that nature is just a socially mediated construction produced by human discourses and practices, not something that transcendentally or ultimately exists. The professor’s position (as I understand it) was that if a sufficient number of people were satisfied with VR wilderness, and these artificial simulations could be provided at a lower cost than maintaining protected natural areas, then we could open up all protected areas to industrial extraction, agriculture, and urban development, provided such development was managed sufficiently well to “sustainably” accommodate the human population and its material demands. It might be a degraded, ecologically impoverished planet with no wildlands, wild rivers, large predators, mass nonhuman migration events, old-growth forests, or what Aldo Leopold called “a blank spot on the map.” But if such things can be simulated by technology and people are satisfied with the simulations, then that is the world we ought to “create.”

In fairness, this is not Fisher’s argument. Nonetheless her capacious description of “access to wilderness” based on subjective human emotions and feelings in no way rules it out. Many individuals would probably assume that the difference in value and meaning between VR wilderness and actual wilderness is too foundational to be undermined. But this may not be true. In a provocative article for the journal Science in 1973 entitled “What’s Wrong with Plastic Trees?” Martin Krieger argued that “what a society takes to be a natural environment, is one,” (Krieger 1973, p. 448) and that “we may want to create proxy environments by means of substitution and simulation. In order to create substitutes, we must endow new objects with significance by means of advertising and by social practice” (Krieger 1973, p. 453). To the question, “What’s wrong with plastic trees?” Krieger’s answer was:

My guess is that there is very little wrong with them. Much more can be done with plastic trees and the like to give most people the feeling that they are experiencing nature. We will have to realize that the way in which we experience nature is conditioned by our society. (Krieger 1973, p. 453)

Like my Christmas party host, Krieger’s point was that a sufficient shift in social norms and practices could endow VR wilderness with the same social significance as actual wilderness. If so, VR wilderness could replace actual wilderness.

Could such a shift in social norms and practices actually occur? To some extent it has already begun. One of the papers cited by Fisher, Chan et al. (2021), put it this way: “VR is particularly attractive to young people because of its cutting-edge technology and immersive experiences,” and “nature exposure in VR offers a feasible alternative [to natural environments] that is appealing to the young population who tend to prefer digital media to spending leisure time outdoors.” VR, according to Forbes magazine in 2018, is the “the holy grail of marketing to Millennials” (Rogers 2018).

Environmental Generational Amnesia and the Rise of Technological Nature

An objection might be raised here. Previous technologies such as books, photographs, and movies have been successfully used to promote pro-wilderness norms and practices, so how is VR any different? For example, David Attenborough’s famous Planet Earth television series conveys awe-inspiring information about and video footage of nature, but presumably this does not promote nature documentaries at the expense of actual nature. The difference is that Planet Earth does not seek to replicate the subjective experience of actually being immersed in a natural setting. The viewer is just that – a viewer that is external to the program, rather than integrated with it. VR wilderness, on the other hand, puts the user (a revealing term in this con- text) at the center of the experience and seeks to replicate “the sense of actually being there” (Chan et al. 2021). The user is not merely a viewer but a participant – “more likely to feel at one with nature” than television, Fisher reports – in a much richer and more intense experience. That is the whole point of this technology over previous ones. Fisher’s article explains this perfectly well.

In fact, it is precisely VR’s success in reproducing the subjective experience of being in real wilderness that poses what psychologist Peter Kahn calls an “insidious problem” (Khan et al. 2009, p. 41). Khan suggests that the loss of actual nature and the rise of “technological nature” are inter-related. Studies have shown that as actual nature degrades in the real world, each ensuing generation experiences the degraded condition as the non-degraded normal baseline, a process Kahn calls “environmental generational amnesia” (Kahn et al. 2009, p. 37). Says Kahn: “If you try to explain to a person what we, as humans, are missing in terms of the fullness of the human relation with nature, a well-meaning person can look at you blankly and respond, “but I don’t think we’re missing anything” (Kahn et al. 2009, p. 41). Kahn points out that humans are highly adaptive, and technology enables humans to adapt to the loss of actual nature by engaging each ensuing generation with ever more sophisticated ways of mediating, augmenting, or simulating it. “The concern is that, by adapting gradually to the loss of actual nature and to the increase of technological nature, humans will lower the baseline across generations for what counts as a full measure of the human experience and of human flourishing” (Kahn et al. 2009, p. 37). In a context of environmental generational amnesia (per Kahn), it is not difficult to see how a sufficient shift in social norms and practices (per Krieger) could result in the replacement of real wilderness by highly advanced technologies such as virtual wilderness.

I am not arguing that such a replacement is inevitable. I only claim that Fisher’s argument leaves the possibility wide open. After saying that it is “unproductive” to treat VR wilderness as a “direct challenge” to real wilderness Fisher concludes:

Trying to figure out whether or not VR wilderness can ever be considered wilderness will only result in challenging discussions and will limit how we think we can connect with wilderness. A comparison, therefore, is not the best way to think about how VR impacts our conceptualizations of wilderness. (Fisher 2022, p. 48)

In other words, when it comes to “connecting with wilderness,” it seems the more ways the better; we should not limit the possibilities of VR wilderness by having “challenging conversations” about it. However, Fisher’s admonition against comparing VR wilderness and real wilderness is in tension with what she says immediately following:

As more and more people continue to engage with virtual natural space, our conceptualizations of wilderness will allow for VR wilderness experience to be considered just as valuable as real wilderness experiences, but not as a replacement. (Fisher 2022, p. 48)

There are two problems with this. First, in claiming that VR wilderness experience might be considered “just as valuable as real wilderness experiences,” Fisher is comparing VR wilder- ness and real wilderness, contrary to her own recommendation. Second, by equating the value of the two kinds of experiences (“as more and more people engage with virtual natural space”) Fisher basically proves Martin Krieger’s point; her argument has provided a reason why VR wilderness might replace real wilderness, despite assurances to the contrary. New technologies do not always announce themselves as replacements. But they often end up that way unless countervailing forces (which might produce “challenging conversations”) determine otherwise. History shows that purveyors of the technology are unlikely to be such a force.

Conclusion: A Lesson from the History of the Wilderness Movement

Early on in her article, Fisher cites the historical work of Paul Sutter in support of her observation that new technologies, such as the automobile in the early 20th century, can change our understanding and conceptualization of natural spaces by providing new ways of experiencing them. VR, Fisher suggests, is just a “more advanced” technology whose ambiguous role in conceptualizations of wilderness now “requires our attention” (Fisher 2022, p. 42). But this leaves out the central thesis from Sutter’s work: the wilderness movement of the 20th– century interwar period was largely borne out of a critique of car culture and its transformation of nature into an “experiential commodity” (Sutter 2002, p. 27). Cars did change the understanding and conceptualization of wilderness; it would be more accurate to say that they changed the understanding and conceptualization of nature recreation, out of which the modern idea of wilderness emerged as a critical response. Much of the concern was over the expansion of the road network and car-based development into previously roadless areas, but there was another reason: easy–access automobile tourism was considered an inferior way of knowing nature compared to primitive forms of travel such as hiking or paddling. “If we think we are going to learn by cruising around the mountains in a Ford,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “we are deceiving ourselves” (Sutter 2002, p. 79). Roadlessness thus became a defining goal of wilderness protection, and distance from roads is now a feature of “wilderness character” monitoring (Landres et al. 2008).

In fact, according to Sutter, the early wilderness movement’s preoccupation with cars and roads was part of a broader critique of modernity, in particular growing “mechanization,” a word and concept that would later feature prominently in the US Wilderness Act of 1964. “In their distaste for automotive success,” Sutter writes, “the founders were in revolt against the ‘machine age’ and much of what it stood for” (Sutter 2002, p. 246). Much of what the machine age stood for, they believed, was mass consumerism and spiritless commercialism. The national parks were prey to these forces, so an alternative was needed. Wilderness, a more protective standard, would provide a much-needed contrast between the modern, consumer world of mechanization and the few remaining large areas where nature dominated. Wilderness thus represented not just scenic landscapes and outdoor recreational opportunity but also a “retreat from profit,” a place to “keep the modern world at bay” (Sutter 2002, pp. 158, 175).

This historical observation is highly relevant to the discussion of VR: by Fisher’s own account, VR wilderness instrumentalizes wilderness as an experiential commodity that is almost perfectly designed for marketing. The lesson from the wilderness movement of the last century is not that we should adapt our conceptualizations of wilderness to whatever the emerging consumer trends are. The lesson is rather the other way around: the conceptualization of wilderness as a critique of and check on modern consumer trends means we should be just as skeptical and critical of VR wilderness as early wilderness activists of the interwar years were of motorized recreation. They believed that automobiles were a vector of values and norms that undermined wilderness values. We should consider how this is also true of VR wilderness. Rather than simply take on faith that VR wilderness will not replace real wilderness we need to guarantee that it doesn’t. The first step is to understand the reasons why it could happen.


PAUL KEELING is a freelance writer with a background in environmental philosophy and ethics. He has been published in various magazines and academic journals, including Sierra, Wilderness, Earth Island Journal,Philosophy Now, International Journal of Wilderness, Environmental Ethics, and Environmental Values. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.


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