I often guiltily wonder how I can exist sustainably and come short on answers. All I know is I want to be part of a generation that finds a more sustainable way.
People have wiped out 60% of the Earth's animal populations since 1970, and our shared habits and ways continue this trend. Thinking about people like me trampling on flowers has had me examine the other many ways in which my love for the Earth also harms Her. In wilderness or no, my actions have an effect. Even from home, writing this on a computer to the Internet, I'm using up natural resources in all manner of ways, plugging into the world's largest human-built, fossil-fueled physical infrastructure as my PVC yoga mat sits tableside. Every Google search and social media update I make creates CO2 emissions. The more I think about it, the more I wonder what the meaning of nature is. I believe the history of America's relationship to the natural world has always been one of material profit more than reverence. It is difficult to imagine an American relationship to the natural world that is not, in some way, about profit — mine, yours, or someone else's.
In 2019, one of America's fiercest debates is over the buying and selling of public lands — particularly, the reduction of public lands to make room for extraction companies. Though big outdoor brands do a great deal of the noble work of preserving what's left of these places, such as Patagonia and REI's campaigns against the Trump administration, the outdoor industry in many ways depends on the fossil fuel industry. While ideologically opposed, they're materially linked (see The Smokey Wire's piece, "The Peculiar Symbiosis of the Outdoor Recreation and Oil and Gas Industries"). Outdoor lovers like me are also part of the problem, traveling to and from these beautiful spots. Tracy Ross, in "The Complete History of the Outdoor Industry (Abridged)", marks the points in history where “the 'outdoors' in the U.S. became linked to preservation, recreation and goods that could be turned into money.” When the preservationist principals of Theodore Roosevelt and others simultaneously beckoned a wealthy demographic of travelers to witness the 'nature' of a decreasingly populated Yosemite, so began our recreational retail.
Now, “wilderness” is a sought-after hashtag. In 2019, wildflowers bloomed across California in a widely publicized superbloom. Major media outlets like the LA Times and the Washington Post told millions of readers where to find these flowers, and people followed. Many of those people Instagrammed about it — and the backlash began. Instagram accounts like @publiclandshateyou and @natureisdisappointedinyou popped up to shame the “influencers,” including me, and urged them to remove the photos. (For the record, I have received no material profit from my photos of me in flowers, and I did it because I was joyful, not because I was selling anything.)
When we step into wild lands, we sometimes forget the American notion of 'wilderness' is a concept founded in part by a history of genocide and displacement. These are not previously-untouched ecosystems where Mother Nature invites only a privileged outdoor-loving few. So many lands we regard as 'wild' were, not long ago, homes for thousands of people who managed to live with hardly a trace compared to our ways of life, for thousands of years. People lived in and worshipped superbloom territories including the Carrizo Plain (Chumash and Yokut societies) and Lake Elsinore (Luiseño societies). Their histories have been largely vandalized or vanquished to make room, in part, for a Western ideal of 'nature' and a Gold Rush-driven pursuit of providence and profit. Even John Muir at times despised the sight of the Ahwahnechee, Miwok, and Mono Paiute of Yosemite and abhorred their presence (although his views evolved). Along with the present-day Yosemite park's protection came the natives' decimation at the hands of American colonists. By 1910, almost all of the people had been killed or removed from their home, where they lived, as people, and their villages incinerated. As recently as 1969, the National Park Service razed their remaining homes in lieu of new, western housing. The Grand Canyon, Zion, the Black Hills — so many of America's wildernesses and unpeopled Instagram photo backdrops, not long ago, were homes to humans whose ancestral roots run hundreds or thousands of years.
When we visit places like the Carrizo Plain National Monument, we see a landscape where multi-millenia rhythms of life do battle with contemporary upstarts. Recently introduced and invasive non-native plants like foxtails, thistles, oatweeds, and tumbleweed outcompete many of the native flora whose seed banks have sifted through the soil for roughly forever. Grazing cattle that have taken up tenancy from the tule elk and pronghorn are now employed to remove the non-native plants. Thousand-year-old Chumash paintings sit in suspension with rotting ranches in the glint of passing tourist cars and the song of birds. The sacred Painted Rock in Carrizo Plain is terribly defaced with contemporary graffiti and bullet holes. Vernal pool ecosystems like the Carrizo Plain have mostly disappeared since Spanish explorers arrived, mostly due to agriculture. 90% of California's vernal pool ecosystems are gone; from 1995 to 2005, an additional 13% of the remaining grasslands was lost. Over 90% of California's old-growth coastal redwood forests are also gone due to logging. The list goes on.
Ever since its first protective status designation in the 1980s, the Carrizo Plain National Monument has seen a back-and-forth volley of protections and petroleum permits. Despite being commercially unproductive for petroleum and uranium, permits persist in the heated battle between land ownership of the west. Carrizo was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site — until the petroleum industry intervened, and shot the proposal down. Marlene Braun, the first Monument Manager of the Carrizo Plain, ended her own life in 2005 when she found herself amidst the ongoing dispute over grazing rights and private property rights and the right ways to preserve the landscape. Feeling caught between the Bureau of Land Management's pro-rancher policies, conservationist protections, and fierce workplace bullying, she pulled the trigger. "I can't face what appears to be required to continue to live in my world," she wrote.
The battle between conservation and agriculture and energy goes on largely beneath our feet, with agricultural practices depleting the Central Valley aquifer and thinning oil reserves attracting more prospectors. There's no easy way around this. At present, California holds more than 12% of the U.S. population. Our farming economy feeds and employs hundreds of millions of people, and our petroleum reserves serve the national economy. With oil companies finding new support in the Trump administration, Western lands are once again up for sale for extraction usages.
In the decades since becoming an industry, the outdoor recreation industry has only grown, and so has the carbon footprint. Don’t get me wrong — backpacking and camping are some of my favorite things. But without an oil industry, we can't camp like this. For every backpacker who leaves no trace, their backpacking materials may linger without biodegrading for hundreds of years. Our multi-hundred dollar fleeces shed microfibers to the ocean floor; our tents and backpacks are made of petroleum-based synthetic polyesters; we cook our single-use plastic-packed dehydrated foods with fuel canisters; we ascend the highest peaks decked in polyethylene; we travel by car and plane to see faraway lands. In permitted photographer dreamspots, stones have eroded beneath the feet of an admiring world. I don't think Mother Nature can much distinguish between the supposed virtue of me as a photographer, out of frame, who later sells a wilderness photo print or shares it online, and the supposed vanity of me as a model "living, laughing, loving" in the springtime splendor. Both times I traveled by car and documented my visit with a rare Earth-metal-made smartphone whose daily usage emits fossil fuels from a data center. They're just different aesthetics, different experiences.
And I, personally, feel there is a gender bias towards who are allowed to behave "responsibly" and "irresponsibly" in the outdoors. For a long time, men have been posing in the outdoors, often going off-trail, for the sake of "testing gear" and "finding solitude," but also, increasingly, to sell a product. Never has someone taken on the voice of the "Public Lands" to retroactively condemn pioneers like John Muir or Sir Edmund Hillary for potentially instigating the now Disneyland-length lines atop Half Dome and Mount Everest, nor do they question off-trail travel or outdoor gear generally. Because in the West, men were always framed as the frontier-forgers and the wilderness theirs to conquer. Equally, the land never claimed to have a voice, instead being framed as a "virginal" land to be saved from drills. Only when women modeled amidst flowers on Instagram did Nature seem to take on a tone of "hate" and "disappointment." Perhaps this has something to do with an old fable wherein the archetypal Eve, in her ignorance, dared to learn more, thus disappointing her fatherly god and ruining Nature and mankind for the rest of us, forever. But maybe I'm overanalyzing.
On the bright side, more companies are addressing, and changing, the outdoor industry's material impact. Last year, Primaloft announced plans to release new biodegradable fabric and insulation. Companies like Comp-a-Tent and KarTent have already made compostable tents to counteract the waste of music festivals. 8hz debuted a travel backpack made out of entirely recycled water bottles. Backpacker favorite grocers like Trader Joe's are aiming to eliminate as much of their plastic packaging as possible. Step by step, brands big and small are making major efforts to reshape the resources we use when we recreate. It is worth remembering that people have been backpacking for thousands of years using wooden, external-framed packs. Would it be possible to return to this lifestyle, and abandon the more polluting materials used for lightweight backpacking? I believe it is.
Which is all to say... I know I'm part of the problem, but I want to be a part of the solution, in whatever way I can. A sustainable, lightweight, biodegradable backpacking tent? I'm all ears. An app that measures your phone's CO2 output? Hey, why not? An all-out renunciation of smartphones? A lot of us would be happy with that. At the very least, we can envision a greener way of life, even if we don't yet know how to correct course. If it comes down to jobs and livelihood, the hopeful side of me believes a shared recognition of our mutual inter-dependance, such as between fossil fuel industries and outdoor industries, can someday produce a mutually-beneficial outcome. Til then, I'll be more careful in the flowers.