A Branching Path: Finding Social Equity in Environmental Appreciation
I’ve always had a sense of fascination for the natural world - a fascination that, I would surmise, is more universally human than it is particular to me. Thanks to a unique opportunity I had during high school to participate in a program that used backpacking as a core component of its curriculum, I began to engage with the natural word from a place of greater vulnerability, and in turn to develop a much stronger relationship with nature. Though it may seem like needlessly self-imposed discomfort to some, to me backpacking has become one of the most rewarding exercises in delayed gratification. When time and money allows, I enjoy embarking on new backcountry adventures in pursuit of awe-inspiring mountain views and soul-reviving solitude in the forest. I never fail to be inspired after conquering a mountain pass, and even a short walk in the local park can leave me much more at peace with the world. My relationship with the natural world is integral in maintaining my sense of self and meaning in life.
There’s not much question these days of the value that spending time outdoors can have for a person’s overall health and wellbeing. Furthermore, developing an appreciation for nature can foster a greater sense of stewardship for the environment and a conviction to live more responsibly. For those of us who endeavor to more fully immerse ourselves in the natural world - through backpacking, for instance - we find an ever more intimate, intense relationship with nature and with ourselves that ultimately humbles us to forces far beyond human limits. Nature is – if there were only a single word to describe it – formidable: at once awe-inspiring and fear inducing for its sheer size and power. There could be nothing more fearsome and glorious than a mountain peak, with its irresistible allure and inhospitable terrain. There is nothing wiser and steadier than a tree that stands tall and still for centuries, non-sentient but seemingly all-knowing. Nature is formidable because it demands that you respect it more than it respects you, and in submitting yourself to a world that has not been constructed for convenience, you are forced reckon with the limits of your human power. Time and again in my experiences trekking through the back country - whether it’s in the majestic peaks of the Canadian Rockies or the wooded wonder of the Appalachian Trail - I am confronted by a world, far outside the reaches of industrial encroachment, which refuses to accommodate a resilience weakened by the comforts of civilization. In drawing myself closer to the natural world, I begin to feel ever closer to a sense of collective humanity.
And yet...for as much as we extol the virtues of Spending Time Outside, there remains a certain antagonism between human beings and the natural world. Living, as those of us in the industrialized world do now, in a society that’s carefully constructed to shield us from the inhospitable aspects of Mother Nature, the question of whether human existence is inherently “at odds” with the natural world is worth considering. Human history would suggest that over time we’ve grown more and more alienated from the planet that plays host to our existence, largely as a result of the pervasive cultural myth that the earth was created for our own disposal (see: Ishmael - Daniel Quinn, 1992.) Connecting With Nature now, for all the value it contains, is made possible only through a historical process of destruction and re-fashioning of space to suit human and capitalistic needs. The land which once existed freely and “belonged” to humans and animals for whom “ownership” was an irrelevant concept, has been seized, privatized, and commoditized (into what we now proudly call our national parks) all in the name, ironically, of “preservation.” While it’s wonderful that we value these natural wonders enough to have taken measures to protect them, we’ve done so with the pretense that human life, in all its forms, is antithetical to conserving the environment. Whatever truth - however self-made - this pretense may have, it ultimately led to the violent and unjust displacement of thousands of indigenous people and rural poor. Considered against the social cost, can there come any “good” from conservation efforts that we could truly consider to be worth it?
In addition to mainstream environmentalism, the pastime of outdoor adventuring also merits scrutiny for its social implications. To be sure, there can be no denying that nature’s most fantastic wonders – and the accompanying awe and self-discovery – is accessible only to a privileged few. Even more unsettling - though perhaps unsurprising - is the way in which the privilege inherent in venturing often goes unacknowledged. At its best, the community of outdoor enthusiasts - as I’ve observed and participated in it - consists of people so smitten with Nature and unaware of their relative privilege that the question of social responsibility simply does not emerge in the conversation. At its worst, it’s a culture centered on a rhetoric of exclusivity, obscured by its constant self-congratulation for Living Adventurously. This is not to say, of course, that everyone who enjoys spending time outdoors is entirely self-absorbed and naive to their privilege; in fact, many of them, I would hazard to say, are some of the most loyal allies of the environmental movement. But despite the noble ideals to live simply and save the planet, there’s a relative lack of discussion about how the issue of social inequity fits into it all… As if mountains and forests and waterfalls and canyons all exist in a world far away from the struggles of humanity, when in fact, the natural and social worlds have always - will always - exist in a recursive historical process. What a powerful thing it could be, if more people started to ask not how environmental rights and human rights are distinct, but rather where and how the two intersect. What momentum we might feel, if more environmentalists might come to see Saving the Planet as concomitant with striving for a more equitable social world. For as enriching as it is to venture out into nature’s unbridled splendor, let us not abandon our responsibility to the [far less magnificent] world we’ve created.