Isn’t it disgusting when industrial tourism invades your favorite places?
Do you struggle with the conflicting desires of protecting the outdoors and sharing your experiences?
If so, you’re not alone.
The concept of how to refrain from “loving nature to death” is a complicated issue.
Conservation is nothing new, but we need to take a closer look at our impact as we stumble into the future.
Before it’s too late.
In case you missed it, the following video has been going around, highlighting what’s at stake. It’s worth a look.
If you can’t watch it right now, even the first 30 seconds (on mute) does a decent job of relaying the point:
“When Nature Goes Viral”
As an outdoor blogger, these concepts have been on my mind for several years. I’m the first to admit that publishing this site about outdoor destinations is a part of the problem. Public lands issues have always been a heated topic, and I don’t claim to have all the answers.
The following thoughts are intended to encourage further discussion about how we, as a society, should go forward in protecting our sacred places in nature.
Millennials, Geotagging, Instagram, and even Selfies are not the Problem.
Kids these days!
It’s time to stop placing blame on others, and time to face reality.
If you came to this article to revel in some wholesome bashing of an entire narcissistic generation, you’re going to be disappointed.
It’s easy to blame millennials and social media to define what’s going wrong in the outdoors. It feels good to scorn something like the ubiquitous “selfie stick” (I’m especially guilty of this), but negative, elitist disdain isn’t going to move us forward.
Millennials are the future. Blaming an entire generation in one fell swoop is simply wrong, no different than racism or misogyny.
Selfies must have valid roots in our natural psychology, or else the widespread practice wouldn’t exist.
Instagram is an organic extension of our increasingly connected world. Social media is probably here to stay.
Geotagging serves as a means to help others find where they want to go, and acts as a modern method of authentication.
However, the demonization of geotagging is encouraging… if only because it demonstrates that our society is increasingly aware that we have a problem:
People are trampling our natural treasures.
4 Reasons We’re Destroying What We Love
The attraction of
photo opportunities places where we connect with nature has deep roots in our basic human nature. More people will continue to seek out these locations because of the following reasons:
This is the most obvious problem. More people on earth equals more people that want to visit Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon, etc.
Even worse, despite our best efforts, it seems we’re stuck with an inevitable percentage of humanity that insists on leaving garbage everywhere, scrawling their names on the rocks, and so on.
There’s no viable, moral solution to overpopulation, so one could (justifiably) argue that it’s only a matter of time until we destroy the world anyway. This defeatism gets us nowhere, so let’s look elsewhere:
The internet and consequent social media are having a huge impact on the way we experience the outdoors. Easy access to information about destinations is bringing formerly “secret” and “locals only” treasures to the greater population.
It rings of elitism to deny the general public of details on how to access these places, but it’s understandably sad to see hordes of tourists in what was once a place of tranquility.
Our psychology is bent toward sharing these places with others. We thrive on helping each other, encouraging others to find the same happiness that we have in nature. We love to show our friends where we are, where we’ve been, and how they can do it, too.
Furthermore, we love attention and popularity, as these are signs of acceptance from our peers. Helping others in the public forums also boosts our own egos as we tend to become viewed as experts of various destinations.
Exploiting the wilderness for financial reasons is nothing new, but monetary goals in the online space are slipping through the radar.
Everybody wants a career as an Instagram Influencer, Travel Blogger, YouTube Star, and so on. These fields have a negative impact through increased awareness of destinations, and a perversion of our reasons for seeking out these destinations in the first place.
Unfortunately, hiking trails are now money trails. Those in favor of the extractive industries that we love to hate (logging, mining, hunting, etc.) could argue that our so-called “recreation” leaves a scar, too, in the vein of parking lots, garbage, poop, and endless traffic. Logging trucks carry a cargo that’s more tangible than Subarus and JUCY vans filled with selfie seekers, after all.
Follow the money, and you’ll see that commercial tourism and guiding businesses have an entrenched interest in our public lands. Most act as good stewards, as it’s best for them, but their bottom line will always come first.
Then you have the travel bloggers and Instagram Influencers. These folks are often thoughtful, well-intended stewards too, even if their visits are short lived and exploitative.
The problem lies in the greater audience, the ensuing hordes that follow each others footsteps en masse. We see a picture and we can’t help but want to go there and get that same picture.
This tendency isn’t so much a character flaw as something that’s hard-wired in our psychology (See #3). The pattern breaks through generations and international borders, so these trends aren’t easily dismissed by blaming millennials.
It’s time to ask ourselves what exactly motivates our adventures.
It’s time to discuss how we’re all behaving in the outdoors.
It’s time to stop exploiting nature to boost our own self-worth.
There’s no easy answers, but the first step is to admit that we have a problem.
I’ll start the meeting:
“Hi, my name is Jamie and
I’m an alcoholic I exploit nature.”
In my early twenties I was disillusioned with the prospect of student loans and slaving my life away until retirement. I turned to nature on the Appalachian Trail to figure it all out.
Hiking felt good, so I kept doing it.
I started taking more pictures, and had fun putting them on the internet. People were impressed, and it validated my way of life.
I started a blog to show everyone how adventurous I am, and all the cool places I go. Look at me! Aren’t I wonderful?
First there were gratuitous MySpace slideshows, and then I started using Facebook. I found myself brainstorming the title of my ensuing Facebook photo album while I was still out there on a hike, and began to wonder if I had a problem.
Then I started to recognize my own behavior in others. It was ugly and narcissistic. I resisted getting an Instagram account.
I love to hate on Instagram society, but only because I fear the same tendency in myself. I’d like to think I’m over it now.
Was it only a phase, even if it’s something I still struggle to keep in check? If I’m truly over it, would I still maintain this blog?
Is every website about outdoor destinations inherently a part of the problem?
I suppose the answer depends on how we as a society choose to go forward from here.
Admit It – Outdoor recreation is increasingly harmful to nature.
It’s simply impossible to connect with nature when you’re surrounded by too many other people and their detritus.
It’s great that more people are getting outside, but our Parks and wilderness areas are being loved to death.
Sorry, but I feel the often-repeated argument of “more hikers = more conservationists” is a self-serving illusion, a weak excuse for tour guides and bloggers to justify our actions.
So what do we do?
How do we protect these places?
Obviously we can’t tell everyone to stay home.
Can we ask everyone to stop sharing so many self-serving pictures?
Not exactly, but…
Let’s explore 3 fantastical ideas.
National Parks and Wilderness Areas are our most sacred places – the front lines, so to speak – so lets focus there. What is the vision of these places for the future?
The mission statement of the NPS reads:
The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and and future generations.
Do the National Parks still strike the necessary balance between use and preservation?
I don’t think so.
Here’s some (outrageous?) ideas on how we can fix it.
1) No Private Vehicles in our National Parks
Edward Abbey first introduced this concept over 50 years ago, in Desert Solitaire. It’s already in practice on a seasonal basis (Like in Zion National Park), but has yet to gain more headway in the vast majority of our major parks.
It sadly looks like we’re heading in the direction of restricting access to entire parks through a reservation system. Similar to how you must have a reservation to hike the John Muir Trail or raft the Colorado River, soon you may need an advance permit even to simply enter Zion National Park.
Somehow, this concept seems more favorable to people than a ban on private motor vehicles. This is a symptom of our culture of entitled selfishness, the American Dream to live large in the lap of luxury where nothing is out of reach of our automobiles.
2) Block Cellular Service in Wilderness Areas
It’s time that we re-write the Wilderness Act of 1963 for the 21st century. Here’s a piece of how wilderness is currently defined by Congress:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
Wilderness is a place where we go to get in touch with nature and check out from modern society, no?
In this age of addiction to our phones, how can this be possible where high-speed data service saturates the fresh air? Data is invisible, but a cellular connection is harmful to our perception of the landscape.
Imagine your favorite National Park with no private vehicles and no phone service. The majority of Park superintendents, by the way, have been quietly erecting towers in the National Parks without public comment.
Concerned about safety?
Fine. Configure the cellular barrier so only a 911 call can get through.
If Verizon can afford to continue expanding their network, I think they can afford to block it in some places, too.
And now for the most radical (and impractical) idea:
3) Imagine if photos of our National Parks were handled like pornography.
Let that sink in for a second.
This notion is mostly intended as food for thought, an exercise to reveal our true motivations in exploring the outdoors.
Imagine – you’re welcome to shoot as many photos and videos of Old Faithful as you like, but don’t you dare even think about showing them in public without facing serious repercussions.
How would this one simple notion change our relationship with the Parks and wilderness areas? Would they be less crowded? Would you still go?
How much longer can things go on in our public lands without major change? Our National Parks, in particular, seem to be near a breaking point.
Obviously our society isn’t ready for such drastic measures (Some days I’m afraid the National Park Service as a whole may soon be abolished), but it’s about time we take a first step:
We can stop geotagging our Instagram photos.
The concept of geotagging on Instagram isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. After all, I imagine that artificial intelligence will soon be able to tell you where virtually any landscape photo was shot, similar to facial recognition.
What’s important is how the lobby against geotags marks the first widespread recognition of our digital footprint. It has gained so much traction that even the revered Leave No Trace Guidelines have a thing or two to say about it.
It’s not about elitists trying to keep secret places for themselves.
It’s not about hating millennials, “kids these days,” international tourists, or even dismissing our valid, human desire for attention and recognition.
It’s about protecting the natural world for the future.
It’s the resistance to paving paradise for a parking lot.
Every generation needs to fight for our public lands, or else they’ll be gone.
The fight isn’t easy. Whether it be writing our congressmen, going out to vote, or entering your thoughts during a public comment period, we tend to resist putting down our phones to go out and make real change (let’s be honest).
But you can do this one simple thing, and you don’t even have to put your phone down to do it.
You can think twice about geotagging and disclosing exact locations of your photos.
It’s a start.
Share this post, and lets continue a discussion about how we envision our public lands, and what we want them to be.
Should the parks be nothing more than a collection of selfie stops?
John Muir and Ed Abbey must be rolling in their graves.
Your vision can be the future. Why not?