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?
Aren’t you a millennial? You look young and you sound like one too.
Jamie Compos says
I’m 40 years old now so yes I technically may be a millennial. My use of the term in the headline is primarily to help grab your attention. 🙂
Matthew Saville says
I read the whole article. I agree with much of it.
I do fear that the trendy tone of it all may be the only way to get the attention of “the current generation(s)” now…
(I hate to single out millennials because it’s more than just them; it’s almost /everybody/ who is alive today, period.)
However, completely HIDING all our photos of the outdoors is a terrible, ten-steps-backwards idea.
To turn photographs of the wilderness into a behind-closed-doors-only type of taboo imagery, would only cause the places themselves to shrink from the public eye, to quickly become un-appreciated and eventually mistreated/destroyed by even worse industries than human foot traffic and the facilities/litter etc. that may come with it.
We absolutely SHOULD photograph the outdoors, and share those photographs with the world.
What needs to CHANGE is, our attitude towards the outdoors in general. Because I do agree with the author; we are abusing the outdoors for our own shallow pursuits. Many folks are being consumed by a desire for that “wanderlust” lifestyle of online fame and money, and they think it’s all good because, after all, “they love the outdoors”. How could they be harming something that they love so much?
Loving the outdoors enough to want to experience it and post photos of yourself in it to social media is NOT on the same level as loving the outdoors enough to make damn sure your activities, and photos, actually serve a greater purpose in promoting conservation and a general increase of respect for the natural world. In fact, for many, these two outcomes are worlds apart.
One thing that could change is, the fundamental thought behind WHY geotags etc. are used, or WHY they are kept secret. It’s not about “locking the door” on others so that they can’t visit a place which you just visited. That’s a completely false argument. Indeed, a lack/lessening of geotagging merely leaves the same “door” (or whatever barriers exist) between everybody and the outdoors.
Each person should put in roughly the same amount of effort required to find and access a spot. It’s that simple. To expect geotagging to help make it easier to find a place is the opposite of fairness, it is entitlement and selfishness. Stop crying “Elitism! Exclusionism!” ..and put in the same hard work to find a place.
Lastly, not everybody takes photographs and shares them with the purpose of saying, “check out this cool place I went to; YOU should ALL go here too!” That’s a false assumption in social media today. On the contrary, most of photo sharing is done because, practically speaking, the vast majority of people who view the image will never get to see that place with their own two eyes. But, having seen the photo, maybe they’ll appreciate the outdoors more in general and maybe it will incline them to change their whole lifetsyle in a way that is more future-proof and planet-friendly.
That is the real purpose of outdoor photography. Don’t lose sight of it.
Jamie Compos says
Thank you for your thoughtful comment Matthew! I agree 100% with everything you’ve said here.
The concept of “imagine if photos of the outdoors were treated like pornography” was intended not as a strict law, but rather as a thought to motivate readers to take a hard look at the true motivations behind our outdoor pursuits.
Why do these end up millennials vs the world? Plenty of non millennials posting pics. Creating non existent conflict so your words will be read?
Rather than being exclusive of other categories of users, I think the goal is to create a desire for change with a group that has significant impact.
The problem is not just hikers, there are many examples of locations that do not require any hike worth talking about.
In my opinion, it’s not the photos that cause the problems, but the rapid spread of information that is immediately available to everyone.
vīrəl – Viral
1. of the nature of, caused by, or relating to a virus or viruses.
Jamie Compos says
There is a very real conflict where the older generation loves to hate “millennials” for anything and everything, especially the results and downfalls of social media. I’ve witnessed this phenomena not only online, but in several face to face conversations too. I did use the term in the headline partially to draw more attention (guilty as charged), but more so as a call to arms to step up and create positive change in the world.
Great post Jamie!
One of my favorite reads. This is so true. The impacts of these habits are visible everywhere.
My question, is there any way to rewind the clock in some of these places. Is it possible to diminish the popularity of some of these places before they are destroyed simply through existing knowledge of them?
What if there was a different way that people could feel validated that didn’t involve exploitation of nature?
Here’s an example of the problem in Thailand.
Jamie Compos says
Thanks Jed. I don’t think there’s any way to rewind the clock, so to speak. Most of these places are becoming popular virtually overnight. For now (and the future) it’s a simple matter of individual land managers deciding how to handle such visitation.
Shana Cutler says
Saw this article on FB john Muir page…sorry people reacted poorly and you shut off comments. It’s an important discussion to have though. My thoughts…there are too many people who are consumers of our natural world, and not enough stewards. I teach outdoor ed at an elementary School and the dichotomy of my beliefs is a struggle…on one hand people need nature…a pure disconnect from our technological world. Nature deficiency disorder is a real thing I witness, and experience personally..so I encourage students to go out, explore and hike and disconnect …but on the other hand…I hate when crowds of people are on the trails and in the wilderness who lack basic knowledge and etiquette to keep their environment clean and safe for all…
There is no good solution. But thank you for getting my brain spinning about this topic. My hiking unit is coming up in a few weeks, and self reliance and LNT is top on the list for the next generation…
Jamie Compos says
Thank you Shana for your comment and especially for advocating good priorities in self reliance and LNT!
I’m sure you know this, but it was not addressed. In order to professionally photograph or take video in National Parks you must pay a permit which must be approved by the NPS prior to the shoot. This of course doesn’t solve the tourist problem but it helps on the professional end of things. In Colorado, you pay a hefty fine and may even get jail time if you do not follow the rules and get your premit.
Thank you for taking the time and writing this. As a photographer who has to educate clients about conservation, respect and safety – I appreciate that you are calling out that we as a whole are using nature to our growth with little regard to what we are doing to our beloved areas. I’m going to stop geotagging my shoots!
Jamie Compos says
I was aware of the permit for NPS commercial filming, but it seems to be enforced only for Hollywood and top level projects. Maybe NPS doesn’t have the budget to pursue YouTubers who run ads, for example, or they’re still struggling to realize a firm policy for such fields.