Trail Running Activism…

Outside is a great magazine; it’s got gear reviews, short stories of adventure, and it tackles some deeper subjects like the one I was reading about Bill McKibben the other day. (It also does a fashion section, which I have to say, doesn’t really do it for me. I mean, does anyone that’s outdoorsy even wear stuff like that. I don’t see too many adventurous folk wearing a J. Crew sweater in the outdoors or even down the street. They’re in their trusty light down puffy that they wore climbing that morning, their Carhartts, or at most a pair of gusseted, stretchy canvas pants for climbing that might pass as a decent pair of pants for a mid-priced restaurant. Rant over.)

Anyway, this McKibben article got me to thinking that I wished I had more fervor for activism and doing what he does. I recognize in myself the same passion and desire to change the policies in business and government that threaten the global environment but lack the time or drive to put that into practice as he has.

In short, Bill McKibben is an author turned activist after he realized that writing books wasn’t having the effect of actually effecting change in policies that drive environmental conservation. So he started in with social media and soon became adept at gathering large crowds for protests and demonstrations that, while hasn’t been all that effective, it’s already done more than his dozen or so books that he wrote.

I know I have the passion for the environment that he does since I actually find myself getting angry when I read articles or news that some politician has granted a waiver to some company that is so obviously and unnecessarily harmful to the environment that it really shouldn’t even be an option, or when a publicly traded company does some irreparable damage to the environment in the name of their shareholders’ bottom line. At some point shouldn’t there be some ethical obligation written into a shareholders’ agreement that prohibits extorting the environment for a buck?

I do see some irony in this passion for the environment as I sit on a Boeing 757 cruising through the sky to travel across the country for a running race. There might be some irony too, in the fact that I have a pretty nice house with heat and two cars in the driveway (One doesn’t go anywhere but long distance since I do at least ride my bike around town.), and work (to some extent) in an industry that is based on consumers purchasing our goods. I find myself at odds with my beliefs over some of my habits that are rooted in consuming things. I’m extremely lucky that I have the things I have and am able to do what I do, but find it hard to justify when the Earth is going to Hell in a Handbasket.

But, that’s why I do what I do to some extent. I spend my time outdoors running in stunningly beautiful places that I hope will be around forever, bringing indirect awareness to these places, hoping that people will want to visit them, then lend a hand in protecting them when the time comes. I believe that’s what we, as mountain or trail runners and other athletes that make their living exploring the outdoors, all do to some extent and even though we aren’t quite as vocal as Mr. McKibben, or as organizationally adept. We all have a deep-rooted passion for the outdoors and in preserving it using modern technology and through smart policy decisions at every level of government and business.

So, I ask you this? On some level what I do is helping the environment, on another, obviously, it is harming it. And I know most of you reading this are people who love the outdoors as much as I do and have very similar habits as well (running, travel, lifestyle) but, is there a balance that one should strive for in my case (or our case as athletes), or is being an athlete that travels to races harmful no matter how you look at it? Second, do you think spending time making small changes at home to minimize impact are more beneficial, or time trying to effect a change in policies through social media or demonstrations is more beneficial in preserving the environment?

Just curious.

There are 38 comments

  1. Mic Medeska

    I'm a trail runner, hybrid car owner, local activist, and lover of the outdoors. I also buy 12 pairs of running shoes a year, shower sometimes twice a day if I misschedule a workout, travel across New England to run races, and still buy print books and magazines even if they are available through the internet. But what I do and what I think is lacking nowadays, is I do "the best that I can." I recycle as much as possible, I try to buy clothing and equipment made from sustainable materials, I eat a plant based diet, I turn the lights off as much as possible. And I think that's the key. I don't think we as a culture need to be extreme, I just think we need to be less wasteful. We're a culture who finds it easier to mass produce plastic cutlery, then have it shipped, then bought, then used, then thrown out, than to just bring a metal spoon/fork with us to work and wash it everyday. You don't need to stop travelling to races you love, but we need to stop driving down to the grocery store that is a 1/4 mile from your house. I truly don't think it's a matter of converting everyone to huts with no running water or electricity to prove a point, it's simply being less "American." Stop thinking we need the biggest and brightest.

    1. olga

      We can each only "control" what each one, ourselves, is doing. And yes, do the best we each can. Worrying about flying when the plane is flying regardless is not very helpful. Using a bus where possible (NT possible if you live in small town or outskirts or farms), combining trips, recycling, turning lights off etc. is something individual can and shall decide for themselves. Just a little step. Like anything, to develop a new habit/idea/whatnot. And heck, less "this generation American" sounds good, but "this generation" may not know what it means:)

  2. Yeti

    Great points Max and definitely something we should all consider during our daily lives both on and off the trail. My opinion on the matter, especially concerning the trails and wild places we frequent, is probably not a very popular one here but I just gotta say it…The big problem in my mind, at least where I live, is too many people on the trails at one time and often during the wrong times. I've seen a huge increase in large group runs on my local trails. The larger the group, the greater the negative impact on the trails and that is a fact. Also, individuals or groups running on wet, sloppy trail makes a huge negative impact on that environment and that too is a fact. Now, combine those large groups of people and put them on wet, sloppy trail and you really have a problem. I've been to the parks on many occasions shortly after a local race and seen the damage done by 150 or more people on a wet trail and it is almost beyond belief. It is the very definition of destructive, yet it continues. In the last 5 years or so the ultra-trail boom and the training and racing on the trails accompanying it has significantly affected my local trails to the point of virtually eliminating any singletrack from places that previously had miles of pristine, ribbony goodness just 5 years prior. Deep-trenched, rutted, wide doubletrack is left in the wake of many of these races and group runs and it is a scar that would take a long time to heal even if we left it completely alone for years. I think we need to consider this before we head out on a big group run or race, especially when we know full well that the trail and environment we supposedly cherish will suffer because of irresponsible behavior. Acknowledge your impact, stand for what you stand on, take care of what you love and practice patience when conditions are bad. If you want to run in a big group, awesome, just do it on a road. If it's raining on race day, you might want reconsider and acknowledge what the aftermath will be, if you're ok with that, well, I guess nobody can stop you. Anyway, just my 2 cents.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I think the popularity of your opinion is going to be geographically dependent. Here in the northeast, widening singletrack is really not much of a concern in most areas unless you are doing some work with a chainsaw. If the trail is designed well, erosion from runners would require stone crushing landings. I've run in some of the largest trail races in absolute downpours, and you can hardly tell there was race after. Honestly, efforts to put in switchbacks seem to create larger overall worn areas from what I've seen.

      In comparing similar regions, I've always been confused at the how restrictive the western US is compared to the Alps with regards to allowing large trail races. I don't see major environmental damage from the large European races in general, yet those field sizes would not be possible at most similar western US races. Is the US too restrictive, or are European countries allowing runners to ruin their trails and alpine environments?

    1. boisean

      Mud runs are the 'suckiest' of all runs! Who needs the aggravation of horrible traction, slipping & sliding, and at worst, 'caking up' of the shoes with 25 lb. 'bricks.' I have no trouble "saying no" to mud runs, completely separate of any 'trail saving' issue.

      1. PDC

        That mud caked on your shoe, under the right spatial/temporal conditions, could have devastating environmental consequences. For example that 25lb brick of mud on your shoe is likely to be choc-full of weed seeds, which could get transported by you to that pristine volcanic island with the really cool race.

        Of course my example is a low probability type of thing, and no one should obsess over low probability events (I'm talking to you doomsday preppers!). But I do think it is good practice to stay off certain muddy trails and to clean/sterilize your shoes if you are going to exotic locales.

  3. brank

    I believe the earth is capable of repairing itself more than we give credit. Just "do the best you can" works for me. some of these 'activist' politicians are just patronizing the outdoor community. The earth is given to us by God to enjoy and we should not let those smarmy people scare us out of doing what we enjoy. Using the trails makes me appreciate them more and enjoy them with my family. I teach my son how to preserve them when we are out in them…what trees are dead that he can smash and which ones are alive and not to bother…too much propaganda out there on the subject. Peoples hearts toward nature is a better avenue than government policy, so i say social media.

  4. Al

    I am an environmental regulator, and a trail runner and mt biker. As I frequently tell folks- industry always thinks I'm too hard on them, enviros think I'm always giving away the farm (so to speak), and the local tea party thinks I'm a tool of the U.N. The key to it all is to be methodical, reasonable, consistent, and fair in all your decisions, and you'll have no problem going to sleep at night, even though the most vocal all claim you're awful.

    And what may appear to be "obviously … harmful" to the environmental, may just be the best option, or least worst as it were. Having given out a few waivers in my career (but probably not the type you're referring to), I can guarantee that the other options would be quite a bit worse. Again, it goes back to the above- methodical, reasonable, consistent, and fair.

    If people are really concerned about what's going on, they should start in their own community. Read the public notices about things that are proposed in your area. If you don't think it sounds good, research it and write a thoughtful comment letter. Attend a meeting. If you like it, do the same because hardly anyone ever writes letters of support or attends to let their elected and appointed officials know that they have support. Get to know your public officials and the offices they represent. Volunteer.

  5. Sarah

    I believe it's better to walk the walk then talk the talk. Start with yourself and lead by example. It does no good these days to preach issues on social media, people can ignore it easily, or they just justify their wasteful and unsustainable actions. I lead the lifestyle I do because I don't think I could live with myself otherwise. I'm working towards having an organic farm and while I know it doesn't pay well, or really anything to speak of, I live within my means, and I know that growing nutritious food for myself and others in a sustainable way is a noble profession and that makes me sleep well at night. Well, that and along with being completely exhausted.

  6. Le Manchot

    Max,

    I think that you need to have some calibration w/r/t/ the impact of transcontinental or intercontinental travel from an energy use perspective. A good source for calculations and thought on this topic is here in MacKay's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_J._C._MacKay) free downloadable book:

    http://www.withouthotair.com/

    look in the section entitled "planes", although the entire book is a good read. MacKay reduces his energy use calculations to one simple unit- kWh/day and provides a framework to calculate your own kWh/day use. In the US this figure, on average, is 250 kWh/day per person, in Britain it is about 125 kWh/day and in Europe it is 80 kWh/day. The significantly higher use in the US is primarily due to transportation (e.g. auto use).

    Bottom line on air travel- one intercontinental flight from LA to Paris uses some 10,000 kWh of energy per passenger which works out to about 30 kWh/day added to your energy use. This is the approximate equivalent to leaving a 1000 W electric heater on 24 h/day for an entire year. Once I had this "calibration", my thought process about such travel now has more levels of consideration.

    Only you can combine the essential elements necessary to "justify" your energy use for air travel to competitive events. Playing a constructive or advocate role for cognizant energy use in some fashion wherever you are traveling could clearly help justify the travel, although it would seem distinctly possible that justification could be argued strictly on the basis of the importance of the event to your career.

    To your second query, MacKay argues, and I concur, that "every little is a little" (http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c19/page_114.shtml) and that the only truly effective way to address energy use in your personal life is to go after the big hitters- transportation and heating/cooling. From personal experience I can relate that the transportation part of the equation is highly dependent upon where you choose to live relative to your work, markets, and entertainment. This will define how auto-intensive your life will be. I have been fortunate to be able to locate in both urban and rural areas such that year round cycling to work, markets, and entertainment is feasible (although at times a bit demanding in the winter in the Rocky Mountain resort town that I currently reside- it is currently -4F and I need to go to the grocery!). Both my cost of living and energy use have been substantially reduced by this choice to live near city/town centers and provide transportation by cycling. My personal energy use is about the same as the average in Europe (80 kWh/day) except in those years when I travel to Europe to run in the Alps. All of these considerations come into play when deciding what to do w/r/t the "environment", but the most important part is to be knowledgeable about your energy use and respond accordingly.

    Having spent most of the 80's and half of the 90's on a plane as a career-minded mega-corp "weenie", I will say, upon reflection, that perhaps 80% of those trips were of very marginal value for the company, for my career, and for me personally. But I only know that in retrospect… and that is a part of the conundrum associated with travel decisions. My wife, on the other hand, spent a similar amount of time on planes as a US Team member and two-time endurance Olympian and would offer that every trip was was important to her athletic career. Therein is an essential difference in mindset- travel associated with competing to be the worlds best in something is perhaps fundamentally different than many other travel-associated endeavors. I would argue that, at your competitive level, such travel is justifiable from both personal and societal perspectives.

    Overall, setting an example of cognizant energy use is one way to be an "activist" for the environment and one that I think is most effective both personally and in more broad respects.

    1. Jack Hookie

      This argument is illogical. It assumes that all energy sources contribute equally to environmental damage. My 1000 watt toaster fueled by solar is far less damaging than one fueled by coal produced electricity.

      1. caper

        Actualy you comment is illogical. Le puts forward great info, with competing views, he talks of air travel, not toasters. Besides when any aggregate value on energy use is presented it likely is too vast a figure to break down into each category of supply…and lets face it 99.9999999% of energy is fossel fuel based as alternatives such as solar, wind etc offer much less output per unit of input.

        Max do I think its environmentally to fly to run a race…heck no, but neither is flying for holidays. Do I looked down at you for it? No, you do what you love, and you probably walk/run/bike way more than the avg Joe, so be happy and enjoy your running

      2. Le Manchot

        Jack,

        Take a look at MacKay's website and his recent TED talk:

        http://www.ted.com/talks/david_mackay_a_reality_c

        Energy use cognizance includes an evaluation of the source of energy. Where I live over 50% of the electric energy source is hydro, in most other places it is over 90% coal and natural gas. This, as well as numerous other considerations, will play into your choices on the use of electricity. Additionally, the make-up of the energy sources at your particular location is also why going after the big energy hitters in your energy use is so important- particularly if your electric energy source is primarily coal or natural gas.

        The burning of jet fuel is very much the same as electricity consumption for over 90% of energy consumers in the US as electricity production in the US is dominated by fossil fuels (coal and natural gas):

        http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=69

        In Max's town (Bend, OR) the electrical energy fuel mix is 46.5% hydro, 29.8% coal, 15.2% natural gas, 5.4% "non-Hydro renewables", 2.5% nuclear, 0.3% oil, and 2.8% "other". This is a typical Pacific Northwest distribution where a significant portion of electric energy is produced by hydro. This is not typical of the US. You can get this data for any zip code at the following website:

        http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/how

        Sorry if I misrepresented my position, but I am all for renewable energy sources (I worked as a researcher on solar and biomass technologies for 20 years and I personally use PV solar and solar thermal energy sources) and hope to see increased incorporation of these technologies into the energy grid in the US. But, that said, the largest impact on my energy use is not via the utilization of renewable energy sources, rather the largest impacts are by far the result of lifestyle choices. It works for me but may not work for others.

      3. Utah Runner

        And do you suppose/assume that no significant 'environmental damage' resulted from the manufacture of your solar cells? There is research indicating that manufacture of photovoltaic cells involves the use of lead, mercury and cadmium, not to mention the production of carbon dioxide. It's not my intent to argue but merely to point out that avoiding or minimizing 'environmental damage' may be easier said than done, and to point out, more generally, that issues are often more complex than they may initially appear.

        1. Le Manchot

          Hi Utah,

          Yeah, I would have brought those facts up as well but I was just trying to make a general comment with some actual data to support the basis. In many cases the "net" energy savings from the manufacture of something like PV solar cells are not realized for years. The environmental impacts of the chemicals utilized to manufacture such cells are not insignificant. These issues lead to an even larger importance to be placed upon consideration of lifestyle choices that reduce energy use.

          I should think that a colloquial precis as to the pros and cons of renewable energy sources is inappropriate here as there are numerous sources on the web and in printed matter. However, I will point out that something like a solar thermal system is very low impact on all accounts and has a relatively short payback period when compared to other renewable energy sources.

          Now, let's not dismiss the pretty nasty chemicals involved in the manufacture of running shoes in the third world- things like toluene and numerous other VOCs that are essentially outlawed in the US. Much of this is about choices, but you will be hard pressed to find a shoe manufacturer that has a truly "green" process. Perhaps in the future with new technologies we will see more environmentally favorable running shoe products.

          Thanks for bringing up the subject; such impacts are an important part of the discussion.

  7. Joe

    There are a lot of runners here in the NW that I like to call the jet set trail runners. I guess they think the grass is always greener across several state lines. I'm not sure why so many feel the need to frequently air travel solely for the purpose of running a race and do so multiple times throughout a year. In my opinion this is senseless and wasteful when we have so many beautiful races, in this region, of all distances and formats.

  8. AV1611-Ben

    Let's not overcomplicate things or think that somehow trail running is part of a large problem.

    Don't leave your Gu packets in the woods. Don't damage the trails if you can avoid it. Pee off the trail. And poop in a proper pooper.

    That ought to be enough.

  9. Tony Mollica

    I think we all need to do the best we can, without expecting perfection. My wife and I work in two different towns and we live in the town in between. Neither one of us can bike to work. We do eat a plant based diet, recycle and keep the thermostat down in the winter. We are far from perfect, but are doing better than many.

    Thanks for the though provoking article Max! What race are you running? Good luck!

  10. Todd V

    Trail runner, mountain sports enthusiast; generally recreate without a motor but do own (and frequently use) a four wheel drive vehicle.

    I think if we're going to use public lands and wild places for recreation, and if we value these places, that we need to help protect and preserve them for ourselves and future generations. We users of these places have an obligation to do so. Our use should be sustainable which I would define as not contributing to habitat quality decline. Sure, we need habitat too but we have a choice where we recreate while critters that live where we choose to go do not have a choice of just picking up and moving.

    Being a passive user of our precious public lands wild places is not enough. In this time of what past Forest Chief Dale Bosworth called "the Four Threats" (http://www.fs.fed.us/projects/four-threats/) (loss of open space, Fire and build up of fuels, unmanaged recreation, and invasive plants, and one could add Declining Budgets) "doing the right thing" as a constituent of public lands and wildplaces goes beyond peeing off the trail.

    Volunteer – give back, teach others, and help protect our public lands.

  11. Aaron

    I've been changing my activities to better reflect my concerns over environmental pollution and degradation. First, That's the right thing for me to do, having concluded that some aspects of modern life are harmful and unnecessary, and second, I can't ask for others to change if I'm not willing to at least do it on my own. Therefore, my answer to your second question is that the small personal changes should come first to provide credibility to an environmental activist.

    I don't race, but I do like taking the opportunity to see new trails with the added convenience of stocked aid stations and a well-marked route. I've put in many long road trips over the years traveling to races, and put many miles on the car driving to and from local trails to train. That's over and done now. I can't justify it and have settled for mostly city miles. And any races in my future needs to be close to an Amtrak station, so let's hear it for the Grand Mesa 100. I'm going to compile a list of what I can reach in the eastern states where passenger rail coverage is better.

  12. Alex

    I know an awful lot of supposedly environmentally concerned runners who don't think twice about eating pretty copious amounts of factory raised meat. I think changing one's diet is perhaps the easiest step to take, since we all have to eat something anyway.

  13. Wade

    McKibben's work is concerned with carbon reduction in the atmosphere. See 350.org. Yes, he's concerned with nature as a conservationist, but his focus is much broader and ambitious. His two big targets currently are getting universities to divest from their Big Oil investments and preventing the Keystone XL pipeline from transporting the worst oil that there is, tar sands oil, from Alberta to Texas. Right now US carbon production is down due to our transition to natural gas (although studies are showing that methane release during some extraction basically reverses that), but China and India are burgeoning car cultures and need prodigious amounts of fuel, oil and coal, to run their economies. China is also a leader in solar and development of high speed rail, but it still needs lots of dirty fuel to continue to fuel the juggernaut. So this issue IS political because without cooperation between govts, nothing happens. And not to be melodramatic, but without political will, and voters pushing politicians towards a green future, our comfy lives here in the industrialized world are basically over. Three main things to think about in the future that can screw us: resource depletion (other than peak oil, rare earth depletion, etc, it's interesting to think about what our lifestyle means globally-see storyofstuff.com), depletion of capital, and the disastrous effects of climate change will be all rumbling under every part of our lives in the next hundred years, and sooner rather than later. It's' happening now. Think of rising prices for everything, agricultural disruption, more recessions/depressions at best, billions in federal disaster relief every year. Yes, we can "divest" ourselves from this system and be models of green living, but in the end, it's way bigger than that. Don't kid yourself that riding your bike to work and planting an edible garden in your front yard exempts you from further action. Lastly, the fight to prevent coal being shipped through the Pacific Northwest to China is the next Keystone XL. But make your voice heard. It does matter even if there are lots of old white men wielding piles of money trying to preserve the status quo. I highly recommend choosing an issue you care about, following it, and picking up the phone a lot and leaving messages with your reps re: your concerns. A simple and highly satisfying experience. We need people to practice citizenship everyday, regardless what we do professionally or recreationally.

    1. Max King

      THanks Wade, That's a great summary of what his bent is. I wasn't as concerned with that although it's obviously quite important. His article just got me thinking about how we interact with the environment.

  14. Max King

    I'm with Ben on this one. Too many times have I heard about the Forest Service not permitting a trail race, or even a new trail but don't think twice about opening up a new area to logging that requires miles of dirt roads to be cut through forest land. Or forget about logging, I've seen large swaths of land tracked up by heavy equipment or a new road put through for less than logging.

    Out here in the high desert, forest destruction stays around much longer than areas of high plant growth like the wetter Pac NW but if you leave a trail alone for a year or two it will be unrecognizable, whereas I can follow old logging roads that are a hundred years old through the forest.

    Trails, no matter who or how many people are on them, are very benign when you talk about eco destruction. I'm not sure why you would want every one to run roads when a couple new trails INSTEAD of a new road would be more beneficial for the environment and probably all the people that could enjoy more roadless land.

    1. Yeti

      While it's certainly unfortunate and infuriating that the Forest Service would restrict new trails and allow logging roads and heavy equipment into our wilderness areas, I think the matter at hand here is trail running and what our impact as runners and citizens is and how WE affect the trails.

      Just some thoughts:

      -consider the long term effects of running on muddy trails:wide, damaged, muddy trails cause sedimentation and erosion. Increased sediment finds its way into waterways and is a detriment(i.e., death, sickness)to those animals(specifically fish, amphibians)using the waterways. Erosion weakens vegetation and root systems which can/will ultimately result in hillside collapse endangering any living thing in its wake. Wide, rutted up trails also lose most of their aesthetic appeal, which in turn causes other trail users to complain and we lose any footing in the continuation of trail races and access we cherish by association.

      -trail maintenance:done almost exclusively, nationwide by volunteer groups. The damage left in the wake of muddy group runs or races must be repaired by someone. Instead of concentrating very limited labor to assist in trailbuilding or general upkeep, volunteers now have to concentrate efforts on repairing damage done by user groups that are typically(at least in my town) nowhere to be found when it comes time to repair the damage. This creates a lot of sour feelings and even bad blood towards these events and individuals and further jeopardizes future races and use in general.

      I understand fully that there is no perfect solution to this as we as humans have a relatively non-existent symbiotic relationship with any other flora/fauna, so there will always be some negative consequence of our use. But there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because the use of trails is permitted and encouraged to keep interest in the areas we love undeveloped and beautiful, does not give us as trail runners the right to treat them negligently, specifically under the guise of a "use it or lose it" mindset. We don't endanger access or availability by restricting our use of trails to appropriate weather/group size, we actually promote a good ethic by doing what is right, even when it is not fun.

  15. Max King

    Joe, you're absolutely right…but, for me, part of being a trail runner is the opportunity to see different areas of the world that we all call home. Yes, it's destructive but man if you haven't been to the Alps as a trail runner, you're missing out.

    Also, it's the ability to increase the level of exposure of the sport by increasing the level of competition. This can only be done if people come together to compete against each other. As a racer, that's important to me, otherwise I would just go run trails and not enter races.

  16. Wade

    Hi Max. I hope you didn't misconstrue my comment as an implicit criticism of your piece. I'm really happy you decided to tackle the topic and enjoyed the article. These days it seems that all articles have two parts, the piece and then part two, the comments, the latter which frequently lacks the brevity and clarity of the first part. Perhaps my hyper-enthusiasm regarding this topic got the best of me! Thanks again and take care!!

    1. Max King

      No no, not at all Wade,I really like the comments and sometimes they're more interesting than the actual article. Just didn't want you to think I was off on some tangent and that I didn't know what Bill McKibben was fighting for.

  17. Sam Robinson

    Thanks for the comments, Max.

    I've thought about this a fair amount particularly since I've traveled to my fair share of races. Ultimately I think our major problem as both a national and global community is that we have inherited a political economy that is predicated upon exponential economic and commercial growth (i.e. a globalized industrial economy that relies on abundant labor, energy resources, and fluid capital markets to maintain its growth). For better or worse this is the system we have and it seems to be a system that will remain and continue to expand as developing countries with incredibly large populations gain enrichment from it. I can't see how we can tell these people, "No, we have all the advantages of middle-class luxury. But you can't.' That just won't fly. Given a chance, these folks are going to want the same cars you and I have, the same opportunities for self-development and travel, etc. Meanwhile, as you said, the earth will take the continual brunt of all of this. My bet is for an increasingly bleak outlook as we press more and more against the limits to this planet's resources. It will be so very nasty in a century so. But human beings as economic creatures tend to think in terms of short term gains and losses. We've yet in our existence to think of our actions in terms of centuries or even decades. I can't see this changing even in the face of widespread environmental tragedy.

    So unfortunately, I don't think there is really much we can do about this except apply our consumer ambitions to the outdoors. Basically, we'll end up choosing which outdoor spaces we find interesting, exciting, and spiritually meaningful and then do political work to protect them. What is a park other than a demarcated space that through a form of stewarded neglect we cultivate as a place for outdoor recreation and wildlife shelter? We'll try to protect certain flora and fauna only because humans find it meaningful to do so for certain animals. (Ever heard of a banana slug preservation society?… exactly.) Meanwhile, we'll let outdoor environments that don't fit these choices fall by the wayside, victims of the same consumer choices. So, you'll be able to visit Yellowstone in 2113, but the land besides I-80 will probably be gross. So, I think the only thing we can do as rational agents is try to have good discussions about which spaces we should preserve and how we can do this in an effective manner. How can we maintain outdoor spaces as a preserve of as many animals and plants as possible? How can we do this as more and more Americans find increasing solace in a blinking plastic screen?

    Pessimistic? You bet. But I think that if we are unwilling to abandon deep cultural values of economic liberalism (the free market, individuals should decide how they should live), then we are on the road to apocalypse even if select individuals make changes. Perhaps if we recognize our rather bleak trajectory we can stop dallying over fruitless questions such as what the best reason to fly an airplane is and move on to figuring out how we should best preserve the aspects of this world we find most redeeming.

    Thanks again!

  18. zach

    hi max, i ask myself similar questions everyday. I am a mining engineer having worked for two big and 'evil' multinational companies. I know the rules of the game are different in third world countries such as indonesian where companies can legally dump millions of tons of tailing slimes into rivers. I know the politics and business deals in africa benefit the corrupt elite. I believe america was the same way during the industrial revolution where inexcusable acts of environmental degradation were allowed in order to keep up with the booming population hungry for a better quality life. As time goes on and the global populations living in the third world continue to explode, they too will want the same quality of life as we enjoy in america- cars/computers/hot water/phones..etc. i feel this is the reality we will have to accept. I think the best way is preservation of our wilds in the form of national parks or reserves. I do question my own morality in life with regards to being an environmental steward. I hardly know the answers to these questions or how to save the wilderness but the simplest thing any of us can do is get out into the wilderness, go run up a mountain, raft a mighty river, abseil down a canyon, just get out there and love it and share it.

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