Airplanes are astonishing marvels of engineering, and I never fail to appreciate them. But despite this, I hate flying. To me, the airline industry has come to represent many of the things I dislike most about consumerism. We stand in lines to stand in other lines, we accept claustrophobic discomfort for long periods of time while well within the comfort zones of total strangers, and we pay lots of money for it. Airports and airplanes are oddly paradoxical in that they feel sterile like hospitals, with no moving air anywhere, yet they’re one of the easiest places to get sick. Worst of all, in my mind, is the appalling waste in the industry. Airplanes use tremendous amounts of gas just to idle or taxi around, and there are mountains of single-use items thrown away every day. The thought haunts me, and I try not to think about it. But what haunts me even more is that I’m complicit.
That is a measure of the guilt I feel. Yet I remain complicit because… well, in part because I am extremely fortunate to have travel opportunities and I haven’t learned how to make them happen without using oil. But also because traveling allows me to connect with people. Case in point: two weeks ago I flew to New York City from Colorado for only three days. The purpose was to participate in two small events with Salomon on nearby Bear Mountain. The carbon cost of that trip was enormous, I know. But I did it because it’s part of the job I have and I want to meet people. When you can look someone in the eye and hear their story, and maybe tell them some of your own, you have the opportunity to learn from them. If you do this with humility and intelligence, such meetings can become opportunities to empower people to create change for good. For me, I want to empower myself and others to create positive environmental change. My goal in New York was to start learning how to begin these conversations.
To start with, I had never been to NYC before and I spent two extra days exploring the city. I was struck by the immensity of the built landscape. There is very little in that city that resembles real nature. But I was interested to find that many tourists like myself, all of us walking around in awe of the place, used much of the same vocabulary for the buildings and bridges as we often use in the western United States for mountains and other natural features. The urban sights were ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘magnificent’ and ‘tremendous,’ according to a guidebook I looked over. The histories of certain places or buildings were revered in the same lexicon we use for all impressive features, be they waterfall or skyscraper. But there was an undeniable difference in New York: the engineering spectacles in the city were inspiring in a self-congratulatory way. Collectively, we’re proud of the amazing things we have accomplished and we wonder about what else is possible. In a city like New York, it’s easy to remain in this self-reflective bubble and believe that human accomplishments are the only ones worth paying attention to.
By contrast, travelers in the western U.S. (and many places in the east, too) are attracted to stupendous displays of natural splendor, which often give viewers a sense of their own smallness in the midst of a big world. For example, immediately after returning from NYC, I drove to Wyoming (another large use of carbon, I’m aware.) Wyoming is a good example of the kind of big landscape I’m referring to. They don’t just have big and inspiring mountains; they also have immense oceans of rolling prairie that remain almost completely uninhabited. The Great American Desert lives on in our nation’s least-populous state, and it was distinctly less lonely in the middle of the Wind River Range’s famous Cirque of the Towers than on a highway 100 miles south. The mountains are huge, but they are swallowed by the landscape.
I am clearly partial to the natural landscape, but I don’t wish to be derisive to the built one. A place like New York is truly an incredible wonder to behold; past generations would be astonished at the amazing things that humans have accomplished. But New York is known as a place where you can make something of yourself; the ‘Big Apple’ exists in pop culture as the place to become somebody. But I worry that such a focus on the world of people can be dehumanizing too. In a city where everybody is supposed to be somebody, what do you do if you’re nobody? Is it okay–is it even possible–to live a quiet, un-self-conscious life?
In the wilderness, by definition, there are usually so few people that everybody is somebody. Seeing another person on the trail is an event, often the day’s big happening. The wilderness traveler moves through a place that exists on its own plane, with its own sense of time, and “man is a visitor who does not himself remain,” in the words of the 1964 Wilderness Act. This can be heartbreakingly lonely, but the starting point is often humility. Any self-assurance one gains in the wilderness is hard-won and closely guarded. Those who enter the wilderness with egos, particularly climbers, are often humbled or killed. There are exceptions to all of this, of course, just as I’m sure there are exceptions to my observations of NYC. But in general I get the impression that people in New York enter on a high plane and must try not to fall, whereas those who enter the wilderness have only to gain from the experience.
The majority of us live in the middle of these judgments. We neither live in the nation’s largest city nor alone in a cabin in Middle Of Nowhere, Wyoming. We are exposed to elements of both the urban and natural landscapes, and we choose how to feel about each from within their overlapping spheres. If you’re reading this on iRunFar, you likely worry about climate change but still travel long distances to races or personal projects. Maybe you have a specific rationale for that incongruity, but more likely you’re like me: nervous about your impact but unsure of what to do. We’re not bad people, but we sometimes do bad things.
Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the social factors that engender environmental degradation. I have come to the conclusion that we are better off approaching an issue like climate change as if we are in the wilderness–humbly– whereas approaching it with an ego will result in superficial half-solutions. But there are many other ways to perceive the issue that are equally valid. I want to learn more about those other ways, about your ways of viewing the world and its myriad troubles. That’s my one rationale for travel: to connect with people like you and learn about your way of life. That’s why I went to New York: to learn about how other people live their lives and to maybe get some insight into how I can improve my own.
I have traveled countless thousands of miles in vehicles and airplanes, and each trip has been enriching in its own way. Travel is a beautiful pursuit. But as a mountain athlete, I’m realizing that my forms of travel are not helping the reasons I travel. There is no mountain running without mountains. Yet, I’m not ready to stop. I will keep traveling for my sponsors and for my own personal projects, and I hope that approaching and returning from those projects will include elements of human-powered movement.
But in addition, I’m increasingly working with an organization called Protect Our Winters (POW). POW works with professional athletes from many sports to “focus on educational initiatives, political advocacy, and community-based activism,” according to their website. And I’ll be traveling with them to talk to students at schools around the country about this issue and to ask them for solutions. I’ve made clear that my way of life is not fixing the problem, but I believe, as POW’s founder Jeremy Jones said once in a presentation, that “this is a solvable problem.” I will travel to tell people about the urgency of the problem, but also to ask them for their own solutions. I don’t know how to fix this, but I’m not going to figure it out by staying at home. People from different places and different backgrounds have unique skills and tools, and everyone has a stake in climate change. It’s not about politics; it’s about a way of life that we can pass down for generations.
We need to work together.
This may strike you as preachy. If so, I apologize. But if you’re like many of us who worry about our impact, please help us protect our wild places by taking part in whatever way you can. You can contact POW at their website or me by email. There are many more organizations doing great work as well, including the National Resources Defense Council, 350.org, and Conservation International.
Airplanes are a microcosm of our environmental impact. The airline industry is a terrible scourge in many ways, but the simple fact that airplanes exist as they do is an incredible engineering victory. We should be proud of them. And they have opened up our world to co-mingling in previously unimaginable ways, allowing people to share ideas and technologies like never before. We are lucky to live among so many wonderful opportunities. Like every impact we have, it’s not that we need to get rid of airplanes entirely. The problem is that we lean too far to what we can do without thinking too hard about what we should do. But talking like this is just going to start an endless conversation.
If we’re lucky.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- How often do you consider, like Dakota, if the environmental costs of your recreation outweigh their benefits?
- How do you feel about the concept of ‘can’ versus ‘should’ in our trail running world? For example just because we can create a race with 1,000 people moving as fast as they can through a wild place, should we? Does the fact that we can travel the world to explore via trail running mean that we should? Is there a balance that we as a community and as individuals could or should strike? What do you imagine such balance looks like?