Connections

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?

There are 14 comments

  1. Hone

    Bro for years now you have been writing articles about how you feel bad for flying and nothing has seemed to have changed on your end. You still fly and we get to read another article about your high altitude guilt.

    I have found that everyone is an environmentalist to the extent that it doesn’t inconvience them too much (this 100 percent includes me). So I guess we will all keep preaching about how much we recycle while we continue to hop on those flights!

    “The modern man is a pathetic example of earths organic heritage” -the greatest band ever

    1. Nick

      Bad Religion surely is a great band.

      But man, have you read Dakota’s argument in full? He’s trying to make his flying less wasteful overall than before; he’s trying acknowledging his contradictions while trying to solve them; he’s doing stufff instead of putting the blame on specific people. Sure it’d be better if we did not fly at all, but again maybe some of us would have less of an impact. But equally surely, driving to wild trailheads with a truck or an old dirtbag car everyday is bound to have at least as detrimental an impact as an urbanite flying now and then.

      I think what he says about NYC is misinformed, cliché and basically wrong, but at least he’s trying to understand.

  2. Olga King

    Welcome back, Hone! Yeah, and the use of i-Phones produced in environmentally-horrid China? I prefer a name “conservationist”, when one does things to the best of their own ability to preserve resources for many, many reasons, besides ones spoken loudly about, and an attitude of one who “walks the talk”. Quietly. There are things in modern era that are out of realm to reverse or influence. We all use it. Some more, some less. For various purposes or lack thereof. If each simply does a little thing, instead of speaking about huge changes…life will be better off on Mother-Earth. Small steps, like in ultrarunning, are what brings us closer to some kind of result.

    1. Robin

      Well said, Olga. Your paragraphs are not preachy or judgemental, just matter-of-fact, acknowledging the complicated world we live in. It would be easy for some of us who’ve enjoyed the great outdoors to put limits on everyone else because of the overall impact, but let’s keep in mind that more exposure to our amazing planet will probably bring more appreciation.

  3. Susan Cable

    Somewhere years ago I read that a good rule of thumb to limit wasteful travel is to try not to fly more than one hour for each day spent at the destination. This might mean finding events closer to home, or maybe combining objectives to travel fewer times per year. One personal example is to look for an inviting race in the area where my Dad lives during a time of year I’d like to visit, rather than making separate trips for each (living in Alaska, air travel is more challenging to avoid). Other conservation-minded choices are to avoid the low-density of first class seats ($!), and to select a non-stop flight. Some airlines, like Alaska Air, try to recycle as much as they can and have been working on more fuel efficient landing approaches, etc.

  4. Molly

    I think about this all the time, as I fly both for work and for leisure! Airplane travel is way too cheap, we aren’t paying for the environmental impact of our actions. If it was more expensive to fly people would think twice about buying the ticket – but that would of course require an unpopular public policy of high carbon or airline taxes.

    The other aspect, of course, is societal glorification of travel. What makes your experiences in a foreign country better than those you have near your home? Sometimes I think in our fervour to check new places off of our lists we forget that it is what you do, not where you do it, that matters.

  5. SageCanaday

    Biggest change one can make to reduce environmental impact? Change your diet! Most people get caught up on plane exhaust (obviously a big source of pollution), cars and recycling (which all help). But for most people (at least in the US) diet is going to be a biggest influence they can make.

    1. tim

      So true. There are plenty of studies showing that being is Vegan is far better for the environment compared to driving a Hybrid.

      Not that I can claim to be vegan, am a vegetarian who has dabbled (sucker for cheese and ice cream), but the environment was my biggest reason for making the change.

      1. Elias

        Tim and Sage, you are right as far as we know about the environmental impact of industrial livestock farming. It prodruces a lot of methane. Still, there is lot of evidence suggesting that getting rid of animal fat is not too healthy with regards of our own hormone balance – this does not concern reproduction only but a whole lot of other health issues. People used to eat meat like once a week or even less which obviously did not kill them and still led to a world population of billions – I think it is the overconsumption that is an issue. But hard to approach, for sure…

        1. Nick

          “Still, there is lot of evidence suggesting that getting rid of animal fat is not too healthy with regards of our own hormone balance”

          Nope, there isn’t.

  6. Wade N

    great point re: diet and your carbon footprint. Cargill, Tyson and Yara (I only knew about Tyson exceeding Exxon Mobil’s carbon foot print from reading something a long time ago, so the Yara and Cargill info is new to me after reading a Guardian article to check my info), global food companies, have a huge carbon footprint, competing with big oil and coal companies for the largest carbon footprint. just changing one meal daily to vegan or vegetarian is a good start. It’s really easy to go 60-70 percent vegan/vegetarian and still eat in good style. plant protein goes a long way (remember, animals are basically eating plant-based feed before they’re killed for our consumption) (eating plants rather than eating animals who have eaten plants is a shorter and a way more efficient dietary algorithm) and is great for recovery. Consume micro-nutrients and save the planet! grab a head of unrinsed greens after a run and (checking for slugs first) and eat half it of it, dirt and all if you know the farmer is not spraying the crap out of it (talk your local farmer!), and get the micro-nutrients as well as bolstering your microbiome!

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