It is Friday but there’s no photo today; sorry. Today is a day when I feel a little anger is appropriate. In that spirit I’m posting one of my more fiery essays, I hope it finds an attentive ear out there on the web.
There’s a confusing old saying, “Clothes make the man”. Recently I was considering pitching a writing submission to an outdoor magazine and was looking through their submission guidelines when I came across the following,
“Clothing and gear and equipment shown in photos should be appropriate to the activities specifically requested. Backpacking, not car camping. We will not run photos of hikers wearing jeans, and sneakers, nor clothing that is out of date (more than 5 years old). Gear in the photos should also be current and fit properly.”
The standards set by the magazine struck me as disingenuous and based more on an image than reality. I’ve seen men who walk through the forests of Equatorial Guinea setting subsistence traps to gain the food they live on walking bare foot with back packs made from old rice bags. I’ve seen Malagasy men in blue jeans and T-shirts wearing “gellies” (a type of sandal made from a soft, clear rubber-like material) hiking through the jungle to track Lemurs. I’ve known men who’ve hiked everyone of Colorado’s 14ers and the Appalachian Trail go out hiking in frayed blue jeans and old work boots. I’ve explored caves with people dressed head to toe in cotton and casual wear cotton at that.
I put too much stock into buying and wearing quality outdoor clothes. I know it’s not always necessary to dress in Patagonia or even Columbia clothes when outdoors but I often do anyway. I have also not bought any new outdoor clothes in years. In Goodwill, Plato’s Closet, Salvation Army and other second hand stores I’ve found plenty of outdoor clothes. Today at goodwill I decided I didn’t really need another synthetic button up shirt made by Columbia, no matter how nice. Recently my girlfriend found a 650 fill down Marmot winter coat, perfect for many mountaineering expeditions. I make it a point of pride to buy my clothes used. Not only are clothes cheaper used, they’re not ending up in a landfill and they’re not contributing to sweatshops, toxin producing factories or pesticide ridden cotton plantations. Does this sound self-righteous? It is a bit self-righteous but the point is, buying used clothing is undoubtedly better for the environment than buying new clothes. Here is a magazine that is a “Proud Sponsor” of Leave No Trace, promoting a certain image of what a backpacker is supposed to look like for image sake. Shackleton’s expedition used reindeer hide sleeping bags and they survived two years on ice sheets around Antarctica without losing a man; are their readers too good for reindeer hide sleeping bags? I didn’t realize the magazine’s suggested backpacking trips were more dangerous than two years in Antarctica; by all means, the readers should demand a $2,000.00 800 fill down bag they’ll use three nights a year.
It goes so much beyond buying new outdoor clothing though. This is all part of a culture where we’ve all become star performers in our own personal dramas. Writing in 1988, David Foster Wallace pinpointed a trend throughout our culture that’s only grown since,
“…the way prolonged exposure to broadcast drama makes each one of us at once more self-conscious and less reflective. A culture more and more about seeing eventually perverts the relationship of seer and seen…We the audience, receive unconscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most significant feature of persons is watchableness, and that contemporary human worth is not just isomorphic with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching…we’re each the hero of our own drama, others around us remanded to supporting roles or (increasingly) audience status. ”
Our views on conservation are certainly influenced by mass media and more recently social media. You can see the beginnings of a decline in the works of none other than Walt Disney. Remembered mostly for cartoons, Disney also had his hand in nature documentaries. In a Disney documentary, White Wilderness, lemmings were forced off cliffs to document a supposedly mass suicide.
“None of what was shown in the film was realistic lemming behavior, however. Disney’s White Wilderness was filmed the Canadian province of Alberta, which is not a native habitat for lemmings and is landlocked with no outlet to the sea. The filmmakers had to import lemmings to Alberta for use in the documentary (reportedly by purchasing them from Inuit children who had caught them in other provinces); through the use of carefully controlled camera angles and tight editing, the filmmakers made no more than a few dozen lemmings look like a much larger number, placing them on turntables to create a frenzied migration effect and then herding them off a cliff and into the water (which was actually the Bow River, not an Arctic sea).”
There are some factually sound documentaries too but the fact is, the industry is primarily that: an industry, an enterprise focused on profit. Besides the pecuniary focus, documentaries, like all film focus on as David Foster Wallace mentioned, “Watchableness”; this can be seen more and more in recent television shows. Bear Grylls is a great example of what I’m talking about; at one time Bear was one of the youngest people to climb Mt. Everest and has a very substantial résumé for the outdoor field. Man VS. Wild, one of Bear Grylls television shows, purports to show a man surviving off the land,
“..carrying only a flint, a knife and maybe some water, and that a camera crew following his journey through the wilderness would not aid him in any way.”
Mark Weinert, a consultant on Man VS. Wild told the Times of London that the show isn’t exactly honest,
“…Grylls actually spent some nights with the show’s crew in a lodge outfitted with television, stone fireplaces, hot tubs and Internet access.
The Pines Resort at Bass Lake is advertised as “a cozy getaway for families” and is a luxurious hotel with its own spa on a lake.
In another instance, where Grylls was supposed to be surviving on a desert island, he was actually in Hawaii and spent nights at a motel, Weinert said.
The same episode had Grylls building a Polynesian-style raft using only materials around him, including bamboo, hibiscus twine and palm leaves for a sail. Weinert said he actually led a team of builders to construct the raft.
“It was then taken apart so that Grylls could be shown building it on camera.”
The lower standard set by people such as Bear Grylls blurs the line between serious documentary and reality show spectacle. Another perfect example is Discovery Channel’s Eaten Alive, in which young naturalist Paul Rosolie wore a full body suit intending to be swallowed by an Anaconda on film. It’s pretty unlikely that an Anaconda could pass a full grown man and survive the process, yet, Paul Rosolie claimed he had only the best interest of the snake in mind. In fact Eaten Alive was billed as being a serious project, aimed at funding conservation efforts in the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon. It doesn’t really matter that Paul didn’t follow through and get swallowed by an Anaconda or any other snake. The point is that even “conservationists” feel they need to resort to spectacle to get those all so precious funding dollars. The really sad thing is, in the long run, Eaten Alive is more likely to hurt conservation efforts than help them,
“Study after study has shown that entertainment features such as this one that show humans interfering with and handling wild animals are detrimental to species conservation. Rosolie knows this. Discovery knows this. Yet they chose to contrive and air this shameful stunt for ratings anyway.”
I feel that all of this is due to the influence of mainstream television, reality shows and social media; with so much competition for our attention, reality isn’t all that interesting (In case you didn’t realize it, reality shows are only reality in that what is on them was really filmed).
Celebrities are the ultimate in watchableness, so it should be no surprise that they also play a role in the planet-wide drama billed as actual conservation. Take for instance how in the American version of BBC’s series, Planet Earth, the voice of David Attenborough was replaced with Sigourney Weaver, an American celebrity and a recognizable voice for American audiences. More disturbing than narrators in documentary films is how celebrities pretend to use their fame to influence public policy as it deals with the environment. Leonardo DiCaprio is the most recent example of the phenomena that I can cite. A man who’s not a scientist and not particularly willing to give up rides on private jets for the cause is a United Nations Messenger for Peace, with a special focus on climate change. On the United Nation’s website, the U.N.’s secretary general Ban Ki-moon is quoted as saying,
“Mr. DiCaprio is a credible voice in the environmental movement, and has a considerable platform to amplify its message”
Leo just underlines how much of a fantasy world people are living in with regards to modern human’s impact on the environment and indeed what environmentalism actually is. Instead of picking someone like a climate scientist, Leonardo DiCaprio is chosen to ride in on a white horse and save the world. DiCaprio was picked perfectly for the role though, because his job is an acting gig, not a position actually effecting change. Take this minor revelation,
“One of the Sony emails leaked by hackers last year revealed that DiCaprio took six private flights in six weeks. We might not know science, but we know math. A plane for one, taken once a week, hurts the environment far more than what regular people who “don’t believe” in climate change can do.”
I don’t consider Al Gore much better than DiCaprio. Both men are in the same boat, using climate change as lines in their biographies, neither willing to sacrifice private jets or mansions in the face of destruction. Al Gore may have made things even worse by politicizing an issue that at its roots is about survival and basic decency to our fellow humans, other animals and the rest of the biosphere. I was once told there are two types of atheists, those who say there’s no God and those who merely act like there’s no God. Al Gore and DiCaprio are the second type of climate change atheist. (Al Gore’s Utility bill was cited as being $30,000 in 2007) Why then do men such as DiCaprio receive so much attention? Reality has become a slippery thing in the modern American mind. We filter everything we see through the lens of television and ever increasingly through social media. We now see people staring in their own drama, performing their lives on the screens of laptops and smart phones. Things like climate change are just narrative features to create drama but in the end, the hero (or heroine) must be victorious.
National Geographic this month (October 2016) features a cover story about how the “selfie generation” interacts differently with nature; the article “Back to Nature” is apparently titled without a hint of irony. The cover photo for this article shows five, white, young women (The article identifies them as “Friends from Montana State University”) wearing black stretchy leggings or shorts and nothing else; facing away from the camera the girls hold their tops aloft in their hands at Glacier National Park. Another photo inside this National Geographic shows a shirtless man sporting tattoos of extinct animals on his chest in Badlands National park (one can imagine him using his chest tattoos to impress one of the girls on the cover). The article is more disturbing than just a few photos of shallow young white people self-consciously posing during their “wilderness adventure”. It turns out that the article revolves around the idea that national parks are losing their relevance to the younger generations. The author of the article, Timothy Egan says,
“The new crusade is just a start, but it’s a big one: part of the largest ever marketing campaign in Park Service history. Yes, marketing, the stuff they do for deodorant. John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist and a founding voice of the natural parks movement, might get tangled in his beard to hear such talk.”
Tim Egan says this as if something that “might get John Muir tangled in his beard” isn’t something that we should find deeply troubling. He even compares marketing the National Parks to marketing deodorant. This reminds me of the days I was on Facebook, years before I deleted my account and walked away. I was friends with the Sierra Club on Facebook in those days. There was a post that Sierra Club did of a (obviously fake) John Muir selfie. Yep, the man who once built a wall-less cabin over a creek; the man who camped with Teddy Roosevelt, the man who once called an earthquake “noble”; that man is taking selfie’s in the afterlife. John Muir is also quoted in Tim Egan’s National Geographic article,
“…John Muir’s argument for national parks – a curative for a frenzied era, he’d called them, places to escape “the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury.””
Making parks relevant is code for coddling the inept and hopelessly lost bastard children of technology and vacuous self-indulgence through the world of national parks that they find so scary. In the same article, Tim Egan talks about how children in cities find photographs of mountains intimidating and ask questions like, “Where are all the people?” so the National Parks Service now uses photos of young people playing in the outdoors together for marketing (Go to Hell Ansel Adams). Again I refer to the pages of National Geographic for an example, talking of Shenandoah National Park,
“…“The selfie Sticks were everywhere,” he said…The summit was thick with people their age, the twentysomethings nearly as common as the white-tailed deer…Does it matter how the parks fit into their lives? Not really. At least the parks have a place in their lives…On Marys Rock on that Sunday afternoon, the Park Service had nothing to worry about regarding the next generation.”
This has to be a joke. Ha ha, good one National Geographic; now let’s read about the trade in rhinoceros horns. Does it matter how the parks fit into their lives? Of course it matters how the parks fit into their lives! It’d be great if conservation was fueled by only a few visitors; unfortunately for those of us who actually care; it’s much more than that. As George W. Bush might say the war of environmentalism is a war of hearts and minds. Not to be melodramatic but we are fighting a spiritual war. People taking selfies in a national park is a real problem because they’re caring more about looking at themselves (selfie) than at the place. A mountain should look intimidating on some level. The natural world reminds us of our true place in things. We should look at the Grand Canyon and realize how insignificant our tiny lives really are; not think, where can I get the best view for my Facebook profile pic? Visiting a mountain top can be a spiritual revelation, seeing a wild animal can instill empathy for other creatures. Referring back to David Foster Wallace, it becomes clear why parks promoting empty peaks and careful watching of wild creatures are becoming less “relevant”. It’s because we’re so wrapped up in our own drama, we don’t want reminders of the greater world,
“…try to recall the last time you saw the “hero” die within his drama’s narrative frame. It’s very rarely done anymore…The natural consequence is that today’s dramatic heroes tend to be “immortal”…I claim that the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative possibility has real costs…We the audience…live in a moment that is, paradoxically both emptied of intrinsic meaning or end…it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live.”
That’s the danger here, we’re forgetting how to live in national parks and even in cities, not to mention wilderness. I don’t give a damn how many people visit national parks; I care about quality, not quantity. It’s a well-known story: social media, television, the internet in general shortens attention spans, creates apathy. Think back to what John Muir said about National Parks being a curative. Couldn’t the outdoors be a curative to all the social ills; all the shortened attention spans created by social media and the rest? The outdoors could be that curative but expecting that from people posting on Facebook and taking selfies while in a national park is like expecting a cure for syphilis while you’re furiously coupling with a prostitute and no protection.
The problem with all of this non-sense is the underlying assumption that parks, preservation of wild animals, environmentalism and the outdoor experience should and must fit within the constructs of mainstream social norms. I hold that this is not nor has it ever been the case. John Muir wasn’t seen as ‘normal’; the man never once cut his beard for god-sake! If we’re going to save wild places, wild animals even National Parks in nominally the same condition as we find them today we have to acknowledge that these things are inherently at odds with our technology obsessed, self-indulgent modern culture.
Taken all together we’ve gone from primary cultures where we absolutely must obey the rules of the natural world to a modern world where we constantly pretend the rules no longer apply to us. We don’t even acknowledge our own deaths; look at all the talk both seriously and in fiction of creating immortal cyborgs or uploading minds onto computers. Nature is becoming in the view of most not much more than a pretty backdrop, or a narrative element inserting challenges to be overcome in the personal drama. Likewise, climate change isn’t a real problem, it’s something to talk about to increase your own celebrity. Talking about climate change is like talking about sweat shop labor; it shows people (Facebook friends, Twitter followers) that you care about things and casts you in the light of educated, compassionate giver, just like DiCaprio.
 David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not, Essays; Fictional Futures; ©2012 By David Foster Wallace Literary Trust
 Mike Nizza, A TV Survivalist Caught Cutting Corners; The New York Times, The Lede; July 24, 2007; http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/07/24/a-tv-survivalist-caught-cutting-corners/?_r=0
 Emily Yahr, Discovery’s ‘Eaten Alive’ guy isn’t actually eaten alive by snake, and viewers are furious; The Washington Post, Arts and Entertainment, December 8, 2014; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/12/08/discoverys-eaten-alive-guy-isnt-actually-eaten-alive-by-snake-and-viewers-are-furious/
 Hunter Skipworth, The Telegraph, 9th of June 2010; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/7803409/Attenborough-victorious-in-the-battle-of-narrators.html It’s interesting to note that Americans shopping on Amazon preferred the original Attenborough version over the Sigourney Weaver version.
 Climate Summit, 2014, Catalyzing Action, UN Headquarters, New York, 23, September, 2014; http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/2014/09/secretary-general-designates-leonardo-di-caprio-un-messenger-peace/
 Karol Markowicz, Why Leo DiCaprio is just another Climate Hypocrite, New York Post, opinion, January 24, 2016; http://nypost.com/2016/01/24/why-leo-dicaprio-is-just-another-climate-hypocrite/
 Jake Tapper, Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’? –A $30,000 Utility Bill; ABC News, Feb. 26, 2007; http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/GlobalWarming/story?id=2906888
 Timothy Egan, Back to Nature, The Selfie Generation Gets Outside; National Geographic, October 2016