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Talking Environmentalism at the Summer Outdoor Retailer 2016

As I walked the maze-like, gear-laden aisles of the 2016 Summer Outdoor Retailer, I couldn’t help imagining all the brand-new shiny items six feet underground. The smart headlamps, the tech-soled boots, the lightest avalanche airbags, the ultimate mountaineering socks, the ski poles so light you won’t believe it, the off-grid mini espresso makers, the all-season tents–all of this, I pictured packed under layers of soil, providing ideal conditions for methane production, slowly decaying for forty-plus years among car batteries, washing machines, broken treadmills, car tires, and other tokens of our industrial society. I went to OR with one purpose: to see how the outdoor industry was or was not dealing with the issues emerging from the rubble of deregulated capitalism and endless resource extraction.

It is impossible to avoid having an impact on our environment. We all generate externalities, meaning that our choices and actions have consequences, whether costly or beneficial, to an outside party. No doubt when it comes to talking about waste, the earth is a primary outside party of concern with the environmental movement. Discussions surrounding our impact on the earth typically place humans as the actor and the earth as the victim, which leads to a certain kind of thinking about our role on this planet.

[Photo] Erin Monahan collection

[Photo] Erin Monahan collection

Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, suggests that there are two distinct narratives that have evolved from discussions surrounding our relationship with the earth. One is the story of the earth as something we need to save. Klein points out that environmentalists talk about the earth “as if it were an endangered species, or a starving child far away, or a pet in need of our ministrations.” In a related talk at the 2014 annual Bioneers Conference, Klein argues that this idea of the earth as a needy pet or child is just as dangerous as “that idea born in the 1600s that the earth was an inert machine and that we humans were its engineers called upon by God to exert total mastery.” In both plot lines humans are the self-appointed guardians of the earth. Both narratives encourage humans to believe that we are omniscient, that we know what’s best. Whether we paint our roles as protectors, loving the earth as a parent would love a child, or aggrandize ourselves as God’s creations appointed to master the landscape, both place the earth in a position of subjugation and vulnerability.

Alan Watts explains in The Book, “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” As Klein writes, we are the “fragile and vulnerable” ones. The planet itself will continue to exist, even if the climate is unfit for humans. We don’t need to save the earth, rather we need to advocate for the long-term preservation of humans who will live here generations from now. We won’t be around much longer as a species if we don’t adopt a new worldview. As the Honor the Earth organization outlines in their Indigenous Economic Principles, we need a worldview that promotes “intergenerational thinking and equity”; a worldview that “value[s] spiritual and intangible facets of the natural world…things [that can’t] be monetized.” A native-led organization co-founded by Winona LaDuke, Honor the Earth endeavors to “transform modern society into one based on survival, not conquest.”

With these ideals in mind, I attended “The New Success” panel at Outdoor Retailer, which included many environmentally conscious industry leaders. The panel was aimed at addressing whether giving back to our planet was a privilege or a necessity for brands in the outdoor industry. But the conversation should have steered toward how outdoor retailers can mitigate, or even better, eliminate, waste, as well as how to influence consumers to participate in environmental action politics.

John Sterling of the Conservation Alliance was the only panelist to address political action. Real change in the US, he said, “comes through engaging with politics and government. I see everyone just falling asleep when I say that, but polluting industries that are doing far more damage to our planet are out there in Washington DC every day, full-time, with lobbyists, trying to cut down regulations and open up areas to oil drilling, logging and mining, and we’re over here talking about how fun it is to go climbing and skiing… So, I think what’s not happening is we need more people from this industry engaging in the grunt work of politics to activate social change.” This statement raised, in my mind, the most important issue facing the environmental movement: How do we get people to engage in the grunt work of advocacy and politics in order to ensure that we are still around to enjoy the outdoors for many years to come?

Kurt Vonnegut, in a 1969 NYT Magazine article, notes that we don’t look closely enough at the “hungry, angry” people, and the “smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry” on the planet. Similarly, as Brian Linton, founder of United by Blue, explained at the “The New Success” panel, he “wanted to be involved with the actual conservation side,” from the start. Linton admitted that at the beginning the company didn’t have the scale or know-how to make responsible, durable goods, but that they have been working to implement sustainability in production over the last five years.

When we simply focus on donating money, outsourcing our supposed passion for a holistic relationship with nature, in a sense, we remain disconnected from the earth. We don’t witness the oil spill, the trash floating, the people living with contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, or Haystack, New Mexico. We disconnect from the environmental, health and labor issues in the production of our gear. Without being involved in the necessary work of environmental activism, we never fully comprehend the impact of the production and the eventual disposal of our gear.

Though sometimes indirect and not always obvious, our consumption causes external damages of the most unsettling kind. There’s a long-standing belief that teaching someone to love nature will in turn inspire them to care for it. But is this holding true? Are we holding ourselves accountable?

[Photo] Erin Monahan collection

[Photo] Erin Monahan collection

Collective survival depends on collective action. Companies like One Percent for the Planet are important, but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that this is all we can do. Too often environmental activism gets shrouded in the belief that donating money is the solution. Voting with our money by donating to good causes is helpful, but these are Band-Aid measures. The work shouldn’t stop there. It is admirable that Patagonia donated 100 percent of their Black Friday sales to environmental causes. But the problem with relying too much on this charity model is that it allows us to feel good about consuming more. It convinces us to buy more stuff, to “give” to the planet, when really we need to change our habits of consumption at the core and buy less. Before Thanksgiving in 2011, Patagonia put out a full-page ad in the New York Times that read “Don’t buy this jacket.” According to Investopedia, Patagonia “saw its revenues grow about 30 percent to $543 million in 2012, followed by another six percent growth in 2013.” While Patagonia has always been a leader in sustainability, and holds an impressive track record of environmental advocacy, the Times ad backfired. If we truly want to support people and the planet, we need to start connecting our passions with more direct action. Our separation from the roots of the earth, from the source of our products, separates us from grasping the whole picture of our dire circumstances. Without this whole picture we often find ourselves in a lethal amnesia about the history and true health of our planet.

When the outdoor industry holds discussions about responsibility–our privilege of being able to influence positive change that truly benefits our earth–I would like to hear about more efforts that advocate directly and concretely for mitigating, or eliminating, waste. If we, the patrons of the outdoor industry, love the land, the water, the trees, the mountains, the sky, then we need more hands on deck. Businesses need to start addressing how we can reinvent the system, and dare I say, stop the cult of shopping?

What needs to happen is an implosion of our ideological scaffolding; a severing of the mental formations that have brainwashed us into thinking that more is better, new is best, and that we are bootstrap individuals who deserve to consume whatever we want. We need to move into a worldview that is rooted in interdependence, connection, and renewal. This shift will challenge our abstract associations with the earth, and instead of reading about the numbers of cleanups done from our Facebook feed, or discussing climate change over coffee, we will alter that nine degrees of separation into a deep sense of place by actually engaging in political action. From every facet, it is time that the outdoor industry thinks and creates with regeneration in mind. This in turn will influence our society to embrace the principles of Indigenous Economics–only building on opportunities that are based on passing something on, something that will last.