Make No Impact, Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Impact Nature Paxson Woelber
Image Credit: Paxson Woelber

Those of us that enjoy hiking through the woods, kayaking down rivers, and general spending time in nature hold one philosophy above all others: Leave No Trace.

It’s a simple concept; while you are enjoying wilderness without signs of human presence, take steps to ensure that those who come after you can enjoy nature in the same way. Pack out all of your trash. Minimize impact from camping and fire building. Travel only on durable surfaces where your footsteps will not damage the flora. Respect wildlife and leave what you find. It’s a courtesy to those that will follow you.

But even for those of us that are so careful to limit our impact in the “natural world,” these principles are dropped once we return home. When the view of trees and rolling hills gives way to skyscrapers and city blocks, we mistakenly believe that we have left nature.

The waste we were so careful to minimize outdoors begins to overflow in our trash cans. Litter that we were meticulous to pack away in nature slips from our pockets in the city. Human waste that was handled with extreme thoughtfulness is now whisked down the toilet to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind facility. Consumption that had been kept as low as possible festers to create mounds of wasted resources.

This pattern of behavior traces back to the fallacy that humans are somehow separate from nature; the idea that we can keep the natural world at arm’s length. It’s a long-held fallacy about humanity’s superiority over the natural world; that we are better than it. We are separate from. We are above. It leads us to separate the “natural world” from our cozy homes in our snug cities. Even our language reflects this fallacious concept; being in the “natural world” versus being in “civilization.” As if they were totally distinct and separate phenomena.

Inevitably, that leads to the idea that our actions in the “human world” don’t effect the “natural” one. We begin to decouple the role that nature plays in our lives and the impacts that we have back on it. People begin to unravel the tapestry that holds the entire planet together while simultaneously insisting that there is no tapestry at all.

But, of course, there is. The plastic microbeads that we use in our apartments inevitably find their way into the stomachs of marine life. The palm oil for the cookies that we have sitting in our pantry came from decimated rain forests. The fuel for our cars causes environmental degradation both when we gather it and when we use it.

Nothing we touch or consume is without an impact to our planet. It’s unfortunate that we can be so attuned to this reality when “in nature,” but have it be obscured when in our “normal lives.” Especially because the impacts that we create when “away” from nature always come back around to impact us somehow.

Those plastic microbeads can go from your face scrub to a fish’s body and then onto your plate. The palm oil cookies were made by damaging the ability of rainforests to absorb CO2; of which higher levels means an ocean less supportive of marine life and more severe storm seasons on land. And, of course, mining your car’s fuel damages natural resource economies like fishing and timber while the exhaust it ends up as contributes to surging asthma rates and heat waves.

We need to kill the concept of “the natural world”. As I sit here in this air-conditioned apartment in the middle of a town with paved roads and bustling coffee shops, I am in the natural world. When I drive my car to meetings in Baltimore, I am in the natural world. Boarding a plane to visit family and friends and to eat cookies made with palm oil, I am in the natural world.

I cannot leave it. You cannot leave it.

So we must keep the ideals of Leave No Trace in mind even when our surroundings have traditionally told us not to bother. Because Leave No Trace is about leaving the world as unmarred as possible for others to enjoy hundreds of years from now.

That means knowing our impact so we can limit it. It means fighting for governmental and business practices that make it simple for individuals to take lighter steps through this world. It means adapting our societies to the ways of the natural world and not pretending like we are somehow separate from it.

“Leave it better than you found it,” my parents would tell me. That doesn’t just apply to a campsite or a backwoods trail; that applies to the earth as a whole. Even… No, especially when you are sitting in the air conditioning.

Our Failed Philosophy of Dominion

Our Failed Philosophy of Dominion
Image Credit: Karsun Designs

The idea that we can tame the wilds of the planet is deeply ingrained in our western worldview. Not only do we think that we can; we think that we have to. We are the ones chosen to set order to a chaotic system. But this philosophy has sadly guided us to a deep misunderstanding of the world and our place in it. It has led us to believe that our actions are without environmental consequence. Worse yet, it has made us act against our own self-interest.

Our theology reinforces the notion that we are superior to the world. “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth” reads both the Bible and the Torah.  They go on to instruct “fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” The Quran notes that “He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth.” Core to our western theology are themes of dominion.

Those themes extend as well to our philosophical thought. Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific revolution, urged humanity to find “in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use,” and to exploit them. Industrialization used these instructions to try vainly to free humanity from the natural order of our world. This philosophy extends to the west’s history of conquest and empire as well. It is us, the people of the west, that have been chosen to tame and subdue all wild things; nature and human alike.

You can also see this thinking in our dizzying rate of resource extraction; resources that we consume without thought to the consequences. If we are indeed the masters of this planet, we think, then it doesn’t matter how we use our spoils. We think that we must certainly be able to curtail any negative outcomes that might arise from our actions. As a result, we ignore the consequences that are being placed on us from a changing climate, a collapsing ecosphere, and our ever-present pollutants. We drive blithely on toward a precipitous destiny with no concern passed next quarters’ fiscal returns.

Enter the counter-point to this type of thinking. When pollution and litter pile up, many people get out their gloves and garbage bags to give the earth a helping hand. Stream clean up days and tree planting rallies are popular to ‘help out’ mother nature. The earth needs us, we think, and without us won’t be whole again. We have to get out there and make things right!

But this type of thinking suffers from the same flaw as the humanity-as-conqueror line of thinking. Now, to be clear, I absolutely encourage these types tree planting, litter collecting events. Especially as a way to get people engaged and thinking about their personal environmental impact.

However, taking the attitude of being a force that puts the earth back right still suffers from the fallacy that we have dominion over our planetary home. It still assumes that we can control, shape, and mold this place as we would see fit. The goal may be different, but the fallacious idea of dominion is still asserted.

We do not have nearly the control that either of these lines of thinking assumes that we do. I would go so far as to state that it is wrong to say that we should do anything ‘for the earth.’ Rather, we should do these things for ourselves. No matter what we do, the giant spherical hunk of iron, magma, and rock that we call home will be here billions of years from now.

So, what’s at stake in all this is not the earth, but our place in it. If we expect to continue to have this home, we need to curtail our crippling impact here. When we talk about fighting climate change, it’s not about saving the polar bears; it’s about preserving a planetary state of balance that has treated our species well for millions of years. Acting environmentally isn’t altruistic. It’s about saving our future from our worst impulses.

What we face is a crisis of philosophy. Both what is causing the problem and how we typically address it. The only solution is to internalize that we are not in the driver’s seat. We are not in control. With any other starting point, we are deluding ourselves into a corner from which we will not escape.

America’s Blood Stone

Image credit: Rachel Molenda
Image credit: Rachel Molenda

Last week I was holding a freshly dried Roundtree and York blue stripped button down shirt when I had a sudden realization so severe that my vision began to fade to the soft gray light that signals the onset of a loss of consciousness. A connection was made that was so visceral, so astounding, that my body could not decide if vomiting or passing out was the correct course of action. Standing there in my apartment complex’s laundry room, holding my warm, crisp shirt, I realized that the garment was stained with blood. It wasn’t mine or from anyone that I knew. The blood wasn’t even physically present, but rather was a price for the state of the cloth that I held by my fingers. It wasn’t the blood of the Sri Lankan workers who stitched it together. It wasn’t the blood of workers who harvested the cotton comprising 68% of the shirt’s weave. It was the blood of my own countrymen. My shirt was stained with the blood of other Americans.

 ~~~

The jewelers of the world had a problem in the nineteen nineties. More and more people were becoming aware that more and more of the diamonds showing up in western markets were so-called “blood diamonds”. Clearly, a person discovering that the diamond engagement ring they just bought had been mined to sustain genocide was not good for the diamond business. Or, I guess, humanity. So the United Nations, spurred on by NGOs like Silent Witness, enacted steps to try to ensure that diamonds entering the global trade were being mined cleanly and legally. These diamonds could be certified as being clean of the blood of civilians that had their lands stolen and their bodies mutilated to satisfy a global lust for crystalized carbon. It is still unclear how effective these measures were or how effective they continue to be. Luckily for the diamond business, people have stopped caring as much. So has the diamond business.

 ~~~

“Ok, enjoy your life in Hell!” These were the parting words of a coal industry representative to West Virginia resident Andy Winter. Andy has lived in Lindytown all his life. His family had lived there all of their lives. It was only when Andy refused to sell his family’s portion of Appalachia to the coal companies that he was condemned to the ninth circle for betraying… someone. The companies wanted the land for something called Mountaintop Removal mining, or MTR. As opposed to traditional mining, MTR involves the literal leveling of mountains to gather the coal out from amongst the rubble. It is estimated that more than 500 mountains have been erased from the landscape through this kind of mining.

But mountains don’t simply come down like they do in a window display at an outdoor store. Their demolition commends a heavy price. Mountains have to be cleared of all timber. This leaves only jagged scars where old growth forest used to be. Rarely is this timber even taken to market; it is buried or burned. Rubble blasted from mountainsides is discarded in streambeds, the act of which destroys aquatic habitats millions of years in the making. These streams will not become viable again on any timescale that concerns the juvenile species that doomed them. Entire aquatic communities are lost, and the fish that survive are subject to greatly increased levels of selenium, a toxic by-product of MTR that is supposed to be contained in specially designed pools. Scores of fish with deformed spines and jaws bring the soundness of these pool’s design sharply into question. The EPA, by the way, was recently persuaded by the coal lobby to raise the maximum amount of selenium pollution allowed in rivers near mining operations.

And lest you think the price to be paid for this rock is measured solely in disrupted natural communities; human communities also share in this burden. Coal companies use technically legal yet morally objectionable practices to snatch up all the land they can. Entire towns, including churches and cemeteries, are dynamited to extract the other black gold that lies amongst the smoldering remains of both natural and human communities. Residents that keep their lands, residents like Andy Winter, must contend with living on an increasingly poisoned property. Studies have found that humans living near mining operations are 50% more likely to die of cancer and 42% more likely to be born with birth defects. All of this while blasting can legally take place only a thousand feet from their front door.

 ~~~

Standing there, holding my warm shirt in my fingers, I noticed the sickening blood stain. Humans like to convince themselves that the members of our species who commit atrocities are vastly different than we are. It is only in the savage wilds of Africa that people have their lands seized and their bodies mutilated in the name of the blood diamond trade. Those things could not possibly happen in America. But with 45% of America’s electricity coming from coal and most of that coal coming from Appalachia, the fact is America has a blood stone of its own. And nearly all aspects of my life, and of your life, depend on this trade. It is not just my clothes that have been ruined with blood, but nearly my entire life. I’m still not sure if passing out or vomiting is the correct course of action.

The Conservation of Public Perception

Image Credit: Sascha Wenninger
Image Credit: Sascha Wenninger

The bluish haze of cigar smoke hung over the crowd like that which would soon drift out of the barrels of their freshly fired guns. The men sat tense as if the very animal on which they were bidding was to be released into the room. Some of them sat with pearly sweat beading on their brows. Seven bidders alone had left before the bidding had begun. Slowly the auctioneer rose on to the stage to take his place behind the podium. He spoke in words of restrained and harsh excitement.

“The next item up for auction is an invitation from the former colony of Namibia to go on a once in a life time hunt. To track down one of the great majestic beasts of the untamed African savanna. A chance to pit the helpless man against the ravages of a savage land. A chance to hunt a Black Rhinoceros. Bidding will start at one hundred thousand US dollars.”

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this was a scene from a novel set in 1800s London. But, in fact, this was the scene late this last December in Dallas as a group of people bid for a license, granted by the Namibian government, to hunt and kill a critically endangered Black Rhino. Admittedly, I have no idea if anyone at the event was actually smoking a cigar (doubtful given public health laws), but this still seems like something you would read about from imperial England.

The ultimate winner of the license was international hunting consultant Corey Knowlton. He won the license with a bid of $350,000 dollars which the Dallas Safari Club, the organizers of the auction, have said will be donated to rhino conservation efforts in Namibia. It may not surprise you to learn that Mr. Knowlton has received a considerable amount of vitriol over the internet including death threats to both him and his family. In his own defense, Mr. Knowlton has stated that this is an issue of conservation. He has said that the particular rhino he will be hunting down is a post reproductive bull and is likely to be killed and eaten by lions without human intervention.

Surprisingly, he does seem to have his science correct. Although, after listening to interviews he has given it seems to me that he has backed himself into the correct science. There is a concept in Population Biology called effective population. This is the number of animals in a population after you remove all those too young or old to breed and adjust the number based on the genetic diversity of the population. The particular animal that Mr. Knowlton is going to hunt is a post reproductive bull that is known for getting into conflicts with other, reproductive bulls. The game wardens at the park where this particular animal is kept may very well have to put the animal down at any rate in order to protect their effective population. The conservation fact is that since Black Rhinos are not social creatures and because this individual poses a threat to the future of reproduction in the Namibian population, it is a drag on the population as a whole. In most conservation management strategies, this individual would be culled.

It feels odd to agree with the killing of a member of a critically endangered species, but the proper conservation strategy would be the hunt. However, there is still something that bothers me about this episode. Corey Knowlton is a co-host on the Outdoor Channel television program “Jim Shockey’s The Professionals”. The show focuses on group of professional hunters who travel around the world to hunt some of the world’s most difficult and elusive species of big game. The trailer for the show makes it seem tense and fraught with danger. In an interview with Piers Morgan, Knowlton stated that this hunt could “make [him] a dead man.” It may very well.

While no link has been made between the show and Knowlton’s bidding on the rhino license, I find it impossible to believe that the producer of “The Professionals” is doing anything but getting ready to shoot some nearly impossible to reproduce television. This raises one extremely important question. A question of context. If Mr. Knowlton is as dedicated to the conservation of this species as he says he is, he should go on the hunt quietly and return quietly. No cameras. No trophy. But he has already stated that he wants to bring the hide back to the United States.

Corey Knowlton, it would seem, is stuck in a past as archaic as my introduction to this article. His motivations, despite the gesture of his donation, seem to come from an old, imperialistic ideal. Nature, it would seem to Knowlton, is a savage land waiting to be conquered by humans. But the scientific fact is that humans have already conquered and subjected all but the largest systems of our planet. There is a reason that this episode has been surrounded by controversy to begin with. The issue surrounding this hunt is a question of conservation. But it is a question more of publicity than of science. The gun that Knowlton will hold could very well be pointed at the public perceptions of rhino conservation. With a record-breaking 1,000 rhinos poached in South Africa last year alone, conservation seems to be losing the battle.

So go, Mr. Knowlton. Hunt your rhino. But do it quietly and without fanfare. If you really care about conservation, you will be mindful of the wake that you leave.

Strive to be Ready for When the Change Comes

Image Credit: USDA
Image Credit: USDA

“Be good, children, all of you, and strive to be ready for when the change comes.” -Andrew Jackson

I am consistently amazed by the degree to which human responses to change are comparable to that of other animals. For all of our blustering that we with our enormous brains are superior to the lesser beasts, we manage to fall into a lot of the same patterns as our imagined underlings. The population of Ireland in the early seventeen hundreds, for instance, was limited by the fact that agriculture was difficult and crop yields were typically low. This pinned the population at around two million. However, with the introduction of the potato the population of the small island exploded four fold. The crop was ideally suited for growth in the wet, temperate climate and gave great yields on small plots of land. Even the poorest of peasants could farm large potato crops on their meager lands and stuff their family full of the tremendous tuber.

This population response to a sudden increase in resources is found in every species. Every individual in every population has an energy budget that needs to be fulfilled. If you can only find enough food to sustain the body mass that you already have, you are not going to add more mass let alone spend precious energy reproducing. However, if the potato gods, in the form of Sir Walter Raleigh, gifts your island with an abundance of metabolic energy for every individual, then mating will commence posthaste. And it’s not just humans that follow this pattern. Muskrats, damselflies, right down to bacteria all fall in to this resource usage pattern.

The inverse of this pattern is also true. Take away precious resources from a system and the individuals, now faced with a scarcity problem, with compete for what is left. Some species will go as far as hoarding resources so that they are self-insured against future resource depletion. Here again is a trend that humans fit perfectly. Today we have complicated systems of wire, light and electricity to transfer our stock of resources from smartphone to bank server to ATM. Still, however, the concept remains the same. Not to mention, it was only seconds ago by evolutionary standards that people did have to physically hoard their resources and protect them from others.  In fact, the entire notion of capitalism is based on the fact that resources are finite so you better get as much as you can because you just never know when there will be a shortage.

This stands in comparison to my favorite near utopia, the United Federation of Planets, in which molecules can be taken from anything and arranged into anything else. The result is that money is a non-existent thing because, when your own waste can be turned back into food, resources are effectively infinite.

But until we arrive at that glorious point in the future where I can command my tea to be earl grey and hot, questions of a scarcity society will continue to plague us. Some of our scarcity questions we seem capable of solving. I would wager that we already have the technological components that we need to solve our fossil fuel scarcity question. Others questions are considerably more frightening. With only an estimated 2.5% of earth’s water being fresh, and less than one percent of that being available for human use, how will we solve that most biologically basic scarcity issue? With rivers now failing to reach oceans and aquifers drying up, will we hoard our resources and fight each other over what is left? Or, will we follow the model that we have set for ourselves time and time again, adaptation. At the point in history when enough food could not be gathered to feed a village, we cultivated our crops and made cities. When we could not cultivate enough to feed the city, we irrigated those crops and made nations. Now we face a choice; not just in water usage, but in nearly all realms of scarcity questions. We can remain as we are and watch as our countries wither. Or we can adapt, innovate, and build a world.