Rethink Outside

Rethink Outside

Over the last several weeks I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to reimagine the outdoors. I’m not suggesting that the natural world should be seen as landscapes with purple skies or orange grass populated by prancing unicorns ( as cool as that might be). But rather I envision an environment in nature where everyone is not only made to feel welcome, but encouraged to become active participants in its long-term preservation. I want to see everyone outside.

Recent reporting projects included stops at the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, the Willamette National Forest in Oregon and  the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin. I attended the Patagonia Tools For Grassroots Activists Conference on Fallen Leaf Lake in the Eldorado National Forest in California and visited Petty Island on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania during the Blue Sky Funders Forum.  I also hosted an evening of community storytelling at the Jordahl Public Lands Lecture through the University of Wisconsin, Madison Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies. At each of these locations I connected with remarkable people doing the good work of environmental conservation.  And it seemed everyone was giving a great deal of thought to how we might make the outdoors more accessible to more people. 

(The 2019 cohort of Patagonia Grant recipient celebrating the joys of environmental activism)

Much of what we think about when we imagine nature involves a distant location far away. The so called “Great Outdoors” is too often relegated to remote wilderness areas beyond human civilization. Usually these are places where only those with the courage and fortitude of heroes dare enter. And even they seem to require disposable income, leisure time, expensive equipment and specialized training to enjoy time outside worthy of the name “adventure”. Many of the stories we hear and share about the outdoors are narratives that don’t always include the lived experiences of a growing population around the world. Particularly in the United States our stories often fail to equitably include the broad diversity of citizens and visitors who are people of color, women, immigrants, financially insecure, differently abled or members of the LGBTQ community. The continued longevity of our natural environment will ultimately depend upon the vast majority the human population working together to protect it. Our stories should express the needs and interests of everyone.

So if we’re going to create a world outside that is diverse, equity and inclusive we must change how we think about it. The outdoors is really only as far away as a neighborhood park, a community garden or your own backyard. It’s important to understand that nature is indeed all around us in the air we breath, in the water we drink and in the food we eat. But it is also in our relationships with people in our community whose ability to experience the outdoors is directly connected to our own. If anyone is deprived of their natural human right to enjoy the outdoors we are all at risk.

The notion of a natural world that is accessible and open to everyone could be defined through a shared narrative. The folks at the Blue Sky Funders Forum have created a grassroots campaign called #RethinkOutside to encourage the environmental movement to adopt language and principals that unite each of us in common purpose.

“The shared narrative is designed to reach and influence new audiences, and advance outcomes including conservation, education, health and wellness, social justice and civic engagement, and youth development. A shared narrative is inspiring and compelling, offering space for each stakeholder to see their purpose and place in the vision. It is the story behind the story that ensures everyone who tells the story uses a common and effective vocabulary, and anyone who hears it comes away with a shared understanding of the importance of participating in the new future.” ~

As we rethink outside I’d like to suggest that we consider a few things that are culturally relevant for the enjoyment of everyone.

Acknowledge Those Who Came Before Us

Every square inch of land in North American and South America are the ancestral homelands of native people. We must never forget that the land upon which many of us recreate today was appropriated though acts of genocide for which we have yet to atone. A historic marker on the campus where I teach makes this acknowledgement: “The University of Wisconsin–Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land, a place their nation has called Teejop (day-JOPE) since time immemorial”. In most places across the U.S. the tribal history of anywhere you live or visit can be found with a simple Google search.

Recognize Economic Barriers To Access

Not everyone enjoys the privileges of disposable income and leisure time that make outdoor recreation possible. For many it’s not as simple as just going outside. Financial limitations are among many barriers to accessing the natural world. We can help by supporting businesses that pay their employees a living wage that includes time for a least weekends off. Generously tip people in the service industries that not only include restaurant wait staff, but also hotel maids, cab drivers and ride share providers. 

Understand Disparities of Use 

Our public spaces have not always been open to everyone. Much of the racial discrimination in the U.S. through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s included the segregation in our National Parks. Many campgrounds, beaches and other recreation areas were deemed for “whites only”. Issues of housing discrimination commonly known as Redlining persisted through the early 1980s which systematically relegated people of color to urban enclaves with limited access to natural spaces for activities such as camping, backpacking or skiing. These disparities of use are still apparent today. Fortunately a number of cultural affinity groups such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and Brown Girls Climb have been create to provide safe and culturally relevant communities through which people of color can experience the natural world.

Put Nature First

The modern conveniences we enjoy today made possible by the consumption of fossil fuels and the production of disposable plastics are destroying the natural world. The excessive use of nonrenewable energy sources is putting too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, resulting in a raise of global temperatures. In addition to climate change our way of life is generating so much non-biodegradable plastic that we have thoroughly polluted our oceans, beaches and rivers. Soon much of that garbage will begin to litter our parks and forests. We can put nature first by reducing how much we drive personal vehicles or ride in commercial airplanes. Walking, riding a bike or taking public transportation can help to cut down of motor exhaust emissions. We should think about how single-use plastic items, like eating utensils, non-recyclable coffee cups, drinking straws, shopping bags and six-pack rings can be replaced with reusable items we can carry with us. It may not be particularly convenient, but reducing our consumption can go a long way toward environmental protection. 

Insist On Justice

It was the noted scholar Cornel West who said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” It is in our behavior toward people in our community on public land that we can best express our love for one another as environmental justice. Through that expression  we can assure that our neighbors have access to fresh drinking water, sustainably grown and affordable food and easily accessible open space for recreation. To paraphrase the Gold Rule we must insist for others the very things we want for ourselves. That includes a natural environment that is available for all enjoy regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, physical ability or national origin. 

(Atlanta area activists exploring the source of the Chattahoochee River near Brasstown Bald the highest point in the state of Georgia)

Perhaps there are many things I have neglected to mention, many more things to consider as we rethink outside. But each of us must decide for ourselves how best to navigate a natural environment with finite resources, over population and a changing climate that is growing inhospitable to human life. For now we have options. And given time I believe that we can correct our current course of mutually assured destruction. But first we must reimagine the natural world as a place of abundance and safety where everyone is given the opportunity to grow and thrive as essential elements a single healthy organism. If we rethink outside with a spirit of diversity equity and inclusion I believe we can create a better world not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

  • IMG_6428-3-Edit.jpg
  • IMG_6486.jpg
  • IMG_6512-Edit.jpg
  • IMG_6927.jpg
  • IMG_6957.jpg
  • IMG_7076.jpg
  • IMG_7201.jpg
  • IMG_7874.jpg
  • IMG_7883.jpg
  • IMG_9933.jpg
  • IMG_8074.jpg
  • IMG_9821.jpg
  • IMG_9955.jpg
  • IMG_9963.jpg
  • IMG_9964.jpg
  • IMG_9983.jpg
  • IMG_0057.jpg
  • IMG_0068.jpg