ED-OP: Staying Resilient + Hopeful in a Time of Climate Crisis

It’s a daunting task to find the right words to fit our current moment in ecological history. Never before have the joint fates of humanity and the natural world been at higher risk. Never before has the discussion around climate action and our relationship to nature changed so rapidly in the face of such immediate risk. We grasp for poetry, prose, or politicians who can give us a sense of hope and security moving forward, but, increasingly, it feels that words are a shout into the void of our collective crisis. 

Forgive me — I haven’t gotten off to a very empowering or inspiring start. Allow me to say, rather, that it is the greatest challenge of our generation to contextualize and combat the climate crisis – to put it into words that move masses, to pass effective policy, and to, one day, re-order our socio-economic and political structure in the hopes of healing our broken relationship with the land. We have been entrusted with a responsibility to notice what has been neglected, connect with what has been overlooked, and return to the roots from which we have grown so distant. 

Photo by Julentto Photography on Unsplash

The arc of humanity’s course hasn’t always been bent towards destruction. Indeed, for most of our history, our relationship with the land was a reciprocal one, with an intrinsic appreciation for the beauty and value of nature and a sense of gratitude for what she has given us. How, then, did we stray so far from the path? At what point along our journey did we lose sight of our obligation to protect and preserve the natural world? Many forces can be argued to be at fault: capitalism, western religion, patriarchy, industrialization, and globalization to name a few. These institutions have rooted themselves in the bedrock of our human identity, and, although certain brave activists and intellectuals attempt to chip away at them or abandon them entirely, they have had an irreversible effect on how we identify ourselves and what we owe to the natural world. 

This, therefore, is my thesis. To remind you, and to constantly remind me, how much we owe to the natural world. Indigenous cultures in North America, such as the Ojibwe and the Potawatomi, base their relationship with the environment on reciprocity; nothing is taken without permission, and everything that is taken is a gift that is owed gratitude, stewardship, and respect in return. It’s a simple premise, that we cannot take without asking and we cannot accept a gift without an act of gratitude in return. In native communities, this act of gratitude is often an offering of tobacco, a holy plant. The concept, a plant for a plant, a gift for a gift, is sacred in its simplicity. It is this concept that I cling to as we plunge deeper into our shared ecological fate. 

Humans, for all their faults, have always been quick learners. 

We must relearn this essential act of reciprocity, in whatever form it takes. Whether spiritual or physical, there is something we can offer the natural world in exchange for what it has given us. Gratitude and reciprocity are often forgotten as central tenets of environmentalism, but it is through these practices that we can heal our broken relationship with nature. This takes many forms; from cleaning up the parks and green spaces in which we play to paying a carbon tax, we are slowly relearning the practice of giving back in exchange for what is taken. The oldest and most essential of these practices is the planting of trees – thinking ahead for a future we may not be alive to see. The planting of a tree is an almost selfless act, as it asks an individual to give water, light, and sun to a being that will be standing long after we have fallen. 

When I’m asked to describe how I feel about the climate crisis, many negative words spring to mind. Afraid, disappointed, and anxious, my mind often screams, terrified of our spaceship earth going down. But, more than any of these things, I am grateful. 

Grateful for the opportunity to heal and to mend, and to relearn what we’ve so long ago forgotten. I am grateful for everything nature has given me so far and grateful to devote myself to the work of giving back to her. It is gratitude – deliberate, reciprocal gratitude – that will guide us as we look to save what has been overlooked for so long. 

RESOURCES FOR RESILIENCY

To keep from losing hope and remaining grateful in times of crisis, I prescribe the following remedies:

  • Community: there are groups in almost every town and county designated to bringing people together in appreciation for the natural world and the fight to protect her. In urban places, I urge you to seek the groups focused on preserving and maintaining local parks and gardens – access to natural spaces in urban communities is an essential aspect of rebuilding our relationship with nature. 
  • Local Advocacy: Often, it can feel like too much to try to carry the greater national and global fights of climate change on your shoulders. If you’re passionate about doing the work of outdoor advocacy but feel too overwhelmed to start, look to local groups working to protect and preserve the green spaces in your own community. It can be uplifting to see the effects of the work you’re doing in your hometown and to connect with other locals about what common ground you share and work to protect. 
  • Literature: so much of what we read about the environment these days is disheartening, exhausting, and depressing. There is an important place for this literature; it agitates us into action. However, to reconnect more peacefully and resiliently with this fight, check out the following books! 
    • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer – a story of the nexus between indigenous tradition and scientific knowledge, and how we can bring the two narratives together to create a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. 
    • The Overstory by Richard Power – a gripping novel chronicling the lives of several different individuals as they had been impacted by and guided by trees, and how they ultimately came together in the fight against deforestation of America’s old-growth forests. 
    • We Rise: The Earth Guardians’ Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez – Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is a 19-year-old climate activist, hip-hop artist, and powerful new voice on the frontlines of a global youth-led movement. In this book, he and his group the Earth Guardians share stories and resources to guide regenerative, restorative climate action and activism. 
 Priya Subberwal
Priya Subberwal

Priya is a 20-year old climate activist currently studying Environmental Studies at New York University. She grew up hiking and skiing in the Rocky Mountains and is passionate about preserving our public lands for posterity. She can often be found outdoors protesting, photographing, or simply photosynthesizing. 

NOTE: THIS IS AN EDUCATED OPINION PIECE. As with all resources on Outdoor Advocacy Project, there is always room to continue the conversation, add a new perspective, bolster the resources, and share new findings. Got something you want to add, challenge or amplify? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail team@outdooradvocacy.com to write your own ed-op on this topic.

ED-OP: Let’s Talk about Geotagging

Note: This piece originally appeared here on TheMorningFresh.com on 5/6/19. Since writing this educational opinion piece, writer Katie Boué has expanded her writing on geotagging to an informative piece you can read here on the REI Co-op Journal.

Photo by Oscar Sutton on Unsplash

First, I invite you to check your current opinions (read: ego) on geotagging. Just shelve ‘em for a moment, hit the pause button, give yourself 10 minutes of reading and considering before you interject with a “well, actually…” Here’s the thing about this post: you aren’t going to leave with a solid answer of to geotag or not to geotag.

So what is geotagging? According to our friends at Wikipedia,

Geotagging or GeoTagging, is the process of adding geographical identification metadata to various media such as a geotagged photograph or video, websites, SMS messages, QR Codes[1] or RSS feeds and is a form of geospatial metadata. This data usually consists of latitude and longitude coordinates, though they can also include altitude, bearing, distance, accuracy data, and place names, and perhaps a time stamp.

For our purposes, we’re mainly talking about the geotag feature on Instagram (and social media at large). According to SproutSocial, “an Instagram [geotag]  is the specific location, down to the latitude and longitude, of where you’ve stored your Instagram content. Geolocations are gathered from the physical location of your mobile device, which allows users to store or tag their content to those coordinates.” Geotags are a way to gain visibility amongst like-minded communities, a way to give mountains back their Indigenous names, a little digital log of the places you’ve been from restaurants and cities to trailheads and summits.

The idea of imbalance between public lands and visitors isn’t new–rewind to the 1940s and you’ll see reference to the same idea of “rapid growth in the number of Americans hitting the trail” (source). If you’re reading this, you’re probably an outdoorist, so you get it. The great outdoors is, well, great, so it’s no surprise that more and more people want to get out there.

Here’s the thing, more than 500 million people visit public lands annually (source), with over 330 million visits to national park sites in 2017 (source)–and blaming Instagram and geotagging for an influx of people at trailheads isn’t going to solve the accompanying issues of overuse. To blame a geotag is to eschew the deeper, critical issues our lands are facing right now. To say “Instagram is ruining the outdoors” is to water down our current environmental crisis with cheap sentiments of bitterness and old guard. Is social media playing a role in the current issues we’re facing? Absolutely. But it’s just one teat on an udder full of problems that need solutions (like the crisis happening at climbing crags across the country).

Further, I wondered: do we have any data or research that indicates geotagging and social media as the root of all outdoor evil? The short answer is: no. There is a distinct lack of science behind all of this, though I did find a few studies that surprised me.

Here are the results from a hiker survey conducted by the Adirondack Council, asking folks on the trail “why did you decide to hike today?” Note the least popular response:

Hmm….

The debate around geotagging has reached every corner of the internet from National Geographic to the New York Times. The Leave No Trace center issued new guidance specifically addressing social media. This is a topic that deserves nuance, as is seen within this Outside Magazine article that both cites Instagram as a reason folks fall to their death at Horseshoe Bend and also recognizes that “the best way to protect public lands is to have advocates. Often the best advocates are the folks taking photos and sharing them on Facebook and Instagram.”

Either way, I wonder: why are we blaming Instagram solely for the popularization of the outdoors? It’s not just Instagram y’all. The outdoors are being promoted in film, guidebooks, through e-mail newsletters, by tourism groups, by motivational speakers, in commercials–it’s everywhere. Is it just easy for us to scapegoat Instagram instead of taking the energy to consider how big and complex this beast is?

During a coffee date with my dear friend Bri Madia, who is infamous for her strong stance against geotagging, she posed a question I hadn’t fully considered: “What I want to know is, why do people geotag?” So, naturally, I asked my community–on both sides of the aisle. First, I polled on Instagram stories, do you or don’t you geotag (including general/regional tags)? There was a fairly even split erring on the side of ‘do’ with 1107 vs. 825 ‘donts’.
*note, this is not intended to be deep scientific findings, just a pulse of my community, don’t get it twisted.

WHY DO WE GEOTAG? (57%)

The overwhelming sentiment in the pro-tagging camp was around the idea of sharing the experiences we have with others. “To share with the community” and “to encourage, to inform, to let people know about the amazing places right in their backyard.” Folks from places like the southeast, Kansas and Texas expressed a desire to help their neighbors discover that they’ve got rad outdoor spaces they might not know existed (“Coming from Ohio, most Ohio folks have no idea how much great hiking there is!”). Some do it to provide updated imagery of trail conditions.

Karen Ramos (@naturechola) summed up the pro side eloquently:

“Because I don’t believe in using conservation as an excuse for exclusion.”

Folks cited Instagram as a resource they used when they were first exploring public lands and planning trips, and use geotagging as a way to pay it forward. Heck, I just searched Placencia, Belize geotags last night to vibe out my trip in a few weeks. While Instagram provides a pinpoint on a map to a place that’s been geotagged, I wonder how many people simply drive straight there vs. how many use that as a starting point to begin their research on a place. I found no conclusive data on this topic, despite many strong opinions.

Many people also ‘fessed up to doing it for self-serving purposes, to remember the places they had visited, to get more likes, or “to brag about the hard hikes I accomplished.” An interesting note is that many folks acknowledged having small platforms or private accounts where their tags had less visibility.

WHY DON’T WE GEOTAG? (43%)

I’ll start with the legitimate responses–and this one I personally identify with: “because I don’t need internet strangers knowing where I am.” I had this conversation again and again with women in my community. I travel solo often, and usually haunt the same spots because they are safe and comfortable for me. So, I don’t geotag those areas, and if someone asks me about it, I’m honest about that. As Bri Madia puts it,

“I grew up in a time when you didn’t tell strangers on the internet where you were. I’ll recommend guidebooks, map apps, and resources but I’m not going to draw you a map on how to find me in the middle of nowhere.”

I personally have had a number of creepy run-ins with folks who ‘found me’ via Instagram, so I’m careful about sharing my location (I don’t post IG stories until I’ve left a location now).

There are the other, more dire instances where geotagging is undeniably harmful too–like when it can endanger rhinos being sought by poachers. I also spoke to a woman in Big Cypress, Florida who cited orchid poaching as an issue perpetuated by geotagging. A number of scientists and ecologists chimed in with similar thoughts about needing to protect certain flora, fauna, and archeological sites.

From there, the responses devolve. The anti-geotagging responses echoed ideas of “to keep it a secret, not everyone deserves to know,” and “can’t trust the general public with wild, untouched places.” There was also “I want to keep my special places secret,” and my favorite for honesty, “I hate people.”

Folks, if you are “protecting places from people who don’t deserve to go there,” you are engaging in something called gatekeeping. (Please see Melanin Basecamp’s #1 reason why they are pro-geotagging.) Gatekeeping is a self-appointed decision on who does or doesn’t have the right to access information, community, or identity. And I pose this question to you: what exactly qualifies you as the person who gets to decide who is or isn’t deserving of ‘your’ outdoor spaces? At what point did you graduate from average outdoorsy person to almighty keeper of nature? Did you forget that there’s no such thing as “pristine, untouched wilderness” because as my friend Dr. Len Necefer reminds us: Indigenous people have been moving across, living on, cultivating, and celebrating that land way before settlers forcibly removed Native people from it and declared it wild.

Gatekeeping isn’t cool. It isn’t okay, and if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable because you realized maybe you’re being a gatekeeper–I invite you to consider changing your mindset around how you “protect” the places you love. I don’t always tag the specific locations I’m in, often opting for the general park or forest name–but I will always engage in a conversation and share my resources if someone DMs me about a place. The outdoors is not mine to keep (nor is it yours).

Aside from the exclusionary bullshit behind being anti-geotagging, my number one qualm with folks who gripe about Instagram ruining the outdoors is a lack of solutions for the problem. A lot of “get off my lawn” and not enough “here’s what I think we can do to make it better.” Scroll down to the 4th point in Melanin Basecamp’s recent geotagging article, and bam, solutions. Whether you’re for or against geotagging, we can all agree that there is a massive influx of people getting outdoors, and we lack the infrastructure to accommodate the boom.

Do I think everyone deserves access to the outdoors? Hell yes. Do I also believe that once we hit carrying capacities for trails and ecosystems, we need to start implementing permitting systems and quotas? Absolutely. Back to that study from the Adirondack Council, dive into page 2 and you’ll see that hikers largely support management intervention, trail closures, etc.

After all of this, my thoughts on geotagging evolved and I realized: the problem isn’t that geotagging provides too much information, it’s that geotagging doesn’t provide enough. My original sentiments erred on the side of “geotagging shortcuts the educational aspect of learning about a place” – so what if geotagging supplemented that? What if, at the top of public lands geotag pages was a quick wiki-style bite of information that could offer information about whether a spot is illegal to access, if there are sensitive cryptobiotic soils not to step on, whether an area is prone to flash floods or avalanches, if there’s an archeological site it’s illegal to disturb, a warning not to crush the wildflowers. What if the users aren’t the problem, but the system of geotagging itself is what’s broken?

Further, if used well, geotagging can be a tool to promote advocacy and spread information. If you do choose to geotag, I believe the onus is on you to provide resources and education. When tagging a spot in Moab (whether you tag Grandstaff Trailhead or just Moab), include a quick blurb about how delicate cryptobiotic soil is and why it’s important to stay on the trail. Offer a quick ‘and remember to practice Leave No Trace!’ or remind folks “this spot is 30 miles down a dirt road with no access to water, and you have to carry your poo out!” You hold the power to spread advocacy, and you have the power to use an Instagram post to spark positive stewardship amongst your community.

Instagram and geotagging are what you make it. Are there “influencers” out there who make a profit off public lands without stewarding them, or taking any action to give back to the places they benefit from? Absolutely. Who has the power to support that or demand that they do better? You do. (Oh yes, this idea of the ethics of being an outdoor professional/influencer is a topic I plan on traveling down the rabbit hole of in the future…)

And folks, I do truly understand that there are some places that are so special, so spiritual, so personally sacred that we (read: our egos, and that’s okay) truly can’t bear the thought of sharing the location with the internet–so, don’t post pictures of them online. If it’s truly about the sanctity of the place, and not about your ego, don’t post it.

In a report by the Center for Western Priorities, the group concludes a study on public land visitation by saying “Policymakers should steer clear of policies that limit public access to U.S. public lands. Instead, America’s elected officials should look for ways to maintain and expand outdoor opportunities by boosting budgets for land management agencies and guaranteeing permanent funding for conservation and public lands access. Hundreds of millions of visitors each year depend on it.” Replace ‘policymakers’ with ‘Instagrammers–and social media haters’ and you’ve got my feelings on this whole debate summed up.


NOTE: THIS IS AN EDUCATED OPINION PIECE, NOT AN OBJECTIVE RESOURCE. As with all resources on Outdoor Advocacy Project, there is always room to continue the conversation, add a new perspective, bolster the resources, and share new findings. Got something you want to add, challenge or amplify? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail team@outdooradvocacy.com to write your own ed-op on this topic.

Katie Boué
Katie Boué

 Katie Boué is a Cuban-American outdoor advocate, writer, communication strategist, and founder of the Outdoor Advocacy Project. She believes that every outdoorist has a responsibility to serve our public lands and protect our planet.