What are we even doing here? A reflection on the value of Leave No Trace

Lansing, Michigan - Folks frequently raise various issues when we introduce them to what we do with Leave No Trace:

“Shouldn’t you be trying to eliminate plastic?”

“Residents of Flint don’t have access to clean drinking water.”

“What are you doing about the opening of our public lands to extraction?”

As an environmental ethics organization, the wide variety of environmental ethics issues are laid at our feet, many of which are serious and urgent issues. We respond by acknowledging the importance of dealing with single-use plastics, addressing social injustice, preserving public land for public use, etc., but repeat something along the lines of, “that’s not really what we focus on,” and proceed to tell them about reducing the trash they bring with them into the wilderness, protecting streams and lakes from human and dog waste, and other tips for maintaining the ecological health and aesthetic value of the public lands we still have open to us. But, for those of us committed to spending our time focused on impacts to wild nature from human recreational use, these questions force reflection on the worthiness of our cause. Leave No Trace takes a long view and is focused on bringing about gradual and durable changes in attitudes and behaviors regarding our public lands. But, there are moral issues of arguably far greater urgency than protecting biological soil crust from trampling under the feet of folks on vacation in the desert, and these aren’t limited to the environment. So, how can we devote our time, energy and resources to an ethical issue that to many might seem good, but not required, given the magnitude of injustice in the world, and the threat to life and human civilization that our dependence on fossil fuels and industrial food production poses? We sometimes ask ourselves the same questions. We travel to beautiful places, to meet with folks who choose to visit, offering advice on keeping our wild places wild for future generations to enjoy, while all around the world atrocities are committed, and our politicians show little or no resolve in addressing global environmental catastrophe. Shouldn’t we be joining with efforts to address these other issues? After all, if global climate change is allowed to run out of control, we could see ecological changes in just a few generations that obviate local conservation efforts made today. Is there a way out of this apparent conflict?

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First, an exactly similar argument could be leveled at anyone who pursues any vocation whose end is less morally pressing, or even amoral. Entertainers of all stripes – from actors to musicians to sports teams are engaged in what, when compared to other human needs, could easily be called frivolity. Some artistic works, at the very least, call attention to pressing moral issues, and so might get a pass on the question at hand, but much of the art created throughout history focuses on the process of creating something beautiful for its own sake. However, just because the same argument can be used to critique pursuits we don’t ordinarily question doesn’t mean that the criticism is unreasonable. After all, artists, entertainers and other vocations not focused on pressing moral issues, don’t claim to be engaging in ethics in the first place. So, perhaps the implicit criticism gains its leverage from the “Outdoor Ethics” part of our organization’s name.

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You’re likely familiar with the response to those who question resources devoted to the creation art or literature during wartime, that if we abandon these essentially human activities, what are we fighting for in the first place? We think this is true for any activity focused on human excellence. By making painfully beautiful music, the musician isn’t implicitly denying the importance of fighting for justice or addressing global pollution. Nor is an athlete who devotes herself to running a world record mile at odds with the surgeon saving lives. Neither of us will make beautiful music, or run world-record miles, nor do we think that our work compares perfectly to that of an artist or athlete, but like these pursuits, the protection of wild nature for its own sake, as well as that of future generations to study and enjoy, is an important piece of a bigger picture of what makes human existence an excellent, or virtuous one.

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A person isn’t excellent simply because she is very good at one thing. A skilled leader is vicious for her lies just as an accomplished athlete is vicious for his malevolence. And, as Aristotle correctly points out, a person who practices temperance and justice but whose life is full of pain and misery couldn’t be said to have an excellent human life. So, just as each of the multiple virtues are necessary for complete human excellence, so too is a society made excellent by caring for and attending to everything that makes it (potentially) great. It is not enough that we feed and clothe and productively occupy our people, nor is it sufficient that we husband natural resources for present and near-future generations (though this is extremely important and very pressing). We must also produce art, and perform feats of physical excellence, and protect and promote the relationship between humankind and wild nature. Philosophers and poets have long known what is increasingly being proven through science – that time in nature is healing and balancing – a tonic for our souls. What we do is attempt to unify the spirit of wilderness, that ineffable thing about nature that draws us to it, with the best science on how to protect it for its own sake, so that we might better and more caringly visit and replenish ourselves, preserving nature’s balance for our children, and theirs to come.

Enjoy Your World,

Jessie and Matt

Leave No Trace's Jessie Johnson and Matt Schneider are part of the 2018 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, REI, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Deuter, Thule, Taxa, and Klean Kanteen.