Are adrenalin-inducing sports and summit selfies objectifying nature and feeding our egos, or helping create a new generation of conservation-minded outdoors people?
From an early age, Craig Potton had a green thumb.
Like many other kids his age, he spent every weekend outside. He surfed. He climbed. He tramped. But he also worried.
Potton’s intense love for the wilderness was plagued with pangs of fear for its protection. “I, sadly, had to acknowledge that we were destroying nature,” he says.
So began his lifelong passion for conservation.
Along with environmental activism, Potton is well-known for his photography. He also has a successful publishing company, and is considered one of the most prominent voices in conservation today.
But, he still worries.
Today’s version of outdoor recreation doesn’t sit well with him. Gone are the days of quiet walks in the woods; these days, Potton cringes when he sees the way young adventure sports enthusiasts blast through the woods on their motorbikes, or zip across the planet on a whim to climb a mountain in one weekend.
Balancing ego-boosting, adrenalin-pumping sports with stewardship and empathy for the outdoors is crucial, Potton says, and he’s not so sure that young people today are finding that balance.
When Wilderness met with Potton, he had just seen the film 55 Hours in Mexico, in which a group of Americans travel from the US to Mexico over the course of a weekend in order to climb the third highest peak in North America, Orizaba (5636m). When the film showed at the Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka this year, it was met with laughter and applause. Potton had quite a different reaction.
“Their carbon footprint was horrendous. The speed that they did it at was horrendous,” Potton says. “They had lots of money of course, they got the rental car, they drove it up the hill and had to push it through all the mud, they went all through the night, they got two hour’s sleep, and of course going that high they got altitude sickness. Then, they skied off the top of the mountain. Everyone laughed, everyone loved the movie, because, who were these crazy buggers living out a dream? I didn’t. I actually thought that they did everything wrong from start to finish, and didn’t learn, and were reinforced from our society and the people clapping.”
Potton says that many outdoors-people today are “compressing space and destroying time”. To illustrate his point, he says that he thinks the only person who has ever really climbed Everest is Tim Macartney-Snape, an Australian who walked from the Indian Ocean to the top of Everest in 1990.
“He learned the space, he learned the time, he learned the rhythm of what it is to actually climb Everest. All the rest of us have gone in airplanes, and we’ve had our guides and our sherpas and we’ve put our shots on Facebook and we’ve done our selfies – but the only thing we haven’t done is climb Everest. We haven’t actually come to grips with what’s out there.”
Potton recognises he’s not immune to his criticism – he gets in his car, just like everyone else, and drives to a national park to experience wilderness. But, he admits he’s conflicted about it.
“I’m rethinking the way in which we involve people – myself included – in nature, and coming around to the idea that we have to have a huge amount of empathy for other forms of life,” Potton says. “We have, in the past, been enjoying nature as something we ski on, or walk over, or do something on. If we’re going to have a good future, we need to connect with nature in a more empathetic and more direct way, rather than doing something to it.”
There’s a big change in the way people are experiencing the outdoors. These days, it’s bigger, faster, harder; a trend that Adventure Consultant’s Guy Cotter says is heavily influenced by accessibility and exposure. Cotter, a mountain guide, has summited Everest four times since 1992, so he’s no stranger to the demands of high alpine climbing.
Outdoor recreation was different a few decades ago, when mountaineers scaled distant peaks just for the thrill of it.
“Once upon a time, you were going into the outdoor environment for personal satisfaction, and achieving things for yourself, and there was no need to put it out there and tell other people,” Cotter says. “Whereas in this day and age, with social media, something’s not relevant until you’ve posted it. It’s a big change from the approach of those of us who were around before social media. We did it because it sustained us, gave us satisfaction, and we loved the challenge of the environment. Now it’s, ‘what can we do that we can post online and get a following and recognition?’.”
Potton’s criticism of 55 Hours in Mexico resonates with Cotter’s skepticism of frivolously blasting through nature for the coveted summit selfie. However, Cotter doesn’t see it as all bad. In fact, while he’ll admit it makes him a bit sad, he’s all for it, as long as it means people are getting outdoors.
“When you have people who are engaged with the outdoors, they become advocates for it,” Cotter says. “If we don’t encourage people to get into the outdoors, in the next generation we might have our national parks being administered by bureaucrats who have no connection with the outdoors.”
That connection is vital, Cotter says. The passion that’s necessary to inspire individuals to protect nature can only be created through direct, personal experiences in the outdoors.
“That’s a really important reason why we need to keep encouraging youth to go into the mountains, and identify with it, and make them feel like it’s their place, their backyard, their playground,” he says. “Those people in their later life will go on and be involved, making sure that we retain access and that those values are maintained.”
But Potton is concerned that type of ownership can turn quickly into appropriation. In reference to the American climbers who raced up and down Orizaba, he says: “It’s good if you want it to be a story you tell your mates when you’re young and full of testosterone and that’s what you want to do, but it’s got nothing to do with nature.
“I have no problem with people doing things that have nothing to do with nature in the city, or even in the country, as long as they realise it’s got nothing to do with nature. But when they clothe it in that nature language, what they’ve done is take consumerism and made an object of nature.”
Perhaps more than other people his age, Brando Yelavich knows firsthand the life-changing forces of nature. When he was just 19, he forcibly ejected himself from his drug- and alcohol-fuelled existence, and started on a two-year walk around the coastline of New Zealand. He carried everything he owned on his back, foraged for food, and circumnavigated both the North and South Islands.
Yelavich’s collection of experiences in the outdoors is unique: on one hand, his journey around New Zealand is symbolic of Potton’s view of slowing down and bringing the experience back to basics – just a man and his pack. On the other hand, Yelavich – while it wasn’t his original intent – now has a large online following and is a public figure. He is embracing new and exciting ways of experiencing the outdoors, competing in adventure races and experimenting with new sports. He’s creating exactly the type of connection to the outdoors that Cotter says is vital for the future of conservation.
Yelavich says the first three days of his 570-day walk were among the most impactful of his life.
“Nature really saved me, to be honest. I was down the wrong road – smoking weed and drinking alcohol; that was all I did. I was changed by nature in the first three days of my journey. I saw wild horses, seals, I caught fish off the beach – I just had this amazing experience, learning all these new skills. I learned more in three days than 17 years at school,” Yelavich says.
But one of the lasting impressions of his journey was the concept of kaitiakitanga, which in Maori means guardianship of nature.
“When I go out into the wilderness, I feel as though I am a guardian of that space,” he says. “I’ll always take a bag to take my rubbish out. It’s all about being considerate to others, travelling and camping on durable ground and not chopping down trees to have a nice campsite,” he says.
Yelavich is now studying outdoor recreation at the Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology. He’s conscious that his outdoor pursuits aren’t always easy on nature, but believes it’s possible to strike a balance between enjoying nature in an action-packed way whilst protecting it.
“With prior planning and preparation, you can do any activity and still be a guardian. But you have to think about what you’re doing and do it carefully,” Yelavich says. For example, if you’re on a motorbike, following marked trails and roads makes it possible to maintain protection of the bush. Or, if he’s done something that’s damaging to the environment, Yelavich says he’ll replace that with planting a tree, or removing wilding pine or weeds.
Guardianship and empathy for nature could be described as selfless approaches to interacting with nature, but how does that stand up to the ego-boosting quality of publicly posting accomplishments?
Yelavich has written a book about his journey – Wildboy – and has a large online following. He says developing his public persona will help him to influence others about the importance of conservation and guardianship.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming aspect of self-promotion, social media didn’t invent the outdoor ego. Cotter, who has been in the outdoors industry for decades, says it’s always been an element.
“People were always striving to push themselves. That’s just the natural human condition,” he says. It’s just that the way the adventure is shared was different before the advent of social media. “It might have appeared in articles, or the odd TV clip, or sharing a story in the pub,” Cotter says.
People shared their stories, but it was low-key. Success wasn’t measured in Facebook likes or comments; it was more about personal achievements and connection with nature. But with each subsequent generation, our access to information and concept of what’s possible outdoors has reached new heights.
Cotter, reflecting on a recent ski-touring trip with his son, Elmo, said it’s the natural – and generational – progression to take outdoor sports to new extremes.
“Not long into the trip, Elmo was building a kicker and doing backflips. What was very interesting for me was to see that he engaged differently with the environment to how I did,” says Cotter.
“This is my backyard that I’ve been in for the last 40 years, and to see the younger generation look at the terrain differently is actually really cool, because they’re finding their own way to interact with the environment instead of doing it the way I did it, just like I did different things to what my father did in the mountains.”
Cotter says he climbed steeper routes, routes in winter, ice-climbed, and did much harder technical climbing than his father would have in his day.
“People are now engaging in a range of activities, whereas there were limited activities when I was young,” he says. “But I think we’ve gone towards an era of the quick fix, and less to the big expedition approach, and that’s just a reflection of where our society has gone. People want to get out there and have a big rush and get back to their screen.”
But regardless of the method, at least they’re getting out there. And for Cotter, that’s what matters.
“Each generation has to find something they identify with; that is their own,” he says. “Having seen my son take to it just like that shows that given access to that environment, they will identify with it, and think of it as being just as important to them as I did.”