If you’re reading this, I doubt I’ll have to go into too much detail to describe why I like being outside. We could begin by describing all the things we are freely given from the world. There are the material goods of produce - apples, corn, berries, squash (peaches are one of my favorites), but it doesn’t end there. Other products such as honey, silk, cotton and wool are nothing short of marvels, the likes of which our “advanced” technology can only hope to imitate. Natural processes provide us with clean air and water, filtering out pollution, natural and man-made, to continue our collective survival. (I use ‘our’ in the broadest sense possible, not just in the limited scope of humanity, because our survival is intrinsically dependent on that of living beings surrounding us). These processes are referred to as ‘eco-services’ in scientific jargon. Specifically, they are the benefits and services rendered to humans via natural processes. Most often, these services might be considered so mundane that we don’t even recognize their importance. On the smaller end of the scale, microscopic breakdown of nutrients within the top few inches of soil creates a beautiful array of bacteria, fungi, insect life, that literally sustains life as we know it. In capitalistic terms (which I generally try to avoid), these services are equated to billions and billions of dollars’ worth of products, by-products, and services that are carried out simply by existing.
Everything I’ve discussed has mostly been the material goods we can study and measure. But I’d imagine we can all agree that the reason we spend so much of our time obsessing over our next trip or planning out different objectives isn’t because of the material goods that we gain from those experiences. There is so much more than what the technocratic empiricists can measure, although there is increasing scholarship trying to understand the mental and even physiological benefits of exposure to natural spaces. When the stresses of the daily mundane seem to build into a crescendo, we are lucky to have places to which we can retreat, be it our favorite hills to bike, the solitude of an alpine lake, or a tree in our city parks. These spaces we hold dear for their ability to soothe and relax, reorient, and calm. I’m sure I’m not the only one who could share stories of how Nature has provided for not only my physical, but also my mental wellbeing.
Given all these wonderful benefits and gifts bestowed upon us, we would be remiss to not wonder, “What do we have to offer in return?” Surely, there’s not a short supply of stories detailing the damage being done by exploitative systems whose only logical theme seems to be to take and to profit, with no concern for giving and healing. Immersing oneself in these important yet overwhelming stories can lead to feelings of powerlessness, of uncertainty, and dead-end at depression. It is just as important to know what we should fight FOR, as it is to be sure of what we are fighting against.
I have been lucky enough to carve out a pathway of a career that enables me to merge my enjoyment of the outdoors with an ability to study, and learn from and about some of these places (and hopefully, share some of this knowledge with others). I study glaciers and their associated hydrological processes. Like all things in life, there is a duality in this. I’m afforded to study and learn about whatever questions I have about environments that are stunningly beautiful, and yet this passion and ambition is accompanied by witnessing also just how much these places are being catastrophically altered and damaged by the organization and by-products of human society. My field area is located in Patagonia, the southern area of Chile and Argentina, characterized by violent storms, jagged mountains, and blue ice glaciers. When I return yearly to the glaciers, the melt taken place since our last visit is noticeable even to the human eye. We can see the extent of ice melt from the canyon walls, see how far back the glacier front has retreated. Where we used to be able to access the glaciers, we now have to walk dozens of meters farther down valley to be able to climb into the ice. At home, I’m tormented daily by my guilty conscience when I drive instead of bike, when I forget my reusable grocery bags, when I fall prey to consumer marketing and buy something I don’t need from Amazon because their shipping is faster. And yet, these things individually are incomprehensibly small considering the magnitude of the environmental breakdown that we see on a larger scale. We are taught, especially my compatriots of the US of A, to think of ourselves as individuals, atomized and separate from those surrounding us. As such, solutions to these problems are framed as individual actions against a hegemonic system. If we seek to effectively give back to (for lack of a better term) Mother Earth, we must seek to collectivize our action, matching the scope and scale of our response to that of the problem. We must learn to reconceptualize “Nature” as not only the space in which we recreate and play, or that gives us food, but as a living whole, a being which not only deserves but actively cries out for defense from extractive industries and greedy structures of power.
A growing movement, especially within indigenous-led organizations, is mobilizing for legal recognition of the subjectivity of what were previously only considered places or things. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine legal protection of Nature within its constitution. New Zealand has recognized the legal rights of a river held sacred by indigenous Maori. These actions, though unprecedented, are not new ideas but can be traced to indigenous recognition of the personhood of nature. Given the established and proven advocacy for land stewardship of indigenous societies, past and present, it seems appropriate to repatriate land stolen from indigenous peoples as both a moral imperative from past injustice and a pragmatic realism to the environmental crisis.
The point of this is to illustrate that there are multitudes of people fighting for a habitable planet (and let it be clear that this is literally what is at stake) through which we can collectivize our efforts. There may be ideas or tactics that will be initially unfamiliar to us – cognitive dissonance with our previously held beliefs. Don’t we owe it to the larger being that is Nature, to spend a bit of our busy lives trying to learn how to do better, do be better? We probably won’t all agree on the best plan of action, and that’s okay. Probably for the better, I’d argue. But we should agree on the need, the imperative that we act, and that our actions match the emergency which our generation has inherited. We are given so much that it is often taken for granted that which we have. Society writ large didn’t begin to recognize, let alone understand, many of the ‘ecoservices’ rendered until there was sufficient strain on them that we felt their absence, noted the loss in our lives.
This isn’t a polemic against humanity as a whole. I sincerely believe in the goodness of humanity, and that the crisis we are experiencing isn’t insurmountable. As noted by the American folk singer Utah Phillips, “The Earth isn’t dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” This, we should recognize, is what we are fighting against. The climate crisis has a cause which isn’t some ethereal or nebulous source of greenhouse gas emissions. The plastic pollution that has been observed literally everywhere on the planet, from Mt Everest to the deepest corners of our oceans, is being produced because people find it profitable to do so. Let that be clear. But just as I said in the beginning, that we need to understand what we are fighting FOR just as what we are fighting AGAINST, let our love of these special places remind us of the why. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from the immortal Edward Abbey – “One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.
So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
Growing up in California, Utah, and Colorado, Jonathan Burton developed a deep respect for diverse landscapes across the American West and beyond. A PhD student of Geography and Glacier Hydrology by day, he spends the remainder of his time climbing, running, and biking through the Front Range. You can follow Jonathan on Instagram at @jonathanwburton.