The Outside Blog

Dispatches

Do-Gooder Drones

Despite our best efforts to stunt it, abuse of nature persists. But drones—those flying bogeymen of Big Brother—could be rebranded as heroes as they gain extensive use in monitoring environmental and animal welfare where humans can’t easily go.

For one, drones are increasingly being used to investigate poaching in large stretches of national parks, and now a new program in Belize is taking that effort over water. The country tried to protect its coral reef system, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, by setting up a slew of protected areas, but monitoring huge sections of ocean with a limited staff is no easy task. 

The solution: At the beginning of lobster season in June, the Belize Fisheries Department began tracking illegal fishing with two drones made possible by the Wildlife Conservation Society and ConservationDrones.org, an Australian nonprofit that the New York Times reports has built about 100 drones for the use in conservation. Designed to withstand and excel in unique environments, the drones have flown over water, through jungles, and around beaches.

Having a lot of land to monitor impedes efficient protection, but so do legal issues closer to home. Societies concerned with the safety of factory farm animals have been set back by “ag-gag” laws, rules that outlaw undercover recording of farm operations. Independent journalist Will Potter says he’s found a loophole in the rules: They don’t explicitly say you can’t record from the air. Inspired by satellite images of farms (taken within public space), Potter broke out the drones.

This might be illegal, but it will be years before courts decide what to do about it. Meanwhile, Potter will publicly document the scale and degree of factory farm operations. His operation is endorsed by PETA, which has been using and selling drones to stem illegal hunting since 2013. 

“If Will Potter uses drones legally to shine a spotlight on factory farming and slaughter practices, we’re all in favor of it,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said in an interview with NPR’s The Salt blog.

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Victory V's Don't Always Mean Victory

For years, we’ve been discussing the media’s role in distorting female body image. Dozens of studies and campaigns have fingered Photoshopped images in women’s emotional, mental, and physical health issues. Well boys, it seems your time has come. The pressure to look good, bulk up, and build a "six-pack," the supposed stamp of ideal male form, is gnawing away at your happiness, too, and prompting Reddit-topping threads and five-figure play-count videos. The question is: What are you gonna do about it?

Let’s back up a sec to look at just how bad the body image crisis is. A 2012 survey of 394 British men found that more than "half of men questioned (58.6 percent) said that body talk affects them personally, mostly in a negative way," with "beer belly" and "six pack" being two of the most popular terms men use to describe each other’s appearance. Even more disturbingly, more than 35 percent of men surveyed "would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape."

Well get ready to add that year back to your life, men, because "there really isn’t an ideal," says John Haubenstricker, a Research Associate in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also a dietitian, coach, and bodybuilding competitor. "Is there an ideal fruit or an ideal car? No. We need to change our terminology. What we should focus on more is: what is the healthy weight people should be at?"

There’s no magic formula for healthy weight. Body Mass Index, often used to help determine healthy weight ranges in the general population, might not be as applicable to athletes who often carry more muscle mass than the average person.

"A good description of healthy weight," Haubenstricker says, "is where you have the lowest risk for death and illness, and where it’s maintainable within your lifestyle." That means you’re not overweight, which can set you up for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, among other things. And that means you’re not underweight either.

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The images you see in the media of men with six-pack abs and "victory-v’s," Haubenstricker says, are often shot when those guys are at their absolute leanest. "Maintaining that level of leanness [around four to five percent bodyfat] isn’t typically recommended for very long," Haubenstricker says. "You’re not getting enough energy to do all of the things you want to do and improve" your fitness. "You’re also increasing your risk of injury."

As Scientific American explains, "fat is crucial for normal physiology—it helps support the skin and keep it lubricated, cushions feet, sheaths neurons, stores vitamins, and is a building block of hormones."

In other words, that "ideal" you constantly see splashed across magazine covers is bullshit. It’s an ephemeral state of being even for the people in the photos.

It’s going to take a long time for society to stop shoving that muscled-up ideal down men’s throats. As Eva Wiseman wrote in the Guardian:

The media is a construction—this is no secret. Magazines, film, TV, newspapers—they all rely on advertising. So reminding ourselves that the body types we see represented are the body types that generate purchases. Asking ourselves: "Am I being sold something here?"

The answer is almost always yes. Diet pills. Diet programs. Workout DVDs. Ab rollers. You name it. All of those things generate billions of dollars in sales by making men feel inadequate. If you believed you looked perfectly great as you are, you wouldn’t need any of those things—why fix what isn’t broken?

"Our culture has to change to be more tolerant" of different body types, Haubenstricker says. His suggestion? Start changing your terminology and perspective by checking out resources from EatRight.org and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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Summer Reading: The Siren Call of the Ocean

Right about now, you might find your mind (or VRBO search) drifting toward the beach. But where does our obsession with the sea come from? Sure, there are obvious recreational draws—big surf, small bathing suits—but why, Darwin might ask, do we pay a fortune to flock to an environment we can’t drink or inhabit? That’s the question driving a new field of research—and two of the summer’s more prominent books.

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols’s answer: “Water provides the most profound shortcut to happiness out there.” Nichols has spent years recruiting brain scientists, biologists, surfers, and artists to build a movement he calls neuroconservation. The idea is that if we can figure out why the sea makes us happier, we can save it. Nichols has an annual conference, Blue Mind; a branded personality (he has graced the cover of this magazine); and now a major publisher backing him. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown; $27) is as ambitious as its subtitle—part neuroscience treatise and part self-help manifesto. In one chapter, Nichols relays cutting-edge science on neuroplasticity; then it’s on to an analysis of coastal real estate costs and anecdotes from PTSD-afflicted soldiers who find solace in surfing. All that skipping around can leave the reader wanting some literary Dramamine, but the book’s lynchpin is important. We lose ourselves, Nichols suggests, in mechanized repetition, an overworked blur he calls “gray mind.” The ocean’s constant flux offers a cure. “Unlike all of the other suggested means of reaching mindful clarity,” he writes, “water can do the work for you.”

In Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin, $27), Outside contributor James Nestor throws himself into wild and inhospitable territory. At the French island of Réunion, he accompanies scientists trying to tag man-eating bull sharks. Off Roatán, in Honduras, he rides a creaky homemade sub to the seafloor at 2,500 feet. But the book’s heart lies in Nestor’s quest to learn the sport of free-diving, which he hopes will reveal something essential about our relationship with the sea. The first lesson seem to be that we’re not welcome: Nestor witnesses three near deaths. “My nightmares featured bloated necks and dead eyes,” he writes. But he’s determined to suss out if, as one evangelist tells him, “you are born to do this!” Nestor’s tutorial is a fun and bumpy ride, taking him from Sri Lanka to coastal Japan, where he gets schooled by the ama, legendary freediving fisherwomen. Eventually he catches on, experiencing some blue mindfulness while diving with sperm whales. Freediving, he writes, is “a spiritual practice, a way of using the human body as a vessel to explore the wonders in the earth’s inner space.”

Does all this sound, as Nestor puts it, a little “woo-woo”? Maybe. But if you’re like me, you’ll come away ready for a dip.

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How Water Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Successful

This month, California biologist and former Outside cover subject Wallace J. Nichols publishes his first book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown, $27).

Billed as a “Big Idea” book that will change the way you think, Nichols’s debut effort combines everything from neuroscience to real estate pricing. (A full review is available in the August issue.) Abe Streep caught up with Nichols to discuss the book and how water can impact human happiness.

OUTSIDE: In the book you’re breaking down very complex science. You’re also combining anecdotal reporting throughout the world, real estate prices, and how-to journalism, suggesting ways in which people can improve their lives. What was the process of putting it together like?
NICHOLS: I read a book somewhere that said that writing a book is like creating a sculpture. This felt like creating a sculpture from water. As you mention, it’s writing a book about the brain, which is the most complex thing we know in the universe, and water, which produces life in the universe, and combining those two things—well, it’s a broad topic to say the least. I wrote the title as a placeholder and its subtitle as an outline. Then it was just about going out and finding the best researchers and some great protagonists. And making sure that they were not all surfers. Although, of course, there are several. 

In the book you constantly refer to the ocean as a great healer for many societal ills. How? 
The big conversation is the “red mind” vs. “blue mind” comparison. We live our indoor lives and our workspace lives and our family lives often in what I call a “red-mind” mode. We’re overstimulated, we’re captivated, we’re connected, we’re stressed. We’re behind. We’re trying to catch up. We’re out of money. We’re at deadlines. And we’re surrounded by screams.

Stress isn’t new, but this kind of chronic, constant stress is. Every medical doctor knows that stress is connected to disease. Diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. So reducing that stress in some way is useful. There are a lot of conversations going around about different kinds of meditation. Sometimes the word meditation isn’t used—different relaxation techniques.

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Athletes use them all the time to reach peak performance. And I’d just add that being by water meditates you. It puts you in that relaxed state. You don’t need to study or practice meditation. You just need to pay attention to the water around you. You can do it in the bathtub, the hot tub, the swimming pool, the creek, the lake, the river, the ocean.

When you unplug and let go, disconnect from a clock altogether, you do what neuroscientists call mind wandering. Rather than data crunching, you’re letting things come and connect. You’re letting innovation happen. We see over and over, people say, ‘This is where I get my best ideas—when I let my brain do that.’ And a lot of times there’s water involved.

You run an annual Blue Mind conference, in which you bring together conservationists, water advocates, and neuroscientists to discuss the ocean’s effect on the brain. How is it working? Do you meet skepticism among the scientific community?
Social neuroscience continues to expand. Neuromarketing is now happening. Executives at Google are having neuroscientists come in and teach them how to be innovative. The greatest source of happiness, of relaxation, [and] of mental stimulation is the outdoors. And we’re still behind. There are people looking into it, through brain-on-nature questions.

But we’re late to the game. There’s a conference I attend every year on neuroscience and music. It’s the eighth year of that conference. There’s Blue Mind, but there’s not an equivalent gathering of neuroscientists and people who are interested in the future of wild places. I still don’t get the buy-in from the ocean community. I think part of it is neuroscience is just a big, hairy difficult, intellectually challenging field. And some people just don’t like to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Instead of saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ they just kind of roll their eyes.

You’re organizing a conference, publishing a book. You have to talk to people like me. How do you create the time to meander in your own life?
I’m certainly not the guru on the rock on the top of the mountain saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, I’ve got this nailed.’ I’m living the red-mind, blue-mind roller coaster right along with the people who will read this book. I benefit greatly from being by the ocean and living next to a creek. It’s called Mill Creek. I hear it every morning, and I go to sleep to its sound every night. What I’ve learned is to pay attention to that. It’s a creek, it’s beautiful. You see the fish come up the creek after a rain. You know that in a few hours the creek is emptying into the Pacific Ocean. All those things you pay attention to. 

Did one anecdote from your reporting surprise you particularly?
I can hang it all on one story. This guy named Bobby Lane, who served in the Gulf, had three different traumatic brain injury episodes. He came back to Texas with his world upside down. He was not speaking clearly, suffering from post-traumatic stress, being overmedicated, becoming addicted to those medications. He lost the desire to live. He tried to commit suicide through what he called “death by cop.” Which is essentially when you do something that gets the cop to come and kill you. Because as a warrior, he said he couldn’t do it himself.

So he tried that, and they shot him with rubber bullets, which really pissed him off, and really hurt, and really messed him up. He ended up going and doing something called Operation Surf, an experimental fringe program for people like him [in Santa Cruz]. He came to Santa Cruz and he had an experience: three tries and he was standing up on his board. Then he saw his life ahead. After having the experience he decided that he wanted to stay around and to live. 

What’s next for Blue Mind?
The goal is to increase perceived value of healthy oceans and waterways. If realtors were to knowledgeably and consciously sell the cognitive and emotional benefits of water, they would become the front line communicators for healthy water.

If health practitioners are saying, ‘I’m prescribing a walk on the beach and a surf session and half the dose of those pills,’ they’re sharing the blue-mind message. That’s the idea. What the environmental movement typically does is say, ‘Here’s something you’re doing that you shouldn’t do. I’m going to tell you why and probably make you feel bad.’ That’s not always the best place to start a conversation. We’re [saying], ‘Here’s something about you that you should know that you don’t know.’

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