The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Nature

Is Consumerism The Climate's Enemy?

Recently, the National Climate Assessment revealed myriad ways climate change is already altering our daily lives. And more recently, a NASA study revealed that a significant chunk of the Antarctic is in "irreversible retreat" and that the resulting sea-level rise during this century will force the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to revise upward its already daunting prediction of one to three feet. What do we do? Once we pick our jaws off the floor, most of us have little choice but to continue on with our day. Oh, and of course drive less, buy organic, and eschew plastic bags. If that hardly seems like it's enough, you're right. It's not.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/big-pivot-cover_fe.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium"}%}

In his new book, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, Andrew Winston—author of the 2009 bestseller Green to Gold, and an expert on green business strategy—argues that environmental changes are forcing companies that make our cars, our food, our plastic bags, and everything else we choose to buy or not buy, to sink or swim. Consumers play a major role in their fates.

We talked to Winston about what consumers really care about, how environmentalism is like the gay rights movement, and whether it's okay for clothier Patagonia to cash in on its good intensions. 

OUTSIDE: You write in your book about how our increasingly connected world is forcing businesses to be "radically" transparent about the types of ingredients and manufacturing processes they use. Yet, when I go shopping I see a lot of overworked, harried people who seem to want to fill their carts and get on with their day.
WINSTON: We've had 44 years of Earth Day, and the percentage of people who really changed what they buy, how they live, in a way that is really deeply based on the environment is very low. That said, studies show things are changing. One study found that 40 percent of consumers will buy better, lower-footprint products when given the choice.

For years people did not buy energy-efficient light bulbs because they cost more upfront. But, over the years, as Walmart, Home Depot, and others started really pushing compact florescent bulbs, people started buying them. Now they're selling LED blubs. They also cost more upfront, but over time people started to understand the larger picture: that if they use this more expensive bulb over a number of years it's actually not more expensive (thanks to energy savings).

Still, we have not seen a giant movement in American consumers. I think, to be kind, it's because we are busy and we can't know everything about every purchase we make. For some categories we pay attention, personal care products and food—things we put on our bodies and in our bodies. There is more attention paid to those products than, say, asking where the wood in our bookcase came from.

So, what are the roles for consumers, versus government and business, in righting the ship?
To deal with something as serious as climate change and to address resource scarcity, all three (consumers, government, and business) need to shift the way we live. Consider a region dealing with drought: everyone has to act and sometimes you hear about people reporting on their neighbors who wash their cars (in violation of water restrictions). You have to have a sense of the common good.

Unfortunately, I think we're in the midst of a pretty big pendulum swing away from common good, thanks to political partisanship and Libertarian every-man-for-himself ideology. I get that, but as much as you want to say every man is an island, it's just not true. You have to think about how you affect other people. I don’t think that's so radical. 

These pivot points in society happen seemingly fast. Look at the gay rights movement. That happened seemingly very quickly in this country, but it was actually after decades of work. There is always a lead-up for many years and then some things (like discriminating based on sexual preference) become socially unacceptable. For another example, look at what happened with Clippers owner Don Sterling (and his remarks about African Americans). I think there is going to be a time when it's unacceptable to be a profligate user of natural resources or to be unaware of your impact or to habitually waste a lot of food. There will be increasing peer pressure not to do those things.

But I don’t rely on consumers to lead the charge. I think business and government need to work together to change the way we make energy, how we make products. That said, it would be a heck of a lot easier to get business and government to change if people made more noise and showed a clear preference in the things that they bought. Retailers care, but not as much as they would if consumers were walking in and clearly picking the greener stuff.

Patagonia, through its Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher, through its Green Eileen stores, are buying clothes back from consumers and then reselling them. That really starts to subvert the retail paradigm. But in the end, consumers who sell their clothes back to those retailers get store credit… with which they have no choice but to buy more stuff. So at the end of the day, can retailers—even if they're super green standouts like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia—actually not be about consumerism?
It's a profound question. I think a company can grow and sell more stuff if it is taking (market) share—if it is selling more at the expense of other companies that are making less sustainable stuff.

So if the Patagonias of the world are selling something that lasts longer, that is made of recycled content, can be recycled, and so on, you want them to grow. Yet the total pie of resource use has to be in control.

Another way to look at this is through the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart and the Cradle to Cradle movement. If things can be made in such a way that they can be cycled, almost endlessly, while using renewable energy, then consumption is less and less the problem. If a company, by its existence, makes things better, then you want more of them. It's a [positive] abundance thing, rather than saying, 'Oh, population is a problem, every new person and every new product is a problem.' But obviously we're still a long, long way from that.

It is a fair question to ask can public companies lead this charge? By their nature they need to keep shoveling growth and that is a problem. The math does not work to grow forever. But I think a (private) company like Patagonia, they are a $600 million company. They could still grow a lot and be selling more and more stuff, because theirs' are better products that last longer (than their competition). That is not different than the way businesses have always worked. The best ones survive and the worst don't.

We're going to be 9 billion people (by 2050), we're going to need things—but clearly they need to be made differently. The power that we use to make them needs to be renewable. We need fundamental changes. 

In the book I use the example of Kingfisher, a European home-improvement store, which has a goal of being net positive—they want to help people build homes that generate more energy than they use. Let's say you built a home and all the materials were recycled and/or local, and then home made more energy than it needed so that over time I actually netted out the energy it took to make. Don't you want more of those homes?

Climate is a big problem. Resources are a big problem. There isn’t an easy answer. People should take a hard look at their consumption habits, absolutely, but we still need things. No one is going to do well by telling everyone to just sit in a dark cave. But if, through our choices, things get better, then consumption isn't necessarily the problem.

Read More

Public-Land Protests and Their Big-Energy Puppet Masters

What is it about a well-armed, ragtag militia confronting—and threatening—government officials (and ready to use the women-folk as "human shields") that gets everyone so fired up?

On Saturday, we'll get to witness more of these shenanigans, or something like it, this time at Recapture Canyon in southeast Utah. That's where Phil Lyman, the commissioner of San Juan County, is organizing a rally of ATV riders who are spitting mad that the Bureau of Land Management has restricted use of motorized all-terrain vehicles (citing damage to the landscape and vandalism of archeological sites).

The protestors plan to throttle into the 11-mile-long canyon, which is clearly posted with "no motorized vehicle" signs. No word yet on whether they will also be flexing their second amendment rights. The BLM, FBI, and San Juan County Sheriff's office have said they will "stand down," but BLM-Utah stated that they would "seek all appropriate criminal and civil penalties." The canyon contains ancient Anasazi ruins and other notable archaeological features. It was closed to motorized use in 2007 after ATV users built an illegal 7-mile-long trail in the canyon.

Whatever kind of showdown ensues, in the end it may not be the gun-toting anti-federalists that present the largest threat to the best use of public lands in the West. Often these groups are small factions of conservatives either wittingly or unwittingly doing the dirty work of some much bigger, more powerful players. Based on a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) report, oil and gas companies may be pulling the strings behind these localized, and more sensationalized, confrontations—a la the recent Cliven Bundy debacle in Nevada.

Staging protests, stirring anti-government sentiment, and pushing for access into protected wildland serve the larger interests of the extractive-resource industry by challenging the control that the Federal government has on public lands—whether that happens in Recapture Canyon or in a lobbyist's watering hole on K Street.

The CAP report details shows how oil and gas companies are leveraging three groups in particular—Safari Club International (SFI), Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), and the National Rifle Association (NRA)—to attain "an increasingly active and vocal role in advancing energy industry priorities, even when those positions are in apparent conflict with the interests of hunters and anglers who are their rank-and-file members."

{%{"quote":"Whatever kind of showdown ensues, in the end it may not be the gun-toting anti-federalists that present the largest threat to the best use of public lands in the West. "}%}

The oil and gas industry's lobbying efforts went into high gear at the start of Obama's first term and have totaled nearly $900 million since 2008, compared to around $400 million from 2002 to 2007, according to Center for Responsible Politics. The CAP report asserts that sportsmen's clubs are among the industry's targets because financial support buys access to political operatives, and even members of Congress, who have ties to the sportsmen and gun rights community. That, in turn, allows the industry to push, through these clubs, for oil and gas interests in public land and wildlife policy—even when those positions are not in line with sportsmen's general stance, which (on paper, at least) focuses on conservation and open lands access.

A hunting and fishing industry representative says report explains a lot. "The NRA and the Safari Club are taking positions that are not in the best interests of sportsmen," says the individual, who asked to remain anonymous. "People were wondering why and thought it was because they were taking dollars from fossil fuel industry, but there was never a smoking gun. This report provides that."

The report calls out three specific areas where the energy industry is seeking influence: the government's upcoming final decision (due next year) on whether to list the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken—which would likely limit oil and gas exploration permits; decisions on roadless areas which could hamper or open opportunities to backcountry energy development; and issues relating to closing public access to roads or hunting grounds. 

Since 2010, according to the report, 28 energy companies have contributed to the NRA and the CSF. Shell Oil has given at least $100,000 to CSF and its various lobbying efforts, while ExxonMobil, the American Natural Gas Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute have each given at least $50,000, according to the report. Nearly a third of the NRA's corporate support comes from the energy industry. While Safari Club International does not disclose donors, oil and gas firms were among the major donors to the group's political action committee.

Perhaps the pressure that energy developers are putting on Washington to keep public lands management friendly to their interests is working, because public lands advocates I spoke with for this story say the Obama Administration has done nothing to balance extractive pressures on BLM lands with conservation efforts. "There's a reason the BLM is often called the 'Bureau of Livestock & Mining'. The folks in DC are going to need to step up and show better leadership," says Ken Rait, director of the Western Lands Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts (which were founded by an oil family, as it happens). 

Public Land Standoffs Vs. Public Land Payoffs

The energy industry wants loser regulation over oil and gas development on public lands, while the anti-federalist individuals who plan to defy ATV restrictions in Recapture Canyon this weekend seem more concerned with access to what they consider their own (and no one else's) backyards. Still, another standoff could serve to stoke the image of a BLM that lacks authority over the public wildlands, which advances the interests of both groups.

Outside of the Beltway, and inside the sagebrush, it seems as though other acts of civil disobedience will occur around public land issues in the coming weeks and months. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that suction dredge miners plan to "occupy" the Idaho's Salmon River and mine it without permits in defiance of Environmental Protection Agency's rules. It's clear that there is a faction of Westerns, and perhaps their ranks are growing, that believe they are living under a tyrannical government that is trying to chip away at our freedoms.

I have a different point of view, and the specter of violence at these rallies is abhorrent. That said, at least the anti-federalists hold up signs and speak plainly (if not always coherently) about their beliefs. That is more palatable than energy companies and well-heeled individuals paying off groups that are supposed to represent the interests of sportsmen and conservationists but instead act as conduits between oil and gas companies and members of Congress.

Read More

Finding Adventure Beyond Nature

"One need never leave the confines of New York City to get all the greenery one could wish..."

Well, that's arrogant, more than a little myopic (have New Yorkers ever been accused of that?). These words are welded into the railing surrounding the World Financial Center harbor in lower Manhattan. 

Recently, I found myself in New York City, the city where I was born, though not raised, and to which I returned in my twenties. I found myself thinking about several earlier trips to the city with our kids and, oddly, I found myself trying to define adventure. 

Oddly, because I tend to think of adventure as heading into the wilderness, but maybe that's because of where I came from. New York is closer to the environment I was used to as a child than is the vast outdoor childhood of my kids. Maybe adventuring just means exploring an environment that's unknown to you. As it turned out, for my Montana-based kids—kids for whom a half-mile-high mountain was a familiar playground by the time they were ten, who could paddle rivers, and hike forests—heading into the urban tangle, navigating subways, streets and avenues, was an adventure. But when we first took our kids to New York City we were worried. What exactly does one do with energetic, physical, adventuresome kids in a big city?

To New York's credit, the city is trying hard to create "greenery," to make sure leafy, open spaces are available to people all across the city (not just for those living near Central Park). And they're succeeding. The spaces are beautiful. The adventure is finding them.

When I'm alone in the city, I just wander, look at the architecture, visit museums, find my old haunts. But ambling walks were not going to cut it with our kids. Unless...we could make it a game.

In my twenties, I discovered a network of "pocket parks," mostly in midtown Manhattan. So on one of our first trips, my husband, Peter, and our kids, Molly and Skyler, and I set off on a scavenger hunt. Our goal: to find as many pocket parks as possible. Like coming on a secret glade in a tangled rainforest, these tiny parks tucked into concrete canyons are magical refuges; several have walls of water, effectively replacing the sound of car horns with a steady, soothing whoosh. Our kids were enchanted. We found four before we retired to the Plaza Hotel in search of food and the mischievous, storybook character, Eloise.

The bellhop looked regretfully at Molly. "She's just stepped out," he said, absolutely straight faced.

For our kids, everything about that trip was new and exciting, from staring out the front window of the lead subway car—watching the tracks curve and straighten, the subterranean stop lights change from red to green—to riding the elevators up to the observation deck of one of the original World Trade Towers to peer down at the tiny toy cars one hundred and ten floors below.

From the World Trade Center, we headed a few blocks west to the Hudson River and our favorite park, the Battery Park City Esplanade, a 36-acre complex of riverside gardens. (It's also a popular site for Saturday afternoon wedding photos. On our very first trip when Molly was one, she got scooped into the arms of an Asian couple, posing in white gown and tux. Nothing like a strange blonde toddler in your wedding photos for a conversation starter.)

She was too young that first time to do more than walk or ride piggy back, but with older kids if you pack rollerblades, a skate board, or a fold-up scooter (which also serves as camouflage if your child wants to pass for a Manhattan school kid) you can keep your children occupied for hours, winding through open lawns, past fountain-sprayed ponds, whimsical sculpture parks, beach-volleyball courts, skate parks and mini-golf greens. And now, if you don't want to pack your own wheels, you can rent a Citi Bike from ubiquitous rows of blue bike stands. Strolling along the esplanade you'll pass a floating origami-like glass pavilion, the New Jersey-bound ferry terminal.

It reminded me of taking the ferry to Staten Island, which you can catch at Manhattan's southern tip. One of the five boroughs of New York City, Staten Island is a 25-minute, boat trip away. I used to go with my father when I was the kid visiting the city, just for the fun of the ride. It's easy to forget, amid the skyscrapers, that New York is a city of islands and waterways, on the brink of an ocean. But looking out over the river, at the widening harbor, at freighters and barges, tugboats and ferries, one can really feel it.

Returning to the Battery Park City Esplanade this time, I discovered something new, lodged at the end of Vesey St.: the Irish Hunger Memorial. It commemorates the potato famine that first sent the Irish to our shores and urges us, today, to consider modern issues of hunger. Probably doesn't sound like a prime destination for kids. But it would be for mine. It's a "wild" hill, built on a frame of glass and limestone. Embedded at its foot are the remains of a nineteenth-century, Irish, stone cottage. From there paths meander upward through an overgrown-grass-and-rock landscape, a "fallow field." At the top, one hovers over New York Harbor, where, still thrusting her torch in the air, is the Statue of Liberty, as commanding a presence as ever. Beyond her are the immigrant-clearing houses of Ellis Island. You can't get a much more visceral connection to the metaphor of America.

Turning around, one's eyes follow the sleek, faceted sides of the new World Trade Tower rising up to its sky-piercing spire at the top. The 9/11 Memorial is still under construction at its base. At this point, had my kids been there, at that cusp of past and future, it would have been a provocative moment for a conversation.

New York is fabulous for this—for provoking the conversation. The conversation about the relationship between man and nature, between man and man; the conversation about what man can create—you're surrounded by it and it's magnificent—but also what man can destroy. These are the conversations we often have with our kids, but for "wilderness" kids, the city gives these discussions a whole new spin.

Read More

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Outside GOOur hottest adventure-travel tips and trips. Sent occasionally.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Subscribe
to Outside
Save Over
70%

Magazine Cover

iPad Outside+ App Access Now Included!

Categories

Authors

Advertisement

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

Previous Posts

2014

2013

2012

Blog Roll

Current Issue Outside Magazine

Subscribe and get a great deal! Two free Buyer's Guides plus a free GoLite Sport Bottle. Monthly delivery of Outside—your ultimate resource for today's active lifestyle. All that and big savings!

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Gear of the Day The latest products, reviews, and editors' picks. Coming soon.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Ask a Question

Our gear experts await your outdoor-gear-related questions. Go ahead, ask them anything.

* We might edit your question for length or clarity. If it's not about gear, we'll just ignore it.