Should You Really Throw Garbage in Lake Powell?
Our guru weighs in on the ethics of defacing a man-made blight
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Dear Sundog: You recently said it was OK to throw trash in Lake Powell. I’m a former Outward Bound instructor, and I’m curious how you might fine-tune your response if you were fielding calls from groups that I see regularly, like a high school class from the Navajo reservation preparing to float the river for the first time, a Hispanic family picnicking on the shores of Lake Powell, or the film crew from Girls Gone Wild: Take Me to the River. (OK, I haven’t come across that last one, but you get the idea.) —Critical Objector
Dear CO: You’re not alone in questioning Sundog’s wisdom here. My verdict received buckets of outrage. To wit:
The question asked in this article is just plain stupid. The answer is no, don’t litter. Unless you’d like the entire population to toss their gargage [sic] in your yard. And Sundog’s reasoning for answering with any more words than NO is a waste of the internet.
In the olden days, Sundog’s prose was frequently labeled a waste of paper, but in the digital era, he was tickled to learn that he’d squandered the entire World Wide Web!
CO, your question requires Sundog to turn his ethical lens upon himself. He must clarify that he would not teach children to throw trash into Lake Powell or anywhere else, just as he does not teach them to throw sharp knives at tree trunks or squirt lighter fluid onto the campfire. Those skills are best performed by adult hands.
From his days hauling teenagers down whitewater and across slickrock, Sundog believes in instilling in youth what Aldo Leopold termed a “land ethic.” As Aldo himself put it, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
I suppose we can all agree that throwing trash, by Leopold’s metric, is wrong. However, what happens when the greatest wrong is not perpetrated by individuals unschooled in the land ethic, but rather by the government of the United States, destroying the biotic community on a scale unimaginable by mere humans? If we teach children (and adults) to protect and cherish a reservoir as if it were nature, we prolong the ransacking of actual nature.
I think of throwing trash in Lake Powell as not mere fun (though it is!) but an act of civil disobedience to protest government injustice. As Thoreau wrote, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” I encourage it the way I would have encouraged Germans to deface the Berlin Wall or for Mexicans and Americans and coyotes and jaguars to vandalize the Trump Wall. Bobbing apple cores may not actually burst the concrete, but they may allow the public to see the reservoir for what it is: an industrial wasteland. And in that way, our banana peels may push the needle of public opinion and end the life of this and other destructive dams.
Your question also suggests, CO, that Sundog’s advice to white people may not apply to people of color. In general, Sundog takes a policy of not offering Native Americans advice on how to behave on their lands. Yet he also thinks his words apply equally to all. Of course, racism is real, and indeed white supremacy is written into the founding documents of this country and has metastasized into supposedly race-blind policies (three-strikes sentencing, police profiling, voter ID laws) that perpetuate race-based inequity. With that in mind, your letter raises two important questions:
- Do Indigenous people benefit from federal water projects on their land?
- Why are people of color often excluded from outdoor recreation?
As for the first: Are there members of the Navajo Nation who would be offended by the thought of littering in Lake Powell, which borders their nation? Certainly. And there are other Navajos who spent decades in court suing the federal government to stop Lake Powell from flooding Rainbow Bridge, a sacred site. They lost their case, the bridge was inundated, and a dock was built for houseboaters. But perhaps with the recent drought and drop in lake levels, the Diné will ultimately get what they wanted. At the moment, Utah’s Great White Fathers are planning a bajillion-dollar pipeline that will suck water 140 miles away from Navajo lands on Lake Powell to develop golf courses and subdivisions for settlers in St. George. Meanwhile, Native Americans who live within spitting distance from the reservoir still haul their drinking water in the back of pickup trucks.
In general, those who identify as white might stop wringing their sunburned hands over what to tell Indigenous people. Instead: start to watch, listen, and learn. Native Nations are at the vanguard of environmental leadership: just look at Standing Rock, Bears Ears, Oak Flat, and Line 3. Does Sundog demand that we drain Lake Powell? Nah. His preference, as with the national abomination at Mount Rushmore, would be to return Glen Canyon to its rightful Indigenous owners and let them decide what to do with it.
Meanwhile, your family picnic is hypothetical to the point of imaginary. First, there are virtually no picnic spots along Powell’s hundreds of miles of shore, because, let’s remember, it’s not really a lake but a rock canyon filled with water. If its creation had resulted in dozens of easily accessed shady picnic groves instead of a bathtub accessible only by expensive motorboats, we might not be having this discussion in the first place.
Which brings us to the second: does it matter that your hypothetical family is Hispanic? Of course. San Juan County, Utah, home to much of the reservoir as well the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation at White Mesa, has a long history of white supremacy, in which a minority of settlers gerrymandered the voting districts to ensure decades of white rule over the Native majority. Did this result in a culture where brown-skinned people felt safe, welcome, and equal before the law? I suppose the rest of American history might provide an answer. Sundog says let’s make this a free country now and worry about the litter later.
Finally, as for that Girls Gone Wild scenario: Sundog doesn’t accept the Christian conception of heaven, but if he did, you may well have described it to a tee. If invited to join that party barge, Sundog would leap onboard with nothing but his Coleman ice chest, the cassette tape that lives full-time in his shirt pocket (Waylon and Willie on the front side, Funky Meters on the flip), and the clothes on his back: straw hat held fast with cord, sun-bleached businessman’s shirt acquired at Desert Industries for a dollar, cracked leather flip-flops, and that purple-pink sarong he bought on Kuta Beach for 95 rupiah. As soon as we reached flatwater, he’d have those girls two-stepping to “Good Hearted Woman” and rock-stepping to “Cissy Strut.” And by the time he was four deep into his eight-pack of pamplemousse sparklers, you can bet that dollar shirt would have become ecstatic litter, sinking sweetly to the dark depths of Wesley Powell’s locker.
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