We didn’t always seek out the natural world as a refuge from our day-to-day lives; the outdoors used to be embedded in our very existence. There were no humans without their natural environment – no eggs without the chicken. You didn’t have to worry about missing sunsets or light pollution blacking out starry skies; granted, at the inception of human awareness there were other things to worry about – like natural disasters, famine, disea- oh, wait…
Regardless, you didn’t have to worry about taking your Vitamin D supplement to try and stave off depressive episodes.
Even if you can’t agree on political ideology, religious beliefs, or whether or not Friends is a “good” TV show, the outdoors is the one thing that binds human experience. And very recently in our existence (less than one second ago if we were to measure the age of Earth as being 24-hours old) the natural world became commodified. Not only in terms of production and consumption – but in our ability, or rather, allowance to integrate with it.
The one actual truth to be self-evident, that we are intrinsically a part of the natural world, has been quickly rescinded due to capitalistic endeavors. In today’s society, it seems you can only reap the benefits of having a relationship with nature if you can afford it.
“Othering” the Wilderness
The commodification of land didn’t commence with the onset of Neolithic Revolution – it’s actually a much more recent venture which is rooted and perpetuated in settler colonialism. The entire concept of “wilderness,” of “othering” the natural world, is secured by imperialist agendas violently removing Indigenous communities from their land. Through militaristic invasion, capitalist exploitation of resources, and anti-Indigenous policies, western colonial forces were able to situate themselves in an anthropocentric world view.
The Romantic Movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries exacerbated these “othering” sentiments, and has been criticized for “fetishizing” nature. As a response to the Industrial Revolution, people began to seek the “untouched” landscapes as a refuge, a form of escapism – that is, if you were an upper-middle class white person. Thus, our cries to “reconnect” with nature reinforces the perception that we are separate from nature, and in turn reinforces the narrative that nature is a destination for us to seek out.
Capitalism and Commodification
The very foundation of America is situated in the exploitation of natural resources in order to maximize commodity value. In 1979, with the inception of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), commodification was no longer isolated to gas, coal, timber or other materials – it was extended to outdoor recreation and tourism. The ARC is comprised of some 120 corporations, ranging from Exxon and Chevron, to Yamaha and the Walt Disney Company.
The commercialization of “wild adventure” which promises excitement and a reconnection with the “wild self,” has propagated and intensified ecotourism industries. This expansion has correlated with a parallel growth in businesses including outfitters, accommodation facilities, local organizers and guides – oftentimes negatively impacting Indigenous communities both socially and economically.
Ecotourism can, and should, be a sustainable and green venture. The outdoor recreation industry alone has an $887-billion impact on local economies – unfortunately, the importance given to economies over equal access alienates a large percentage of the population.
As global citizens we all need to be more mindful about the ways in which we choose to engage with our environments. As privileged populations, we need to understand that the social institutions are structured to favor us – for the last century the U.S. conservation movement has been dominated by white people and perspectives, which has only perpetuated the racial divide in nature access.
Money, Time, and Accessibility
There are a multitude of studies which have demonstrated that the psychological well-being of a population is directly associated with its proximity to green space, blue space, and street trees or private gardens – in both urban and rural settings. The effects of the pandemic have further reinforced this interconnection. The onset of the novel coronavirus in early 2020 severely restricted mobility as governments mandated lockdowns and stay-at-home orders; while some communities were able to seek out community green spaces as a reprieve, many were left without access – especially low-income communities of color.
COVID-19 didn’t manifest this environmental justice issue, but has emphasized the history and systems of structural racism and disinvestment which have reinforced inequities in allocating safe and accessible green spaces for everyone. Green Gentrification is one term used to describe this intentional and deliberate displacement of BIPOC from communities with accessible and maintained green spaces.
A survey conducted in California found that “lack of time,” was the most often mentioned constraint in participating in outdoor activities. More often than not, low-income communities cannot afford to take time off of work to travel to green spaces which are, as mentioned above, not within their immediate community.
“Lack of time” was followed by “resource-related” constraints more frequently cited by minority respondents.
Research conducted by the Center for American Progress identified three key findings related to the nature gap:
- Communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in nature deprived places.
- Seventy percent of low-income communities across the country live in nature-deprived areas.
- Nature destruction has had the largest impact on low-income communities of color.
These statistics did not happen “by chance.”
It is no longer a question of whether or not socioeconomic status affects the ability to engage in green spaces, nor should it be a question of how these systems continue to be perpetuated; we have these understandings and know them to be true, so our question needs to be, “what are the steps necessary to change the current system?”
Thankfully, this is a question that is being answered by a multitude of different organization and community leaders; and a lot of their solutions happen to be more realistic than my personal favorite – dismantling the stronghold of neoliberal institutions.
We’ve identified a few organizations undertaking the invaluable work of equalizing access to outdoor spaces, you can read more about them below:
The National Parks Foundation (NPF) has launched the Every Kid Outdoors initiative to provide a free pass for every 4th grade student across the country to experience national parks throughout the school year. The NPF is also raising funds to support transportation grants in an effort to remove the economic barriers faced by underserved and urban communities.
In 2019 Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed New Mexico’s Outdoor Recreation Division into law – joining a dozen other states committed to not only growing the outdoor recreation economy sustainably, but to also granting equal access to outdoor spaces. The New Mexico Outdoor Equity Fund specifically supports transformative outdoor experiences that foster stewardship and respect for lands, waters, and cultural heritage. This year the fund will get more than 22,000 young New Mexicans outside.
Established by Congress in 2014, this division supports projects that create parks and expand outdoor recreational opportunities in low-income urban areas across the nation. The aim is to develop or reinvigorate land that will provide opportunities to engage and empower youth, provide opportunities for employment or job training, involve and expand public-private partnerships, and improve recreation opportunities for all.
The third annual LGTBQ Outdoor Summit will be held this April. It aims to provide an affirming space to represent the LGBTQ Community’s unique barriers, needs and wants as they pertain to getting outside and creating a common dialogue around solutions and access issues. You can support this work here.
A national outdoor equity initiative created by Black, Indigenous, and leaders of color from states and organizations across the country. This organization explicitly recognizes and exposes the imperialistic culture which has violently displaced Indigenous communities from their land. You can get involved and donate here.
Ways You Can Actively be a Part of the Solution
Scientists estimate that every dollar spent on creating and maintaining park trails can save almost three dollars in healthcare costs alone. By supporting the organizations, foundations and private companies who are actively increasing representation and accessibility, you are taking an important step towards breaking down the cultural and economic barriers that systematically alienate humans from the outdoors.
Be mindful about where you decide to spend your money – are you reinforcing the cycles of capitalistic greed, or investing in our youth and helping them access the outdoors? When you purchase that $500 Marmot sleeping bag, could you donate an extra $50 to an organization seeking to create equal opportunities for outdoor recreation? Instead of throwing out outgrown/outdated gear, is there a local facility or co-op you can donate them to?
Have an extra 30 seconds on your hands? – send a message to your lawmakers about improving equitable access to the outdoors.
Want to learn more?
DEI Resources – Campus Nature Rx Network
The Commodification of Wilderness Access – UVM Headwaters Magazine
Connectedness as a Core Conservation Concern – Springer Science Reviews
Commodification of Nature – West Virginia Highlands Conservancy
Adventure, nature and commodification – University of Cumbria
The Outdoor Recreation Economy – Outdoor Industry Association
Nature and Mental Health – Science Advances
The Nature Gap – Center for American Progress
Childhood Development and Access to Nature – PubMed Central
Green Gentrification – ecomadic