“So economic growth is dead. It’s dead because the planet will not support it. But it’s also dead because it’s economically and socially irrational- it isn’t delivering improvements to…quality of life…it’s actually now degrading it because of all the social problems inequality is causing.”
I’ve written a lot about gear lately, a sign of a restless mind. Another sign being blogging at 11pm on a Friday night, rather than falling asleep. Beyond being potentially evil, writing about gear is easy. Quality trip reports require trips, and reflections like this take for me a long time percolating in the back of the brain. For a range of reasons in the last few weeks I’ve found myself combing the internet more than usual, finding gems like Dan’s fantastic report to open the sweet gates of memory (ergo the photo above) and sooth a restless mind. Temporarily.
Outdoor gear is only one example of a larger cultural paradox. Gear should facilitate and celebrate outdoor adventure, and (social) virtues of which will be self-evident, here. Stuff in general, be it food cars or shoes, should first enable and then enhance and celebrate living. Alas, we in the west, and increasingly we humans, are co-creators of a culture in which this is not the case. It’s hard to celebrate outdoor adventure as a potentially uplifting and even subversive form of living, while at the same time examining the tools which make it possible, without slipping back in to cliche and old habit and becoming an indistinguishable part of progress. There will always be an unfinished tension there, a logical contradiction which is a usual sign of something accurate and useful. That is what I do here. Nonetheless, responsible outdoor gear writers need to be damn careful.
BackpackingLight made all the PDFs of the old print magazine free to members, and I’ve read most of those 11 issues this week. It’s interesting to watch the ark of growth in that decade (my dramatic side wants to indulge and write about the decline and fall of BPL), from scrappy homegrown website to insurgent magazine back to forum-driven web presence. A web presence with lots of gear reviews and even more gear talk, and precious little un-anecdotal evidence of life lived. Nonetheless, BPL is the only business associated with outdoor adventure of which I’m aware that even acknowledges the problem mentioned in the above paragraph exists. Not only do they discuss it, but in their best moments they take it very seriously, which is the only thing which enables me to use them as an example, and has accelerated my own understanding of the issue a great deal. (It’s time for me to propose the “Don’t Hike Your Own Hike article I’ve been mulling all year.)
Gilding, in the epigraphical quotation from The Great Disruption, hedges his bets a bit and doesn’t universalize the damage to quality of life wrought by a growth/progress driven culture. I fixed it for him. The problems caused by growth have been especially ubiquitous in my life lately. I see them at work, at the root of cultural pathologies which spawn transgenerational mental illnesses. And I see them in myself. I think about buying stuff too much, especially when I already have a really good _____ which is for all intents and purposes perfect. I’m not denying in and for myself the satisfaction I get from neat stuff, will buy more stuff, and not just categorically new stuff. At the same time it’s frightening to realize how thoroughly my moods are a slave to material things. (Our truck was out of commission for a while lately getting a new valve gasket, and the centrality of a car in American life is sublime.)
As with most things in my professional life, anyone who takes a profound social problem seriously enough to being to fully see it in people they meet in person finds that they can only looks closely and fully for so long, every so often. Long term engagement with the world’s problems requires a metered approach. And with that said, I hope the creeping ressentiment of outdoor materialism will slide back under the surface of my life for a bit. It’s the weekend and time to get out in the woods.