The unbearable lightness of being green

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“Morality is like art: it is the ability to draw a line somewhere.” —G. K. Chesterton

Lately I have been  thinking about ecorealism, a term used by Gregg Easterbrook in his book A Moment on the Earth to describe an environmental position that avoids the extremes of both the doomsday prophecies of the left and the bulldozer policies of the right. Ecorealists, he says, don’t shut their eyes to environmental abuse, but neither do they ignore the progress being made towards sustainable life on planet Earth.

I’ve been thinking about the term in relation to arguments about what constitutes a valid experience of nature and what oversteps the mark. For example, should people be allowed to swim with dolphins, or only watch them from a boat? Should flights over national parks be banned because they disturb the tranquillity of people on the ground? Should boaties dispose of waste in the sea? Should trampers wash their dishes in a river?

What started this train of thought was a letter taking me to task for lighting a campfire near the headwaters of the Blue River a remote and rarely visited area west of Haast Pass. Along with a writer friend, I had been retracing a journey made by “Mr Explorer” Douglas in the 19th century. It was a cold night, and there was an abundance of fallen branches. Picturing Douglas puffing on a pipe as he prodded the embers, we felt stirred to emulate him, warming ourselves as we pondered his 40 years lived in the wilderness of South Westland.

Evidently, we transgressed. Blotted our conservationist copybooks. Forget the fact that our modest camp was a speck on the edge of a plain several kilometres long and at least a kilometre wide. That the chances of anyone stumbling across a charred log from our fire were about as great as spotting the last moose in Fiordland or finding a kakapo nesting in one’s sleeping bag. “The days of pioneering are over,” writes my correspondent. Put on another layer of fleece and leave the timber to rot.

Am I alone in thinking that the ordinances of environmental virtue are becoming unbearably stringent? In a recent article in Outside magazine entitled “Is Anything OK Anymore?” writer Jack Hitt finds that a “scolding puritanism” is rampant in the outdoor community. It is no longer enough to treat nature with respect—to “tread lightly” on the land. “Sorry, pack-it-in­pack-it-out is yesterday’s beatitude,” he writes. “Now the Leave No Trace folks can be found on the Internet, vehemently thinking and rethinking the minutest details of back country etiquette, mulling all the ways in which we grind our heavy heel into Nature’s face.”

Hitt provides several examples. “When you camp out, do you swallow your toothpaste? Do you carry out your apple cores and banana peels because they are foreign to the surrounding ecosystem? Do you strain your pasta water and pack out the leavings? Do you smear your faeces across the ground so that the natural processes react immediately and remove your traces within days?”

The new canon of outdoor correct­ness has implications for other pursuits, too. Among anglers, catch and release is out; “touch and go” with a barbless hook is the new standard of sporting propriety. You’re not supposed to play the fish; sufficient to know that you’ve seduced it by your cunningly tied fly. It strikes. It runs. It escapes. As long as your “life forces” have connected, that’s all that matters.

In rock climbing, “thou shalt not bolt” is the new credo. Hitt cites the case of a famous name in climbing who, having pioneered and mapped dozens of new routes in the 1970s, has suddenly been smitten by remorse and self-loathing, and is now revisiting those sites and systematically chopping off the bolts he placed 20 years ago. Pity the poor souls who bought his guide books and set out on a climb, only to find themselves halfway up a difficult face looking dumbly at a hole in the rock where a life-supporting bolt was supposed to be.

Mountain bikers have long been branded the devil’s henchmen. Whereas tampers flit across the terrain in their superlight air-cushioned, compression moulded, seam-sealed angel boots, bikers churn up the ground in a hellish orgyabrake-smoking, tyre-trashing fury of the damned which stampedes the wildlife and destroys the forest.

Even something as mild as taking underwater pictures is verboten because, supposedly, it traumatises the fish. Body surfing is off limits unless you tread water at all times: by standing up between waves you’re crushing the homes of countless burrowing creatures.

Where does this thinking end? “Tread lightly” soon translates into “stay at home.” Inch by idealistic inch, we retreat from the outdoor life in order to satisfy an increasingly restrictive code.

Last month, I invited friends to join me on a rafting trip down the Motu River. It was wet and it was wild. Three days of plunging down rapids and ghosting through forested gorges; two nights of camping under a tent fly and cooking over an open fire. One of our number shot a wild pig. To be burning the midnight oil in an Auckland office one night and be eating spit-roasted pork under a star-studded sky the next isn’t that part of what this country is about?

In my judgment, we trod lightly: we dug latrines, we packed out our rubbish, our campsites could not be seen from the river. We adopted a code that was appropriate to the time and the place.

“Appropriate” is the key word. Things that are acceptable on the Motu or up the Blue River are out of the question on the Routeburn Track.

During the climb of the Kaipo Wall described in this issue, different environmental practices were applied in different locations. Above the snow line, where the processes of biological decomposition are so slow as to be nonexistent, the climbers took all food scraps and toilet wastes with them. Down in the valley, where, as expedi­tion member Chris North told me, “there’s a lot of nature around,” they could be less rigorous (and, yes, they tipped out their pasta water).

Enjoyment of nature without damaging the environment; protection without exclusion these are difficult goals. But if we care about the in teg­rity of nature which includes Homo sapiens we should approach the challenges with ecorealism, rather than with the soulless strictures of environmental legalism.

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