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Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry on 01/29/2006 22:46:37 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry on 01/30/2006 00:06:19 MST Print View

The definition of "Engagment" and its cognate forms appear to tell a story somewhat different from OIA use of the word, to my mind at least.

Furthermore, the mental image of all that is involved in a very different use of the word "Engagement" (viz. the engagement of a couple with intent to marry) speaks volumes, in an analogical sense, as to what ought to be involved.

Engagement, Engage, Engaged:

Selected, applicable meanings from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

emotional involvement or commitment

to attract and hold by influence

to hold the attention of

ENGROSS (synonym)

to induce to participate

to deal with especially at length

to come together and interlock [Note: Used of gears or machinery, but included here because of the mental image of active connected involvement which is the intended purpose of the design.]

[Note: As many words tend to have wide semantic range of meaning, only some of those definitions applicable for the context under consideration were presented. Others, not applicable, e.g. "to engage the enemy in combat", were elided.]

Personally, while engaging in near daily fitness hikes (when healthy) in full UL regalia, if overnights, weekends, and longer treks were to be excluded, I feel that I would be missing an extremely important aspect of the wilderness experience. Often, I'm tempted to not return and spend the night in the forest.

Admittedly, where I live, other than some parts of Northern New England, a two-plus hour hike will bring me back in touch with civilization. However, there are still many places that are devoid of the sights and sounds of humanity, and often any human contact is absent as well. This is where I go to do my best thinking.

Edited by pj on 01/30/2006 00:18:41 MST.

larry savage
(pyeyo) - F

Locale: pacific northwest
Re: Re: Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry on 01/30/2006 09:18:36 MST Print View

Perhaps north face is gearing up to supply snowmobile and motorcyle people, honda advertises in mountain bike magazines. Is this the new paradigm of the outdoor industry.

David Peterson
(thegeoguy) - F

Locale: Sonoma County, CA
Soul decay on 01/30/2006 20:55:28 MST Print View

I completely agree with Ryan's position; but also have to accept the this is a show for the Outdoor INDUSTRY Association, a group that includes big producers of products to appeal to absolutely the most people possible. I guess being outdoors in your purring Hummer is outdoors, right? Identifing trends in consumer spending and interests is good marketing. Misses the entire point of being out in the wilderness, but is good marketing....One of the really appealing things (to me) about the Backpacking Light site is that it seems to reject the standard industry paradigms, and maintains an element of integrity. At least BPL is keeping its soul intact...

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry on 01/30/2006 21:18:36 MST Print View

There are two problems here.

One problem is that people who engage in human-powered outdoor activities are a tiny market, and one that doesn't seem to be growing at all. This in spite of the fact that the U.S. population continues to increase. It isn't just backpacking. Mountaineering and cross-country skiing aren't exactly growing sports either. Snowshoeing has been well-marketed for a few years, but I suspect that will flatten out too.

Most of the population growth in this country is due to immigration. When was the last time you saw a recent immigrant out hiking? Well, you will if you hike on the PCT in its southernmost reaches, but that isn't what I mean. I've quite a few friends who are recent immigrants, and explaining to them why anyone cares about declining salmon runs, loss of old-growth forests, or melting glaciers is never simple and often just hits a brick wall.

The other problem is all about money. A snowmobile or ORV generate a lot more profit at every level of the distribution chain than backpacking gear. And you don't really have the continuing business servicing backpacking gear that you have with motorized recreation devices. Lightweight backpacking is at a double disadvantage on this point. Most backpacking gear is sold by the pound, all other things being equal, and lightweight and ultralight gear still requires about the same level of shelf space and probably even more expertise on the part of sales staff. That's why you're unlikely to see GG packs at REI anytime soon.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Wilderness De-Engagement: Soul Decay in the Outdoor Industry on 01/30/2006 22:38:33 MST Print View

I think you have to be careful about evaluating the demographics of outdoor sports. I mean, in the US, (or pretty much anywhere), when was the last time you saw a black person hiking? Or even a Native American?

I think the interest in hiking has little to do with one's ethnic background (after all I am a German/ Filipino/ American black who grew up in Japan), but much more on the influence of people around you whom you grow up with and with popular media coverage of those doing the sports.

I think you will find that most people involved with outdoor sports are those who have some money and who live in the areas where access to the outdoors tends to be rather easy. Most immigrants in the States and most of the minority groups are composed mostly of people who are financially not very well off and outdoor sports definitely carry an image of being very expensive.

You also very rarely see anyone but whites in the States doing outdoor sports on TV or in the magagzines. Companies like REI and LL Bean go out of their way to show non-whites doing hiking and such, but it comes across as very artificial. I've hiked and bicycle traveled for more than 30 years and have seen maybe three blacks out on the trails or backroads.

Just here in these forums I would be willing to bet that there are very few blacks, if any. I know there are a few Asians, mostly of Chinese heritage. My question would be to those who are not white, what exactly got you involved with backpacking and do you feel that your experiences in becoming interested in backpacking and other outdoor sports felt a little off to the side? And to the people who are white here, what are your impressions of numbers of non-whites involved with outdoor sports and have you had much chance of interacting with such people?

You have to remember that most immigrants go to the States to find the most menial jobs, and tend to end up in big cities, where there is little access to the back country. They are there to work, not play. With little experience of the outdoors as a place to enjoy yourself they tend not to see the point. There is also that sense of fear of the outdoors, due to lack of knowledge. It is no different from people here suddenly being popped into let's say, a Laotian mountain community and being expected to understand the language and customs and food without anyone telling you what to do. Can be pretty scary.

Like with anything education is the key. If those big outdoor companies would make more effort to educate the people who don't usually get outdoors I'm sure you'd find a huge number of people who would find joy in being outdoors. But what company is going to market to people who can't afford to buy their goods?

I make a lot of effort to introduce friends and acquaintances to the joys of the outdoors. Invariably they are quite moved, especially when the experience is not full of anguish and suffering. The question is, how do you do that on a large scale?

Brett Tucker
(blister-free) - F

Locale: Puertecito ruins
A Hierarchy of Needs on 01/31/2006 12:01:28 MST Print View

To the extent that the outdoor industry is a mirror to the culture it courts, I would argue that we've collectively fallen - or at least failed to gain - along the flanks of the pyramid. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - the "pyramid" - suggests that we cannot achieve the level of self-actualization necessary to embrace (e.g.) a wilderness connection or stewardship ethic until we have fulfilled the more visceral, animal needs within our lives. One could make a case that our culture today is less fulfilled on almost every level, whether it be the immigrant in search of sustenance and safety, or the middle class out of touch with love and spirituality. A wilderness experience requires us to embrace uncertainty, accept hunger, thwart danger and distress - experiences that more and more people already encounter in their everyday lives. Seeing these unpleasantries in the light of a higher purpose, actively seeking them out, and shielding ourselves from their emotional dangers with a sense of love and kinship for the world that brings them about - this is only for those who have already found the footing, who have climbed the pyramid. Unfortunately, this excludes most people. And the outdoor industry has its own hierarchy of needs to fulfill.

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: A Hierarchy of Needs on 01/31/2006 12:09:19 MST Print View

I actually think a lot more is going on here. It isn't just poor immigrants on their way up that are eschewing wilderness and wildness. It is also rich and educated immigrants too.

As for me, I suspect that a lot of it has to do with mass urbanization on a worldwide level and overmanagement of children. On the first point, we've reached a tipping point in the world where a fairly substantial percentage of humanity lives in cities (that will soon be a solid majority too), and for most people any experience of the natural world is some distance away. On the second, like the book _Last Child in the Woods_ describes, we"ve pretty efficiently eliminated options for kids to play outside -- it is either too dangerous or the kids themselves will get into criminal behavior. Both of these things add up to a substantial denial of experience for a lot of people in the world. Let's face it, people can't articulate very well about what they haven't experienced either.

Neil Bender
(nebender) - F
Re: Re: A Hierarchy of Needs on 01/31/2006 13:48:03 MST Print View

I might add something to this conversation, but I am too busy playing the Alone in The Wilds video game.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
It's very simple, really on 02/01/2006 13:20:37 MST Print View

David Bonn wrote:
"The other problem is all about money. A snowmobile or ORV generate a lot more profit at every level of the distribution chain than backpacking gear. And you don't really have the continuing business servicing backpacking gear that you have with motorized recreation devices."

To my mind, what David has highlighted is not the OTHER problem; it is the ONLY problem. This is an industry group - right? And the only thing a big industry is interested in is profit. As David said, there is a lot more profit in anything with an engine (or a video game!) in it.

You might challenge this, pointing to the many small cottage industries which are still deeply involved in UL gear and the backcountry. Very true, they exist, but I challenge you to find many of them with the time to be involved in running a trade association. It is only the really big players who can afford the time to be involved: it gives the CEOs an opportunity to feel important.

So, almost inevitably, the OIA will be the captive of the bigger more profit-oriented companies. I hesitate to suggest it, but what thios might be signalling is a disconnect between the OIA and the backcountry, sometime in the future. They may succeed in convincing themselves that 'outdoors' really means 'a BBQ in the backyard'.

So don't panic. And don't worry. Those who want to enjoy the backcountry will continue to do so, and those who want to run small cottage industries devoted to this arena will also continue to do so. Those who want to run big bussinesses will seek more profitable arenas.

That said, it tells me that we must remain very much on guard against any attempts to 'open up to the wider public' our conservation areas by big business. It might be fun to run an RV right up the guts of a spectacular scenic National Park, or to locate a 5-star luxury hotel on top of El Cap, and it might increase commercial opportunities, but NO WAY!

As a final thought: will there be, one day in the future, an alternative OR show - run by and for the smaller cottage companies and the UL community? It's a thought. maybe Ryan and a few owners should consider this.

Neil Bender
(nebender) - F
Re: It's very simple, really on 02/01/2006 16:41:41 MST Print View

My video game comment was more oriented toward the decline in the user base for self-propelled wilderness enjoyment than at the video game industry. I don't blame the game inventors for creating couch potatoes, I blame couch potatoes for making vapid entertainment a growth industry. And growth is a key word here.

Profit is a given in any business endeavor, large or small. Try running a business without making a profit, you won't be in business long. The only sustainable non-profit system is government because they have the coercive power to extract ever increasing fees (taxes) even when demand for their services, however exclusive, or just as likely poor or fraudulent, is low. If (voluntary)demand were high there'd be a profitable private sector providing the service anyway.

I don't know about you, but I'd be very suspicious of any typical, bureaucratic, one size fits all solution to my lightweight backpacking needs, freed of the constraints of greed and profit by a Gear Freak Dependency Bureau, created by the Omnibus Innovative Gear and Engagement Act of 2006. Think clunky military contract gear dispensed by a reject from The Department of Redundancy Department. Next!

Though in fairness, government does do a reasonable job of maintaining wilderness, however, no one can say if it is done cost effectively as economic calculation under socialism isn't feasible (See Hayek, Von Mises, Rothbard, etc.). But who needs economic calculation when you have the IRS or deficit spending. Don't we all wish we had a magic checkbook? Still I'm happy that millions who don't use, need , or value the (wilderness providing) service get their pockets picked so my playgrounds are kept from the bulldozer and paving grader.

What we are seeing in the industry is the MBA-culture and business model (growth, short sighted, quarter by quarter) applied to everything in business. Profit-loss accounting is the feedback system that lets us know when we are serving each other best (eg. relative to real demand in real bids with money, not just hollow opinion polls). Big companies who want to grow (not just simply profit) look at the demographic bubble of easy leisure activities and an aging population and see growth there, not in specialized niche markets, regardless of profit margin. Volume is the big driver. Compare McDonalds to your favorite corner bistro.

It's too easy to spout platitudes about greed. A rich man's greed is just the flipside of a poor man's envy. Every living thing operates in self-interest, making choices and acting on them. Characterizations of class interests don't help to explicate the problem to find a solution.

Money is just a medium of exchange, store of value, and carrier of the price signal in systems of voluntary exchange. Anyone who has investments or retirement accounts is responsible for this trend in business (pressure to grow, as if getting fat is healthy). But there is a ghost in the machine. If government money was sound and stable (based on uninflatable commodities such as gold), people would be able to save fungible, exchangable wealth without having to resort so much to the equities markets, which pressure businesses to pander to least common denominator growth models. At least that was Enron's excuse.

The growth of the equity markets parallels government induced inflation (debased currency, monetized government debt) quite closely. People think it's great that their houses are rising in value, but the truth is the value of their money is being diluted at the source. Counterfeiting ought to be illegal for everyone (equality under the law), but we are WAY past that point.

The best that can happen for the sport is some popular race activities and celebrity associated with them that can be used to pander to mass marketing. This has happened in cycling, where people buy very light, uncomfortable, low durable, specialized bikes inappropriate to 90% of consumer's actual uses, but they want to ride Lance's bike. Great for us enthusiasts, as corrected for inflation racing bikes are now practically disposable commodites.

Competition leads to innovation. Adventure racing is where the leading edge of product development will most likely reside. What we in this enthusiast's niche are really competing for is the attention of vicarious consumers. Which sort of leads me back to my video game comment.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: A Hierarchy of Needs on 02/01/2006 20:14:28 MST Print View

On the second, like the book _Last Child in the Woods_ describes, we"ve pretty efficiently eliminated options for kids to play outside -- it is either too dangerous or the kids themselves will get into criminal behavior. Both of these things add up to a substantial denial of experience for a lot of people in the world.

Here is a very poignant blog post that touches on this.

Edited by butuki on 02/01/2006 20:15:02 MST.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Wilderness De-Engagement on 02/01/2006 21:01:28 MST Print View

In simplistic terms, I am kind of glad that my idea of fun is not followed the hordes and masses that sit at a computer consol all day and play video games. Keep in mind, most of us go to into the wilderness to "escape" the masses too. Maybe I am wrong.

Mark Larson
(mlarson) - MLife

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Re: It's very simple, really on 02/01/2006 21:01:51 MST Print View

[Neil Bender--It's always nice to hear from another Austrian outside of!]

Definitely agree with the earlier mention child-rearing paranoia these days. Also add in the demise of summer freedom and the gradual rise of year-round schooling. Not to mention the resume-building we see beginning in middle school and earlier. It's tough to promote the backcountry moment as an end in itself, especially when more certifiable, credentialed activities beckon.

Here's a big challenge of promoting the backcountry experience: that many of us with strong appreciation of the Outdoor Ethos are the same ones who would resist its being marketed or commoditized. 'Commerce' is associated with pushing a product, 'nature' with an intangible experience. You get into a weird tug-of-war. Can we admit the need to 'sell' the backcountry experience, and still keep them holy?


Steven Sergeant
(SteveSgt) - F
Re: Wilderness De-Engagement on 04/01/2006 16:21:41 MST Print View

Ken Helwig, I wouldn't call you wrong, but I would caution you not to be short-sighted about it.

If too few members of the public understand not just the spiritual and recreational values of wilderness, but the ecosystem services values as well, then there's a significant chance that those large expanses that lightweight hikers seek to get out into won't be there for future generations, or even for us later in life.

So there definitely is a balance to be sought: Enough of a political constituency for wilderness that it remains protected, but not so much that it's despoiled by hoardes of visitors. I don't claim to know what that balance is.

Edited by SteveSgt on 04/01/2006 16:22:41 MST.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Wilderness De-Engagement on 04/01/2006 18:51:24 MST Print View

And everything that you said Mr. Sargeant I agree with. Nice post!

b d
(bdavis) - F

Locale: Mt. Lassen - Shasta, N. Cal.
Agree with post, what to do on 07/17/2006 16:36:09 MDT Print View

First, we live on the Eastern slope of Mt. Lassen in California. Over the last three years trailers, fifth wheels, and all sorts of rigs have shown up on the Forest Service roads and lands. People park rigs and then drive back home to come up in the following weekends. Quad runners, motorcycles, etc. accompany the RV rigs, with the kids, relatives, and others. It is turning into a zoo -- and the environment is clearly suffering, with all kinds of stupid stunts being performed by those who pack their RVs, etc., including "moto cross races by the 6 to 18 year old kids over the Forest Service roads, fire roads, and through the raw woodlands. Further, we have been notified that the Forest Service is taking comments on which roads to leave open to "OHV's" and so we are doing what we can to do so -- tell the Forest Service to get these people out of the free Forest Service land campsites and send them back to the paved asphalt parking spots in the registered, pay by day state and federal campsites. B. D, Old Station, CA

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Agree with post, what to do on 07/17/2006 18:06:07 MDT Print View

I know an old WWII veteran who made these little things that looked like a toy jack-- the kind you play "jacks" with. But the points were all knife sharp and no matter which way it landed, it would have a point sticking up. It turns out those things were really hard on the tires of the logging trucks who kept running down his private road-- you can't see them when someone drops them in a mud puddle. The loggers finally got smart and stayed on the public roads. The old vet made them out of old bolts and such, copied from the ones they trained him to use in paratrooper school for messing with the enemy's trucks behind the lines.

Sometimes big rocks roll down the bank and block the road too-- gravity is a funny thing.