Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Footprints

When I was a senior at the University of Utah back in 2000, I carried a full course load in English and journalism, worked 25 hours a week at a retail art supply store, and burned 20 more hours a week as a reporter for the Daily Utah Chronicle. With whatever free time I had left — minimal at best — I was fairly active in environmental causes. I contributed to the Terra Firma Club and campus recycling projects. I traveled to Southern Utah to document ATV abuse in wilderness study areas. I helped drag deadfall over illegal trails. I researched the destructive influences of the beef industry on the Utah desert. I campaigned against the Legacy Highway. And every Wednesday afternoon — my only day off work — I planted trees with Vaughn Lovejoy.

Vaughn Lovejoy is the founder of Tree Utah. In the spring of 2000, his big project was planting native species in the riparian zone of the Jordan River near 106th South. It was one of the few patches of land left in the Salt Lake Valley that hadn’t been consumed by suburban development, although the condos were encroaching fast. During one particularly warm day in April, we labored for four hours until my clothing was drenched in sweat and my hands riddled with blisters. I looked up at the new condo project going up near the freeway and casually asked Vaughn if the meadow we were re-greening was definitely going to be preserved from future development.

“I don’t know that,” Vaughn said. “The city says it is, but that may change in the future.”

“Do you think it will change?”

He looked thoughtfully toward the glistening steel beams. “Yes, I think it’s likely. Probably sooner than later.”

My 20-year-old idealism and four-hour-old blisters bristled with indignation. “Then why even bother planting trees here, if they’re just going to bulldoze them in a few years?”

Vaughn turned his thoughtful gaze toward me. I had always viewed him simply as an aging hippy, with a long white pony tail, an infectious smile and funny stories about his communal living situation, who was perhaps a little cut off from “real life” but intelligent and fun-loving. But the look in his eyes — suddenly serious and sad, but with moist flecks of joy — indicated that he was about to impart some deeper wisdom about life. I gripped my shovel tighter and listened. (And forgive me if this is biologically inaccurate or oversimplified. I’m trying to recall a conversation from 11 years ago.)

“Billions of years ago, back in the primordial soup, the Proterozoic Era, the dominant life forms were cyanobacteria," Vaughn said. "Cyanobacteria photosynthesized sunlight and produced oxygen as a waste product. Pretty soon oxygen proliferated in the atmosphere. The environment was toxic for the primitive bacteria, but it made way for all other life forms on Earth.”

Vaughn pointed to the condos and smiled. “I used to feel sadness for the path humanity is on, but now I wonder. What will this destruction we’ve wrought give way to? It will likely be disastrous for humans, but perhaps a brilliant evolutionary leap for life on Earth. What will the future look like? I don’t know, of course. But I do know that the universe will go on. With or without us, it will go on.”

I looked back toward our rows of tiny oxygen-producing trees. “I understand what you mean,” I said. “But that doesn’t really explain why you would choose to plant trees. I mean, if pollution and climate change are a kind of progress, in a way, wouldn’t planting trees go against that?”

Vaughn’s gaze turned playful again. “I love trees,” he said. “I love being out here, in the fresh air, in the sunshine, working with young people, planting trees. It’s what I love to do. It makes me happy, it makes other people happy, and maybe it will help prolong my fellow humans’ time on Earth just a little bit longer or make it a little bit better. It is a wonderful way to spend a life.”

That conversation with Vaughn Lovejoy was the catalyst for a shift in my views on environmentalism during the past decade. Yes, I still think conservation is important. So is environmental awareness, healthy habits and respectful stewardship. Because this generation, my generation, and the several that will follow need open space and clean air and nutritious food and water. But in other ways, I have, like Vaughn, come to accept a sort of eco-nihilism. What we’re doing to save the Earth from ourselves is just too little, too late.

Take everything we’re doing — the recycling, the cleaner energy sources, the efforts to preserve tiny tracts of still-natural lands — and really put it in context. Think about population growth, the developing world, and the energy needed to fuel the current rate of expansion. Spread it out in a big picture. Recycling’s not even going to make a dent, and neither are bio-fuels or technological innovations that make our consumption mere fractions of a percent more efficient. The only changes that matter are going to have to be quite drastic — as Beat likes to say, “Get fusion working. Only solution.” Only a truly impact-free energy source can spark the meaningful change the world needs to return to the way it was. Otherwise, I truly believe, we’re just planting trees in front of bulldozers.

But I also believe that shouldn’t stop us from living our lives in a meaningful, respectful way. I still recycle and contribute to conversation efforts and try to reduce my own footprint as much as possible. But I recognize that footprint is there. I’m not going to take it away by refusing to live my life. That’s why I always feel a little bit sad when I read well-meaning urgings to minimize environmental impact by minimizing activities, such as this quote from Dakota Jones, who wrote “The Oversized Footprint of Ultrarunning” on irunfar.com: “While our sport continues to grow at an unbelievable rate – while thousands more people every year realize that running 50 or 100 miles is not only possible but also fun – so our trails become crowded and our air degraded. Nobody hurts the environment with that purpose in mind, but our means of enjoying the wild places we love is killing them.”

Killing them? Really? Yes, races produce a negligible amount of waste and usually cause small amounts of trail damage. And of course many people travel to races by means of fossil-fuel- burning modes of transportation. And there are shoes, bicycles and other pieces of gear that need to be manufactured and shipped. But put that in context. There are no hard numbers for trail running or mountain biking. But in 2009, there were 41,000 Ironman finishers worldwide. In 2007, there were 400,000 marathon finishers in the United States. Regular trail runners probably number less than 200,000, and long-distance trail runners possibly less than 20,000. The potential for significant negative impact in a world of 6 billion humans is so small it’s laughable, and yet here we are, encouraging fellow outdoor enthusiasts to stay home.

In Dakota’s defense, he did encourage runners to keep running and take small steps to reduce impact, but the sentiment still lingers in his article — this idea that runners are hurting the mountains. Or cyclists. Or anyone who truly appreciates the environment as it stands, today, amid the pollution and climate change, for what it is — a beautiful place, a beautiful moment, that makes people happy. I don’t know what the world will become in the future, but I do sometimes think about Vaughn, his trees, and his serene smile toward that row of condos. I think of doing the things that make me and the people I know and love happy, while I’m alive.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote,
“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life.”