Mother Nature, in your face

Another month, another marketing opportunity for the people trying to sell you stuff. In this case the stuff is anything to do with getting out of the house, as June is officially designated Great Outdoors Month, “a month to celebrate the outdoors and recognize outdoor recreation’s contributions to the mental, physical and economic health of the United States.”

Or that’s how it’s explained in a somewhat tone-deaf promotional release from the RV Industry Association, coming as it is on the heels of multiple mass shootings, the biggest wildfires in New Mexico’s history, skyrocketing fuel and housing costs and other suggestions that the country’s mental, physical and economic health isn’t quite up to snuff. But urging Americans to get out of the house in June has been a thing since 1998, when Bill Clinton was the first to sign off on the idea, and so we can look forward to a litany of events coordinated by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR), whose members “represent the thousands of businesses that produce vehicles, equipment, gear, apparel and services for 144 million¬†outdoor¬†enthusiasts.”

National Go RVing Day, as well as National Get Outdoors Day, are both scheduled for June 11. But also on the calendar will be National Trails Day, the Great American Campout and National Marina Days, all promoted by various ORR members, including the aforementioned RVIA. And as a special bonus–as we wait with bated breath for the U.S. Supreme Court to hit us with its newest ideas about the unenumerated rights we can enjoy–this year’s Great Outdoors Month “will also focus on the principles of Together Outdoors, working to grow diversity, equity, and inclusion in outdoor recreation.”

Not to be an old sourpuss, but here’s a contrarian thought: maybe we should be encouraging people to stay the hell indoors until they understand that “the great outdoors” is not a personal plaything. Or just a bigger, grander version of Disneyland.

One clue as to why that might be a good idea was provided a couple of days ago in Largo, Florida, where the body of a 47-year-old man minus one arm was fished out of a public lake adjacent to a disk golf course. Police speculated that he’d gone for a midnight swim in search of lost discs that he could resell to players on the course. Unfortunately, he did so during alligator mating season, which made an already dicey proposition even more hazardous.

Another clue was offered on Memorial Day in Yellowstone National Park, where a 25-year old woman demonstrated how spatially challenged she was by getting within ten feet of a bison. Park rules stipulate that visitors should stay at least 25 yards–75 feet–from bison, which may look ponderous but can jump six feet vertically and run at 35 miles per hour. In this case the buffalo gored the woman and tossed her ten feet into the air, inflicting a puncture wound and other injuries, but at least she’ll live to tell the tale.

These may be extreme instances, but they’re unsurprising and only the most tragic consequences of propelling an untutored and entitled public into a world they don’t understand and which just doesn’t care about them. It’s not only wildlife with which they have to contend: there are rockfalls and lightning strikes, sudden squalls and sun stroke, forest fires and flash floods and scores of other environmental challenges that can challenge even smart, savvy backcountry adventurers, never mind those whose ideas about the Great Outdoors are shaped by glitzy advertising for outdoor “stuff.”

How about a bag of freshly popped popcorn and a good movie on a big-screen TV? Doesn’t that sound a whole lot more sensible than telling the kids to go play in traffic?

Who will speak for the RVers?

If there is a third rail in RV world, it’s climate change.

Yesterday I published a piece in RVtravel that was too wonky by far, but which tried to make the point that no one is fighting on behalf of RVers in today’s great climate-change battles. More specifically, there has been no one representing RVers and RV campground owners in the weeks of intense negotiations over the Build Back Better proposal (often referred to simply as “the reconciliation bill”) that has been stymied, in large part, by a U.S. Senator invested in the fossil fuel industry.

There are, I pointed out, two national industry groups that embrace the outdoors. There’s the Outdoor Industry Association, which despite having more than 1,200 members across the full spectrum of outdoor activities and equipment makers includes only one RV campground owner, Kampgrounds of America. And then there’s the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which encompasses nearly three-dozen trade associations–including the Outdoor Industry Association–and the three largest RV industry representatives: the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

As I further wrote, the Outdoor Industry Association has been lobbying the past several weeks on behalf of the Build Back Better proposal because of its significant commitment to combating climate change. Only by adopting such an ambitious agenda can we “ensure the success of the outdoor industry and the American economy and protect the health of the planet,” the association has argued. But the association clearly has been unable to convince the rest of its peers to follow its lead, and for the past several months the roundtable has studiously avoided any reference to climate change. It has not lobbied for passage of the Build Back Better proposal. It has, for all practical purposes, left the RVing community sidelined in one of the most, if not the most, urgent environmental struggles of the age.

That’s the point I tried to make. In retrospect, I did a poor job of it. As my RVtravel editors pointed out, the piece drew a near-record low readership. Few RVers wanted to read what I had to say–and of those who did, only a couple responded with favorable comments. The preponderant unfavorable responses, meanwhile, either largely missed my point (for which I take the blame) or are still mired in antediluvian talking points, claiming we’ve always had climate change, or confusing climate with weather. And some simply didn’t give a damn, such as the reader who assured us, ” I have no qualms in my Class A burning diesel all over the US, and will continue to do so as long as I can.”

A more sophisticated response came in an email to me from a representative of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, who felt that what I had written was “very disappointing and factually inaccurate.” To substantiate that latter point, he appended four PDFs of letters and statements that supposedly reflected the roundtable’s work on “climate resilient infrastructure.”

It was a mixed bag. Two of the PDFs spoke to the infrastructure bill that got strong bipartisan support months ago and was not at issue in my column. The other two were copies of letters sent in August and September to House and Senate committee chairs, neither of which mentioned climate change and both of which urged even more infrastructure funding than had been allocated in the infrastructure bill itself. Requested were “additional funds for the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Program, improving trails that serve underserved communities, funding capital maintenance projects, restoring ecological integrity, creating sustainable recreation infrastructure, expanding access, promoting tourism and more.”

In other words, more of the same.

As I responded in my answering email, “My disappointment with the ORR is that while it lobbies for making the outdoors more accessible to the general public, it sits on the sidelines of a climate change debate about an incomparably more fundamental need, which is a reduction in greenhouse gases. Overworked though the metaphor may be, the ORR is lobbying for more deck chairs and a bigger brass section in the shipboard orchestra while there’s a furious debate in the control room over what to do about that iceberg looming on the port bow.”

It should go without saying that for most RVers and most campground owners, the compelling attraction of what they do is being in the great outdoors, of getting closer to nature and the environment. That environment is being transfigured before our very eyes, day by day and week by week, into something ugly and hostile to human life–and that transformation is a direct result of human action. If we are to restore and reclaim the environment we love, the very first step will be to acknowledge that we are at fault; and being at fault, we will have to change our behavior to regain what is slipping through our fingers.

That means calling the problem by its name: climate change, catalyzed by human production of greenhouse gases. And it means accepting that climate change cannot be stopped, much less reversed, without significant changes in our habits and behavior–and there’s the rub. For who wants to do that? Yet the inescapable physics of it all is that, sooner or later, change will be forced on us nevertheless. Nature will see to it–unless we get ahead of it by initiating change on our own.

To do that, however, we need to start talking–and so far, the RVing community hasn’t found its voice.

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