At the end of 1990, Newsweek writer Jerry Adler penned a classic line that summed up the liberal environmentalist’s distaste with the ruinous human race: "It's a morbid observation, but if everyone on earth just stopped breathing for an hour, the greenhouse effect would no longer be a problem." In this week’s edition of the magazine, Adler reported on a new study showing our time in outdoors recreation is declining. He summarized: "So along with obesity and attention-deficit disorder, you can now, if you choose, blame videogames for the greenhouse effect." But then, he reconsidered the tawdry boorishness of nature-touring humanity, and concluded "maybe we’d all do better to give the World a break from us, so it can heal on its own."
Adler touted a study (which he dutifully disclosed was funded by the Nature Conservancy, which has an interest in promoting nature areas) by authors Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic:
The implications the authors draw are dire. "There's a pretty direct pathway from exposure to nature, especially as a child, to caring about it," says Pergams. So along with obesity and attention-deficit disorder, you can now, if you choose, blame videogames for the greenhouse effect.
But is the problem really that too many people are staying home from the wilderness? Some, presumably including Thoreau, would say that the last thing nature needs is more people in it. "I have," he wrote in "Walden," "my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself." In 1850 he was able to find this a few miles outside Boston, but just let him try to duplicate it in Yellowstone park, say, on Memorial Day weekend. Or in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina's Patagonia region, to which Dominique Browning, a New York editor, made an arduous and expensive pilgrimage recently. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, she described her trip as a disappointing vista of litter glimpsed between the heads of boorish tourists while the boat's soundtrack echoed among the majestic glaciers. The experience left her, she says, with an appreciation of "the coffee-table book as a mode of travel." The wilderness looks best through the lens of a professional photographer, who can crop the plastic bags out of the trees.
The study didn't consider snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles or other motorized forms of "nature-based recreation," but Zaradic thinks they deserve a place in the wilderness, too, as long as they get people to the out-of-doors. This is, of course, a fairly controversial position in the environmental movement. Her faith in the transformative power of nature is impressive. It would be nice to get kids into the woods once in a while so they can learn, at least, how to swat a mosquito. But maybe we'd all do better to give the World a break from us, so it can heal on its own.
Nowhere in the article does Adler consider how perhaps humans think it would be better to stay indoors and avoid the threats of nature, like angry bears or heat exhaustion. The planet comes first. Its inhabitants (or its despoilers) come a distant second -- even though they buy the magazines manufactured from the slaughtered trees.