Can Social Media Help Protect Our Planet?

Social media has been said to have the power of bringing us closer together...and tearing us further apart. But in an age where technology trumps, social media sharing might just be the key to protecting our beautiful planet.

By: Jacalyn Beales
November 16, 2016

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I'm willing to hedge a bet that any time you embark on an outdoor adventure, you bring a mobile device with you. And the likelihood of you utilizing that device to capture the perfect image is, I'm assuming, pretty high. 

If you can recall a time in your own personal history when your daily life didn't revolve around checking Instagram every hour or taking multiple selfies before you finally nailed one worthy of a social media feed, you probably used your phone for the most basic of purposes, such as texting friends, calling family members or receiving voicemails from your overly persistent boss. Prior to the burgeoning popularity of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, sharing all of the intricacies of our everyday lives - our adventures and travels, dinners and smoothies, workout selfies and product reviews - was as simple as posting an image to Facebook or calling a friend. We had little to no inkling that social media would one day open multiple doors of endless possibility for staying connected with celebrities, friends, families, brands, businesses and influencers. But the moment Instagram began blowing up everyone's phone, the ways in which we shared our lives and adventures with the world completely changed. 

Suddenly, everyone was sharing pictures of everything; from lifestyle images like food and fashion, to adventure photography such as outdoor trips and travel. Organizations, corporations, charities, NGOs, NPOs, brands, businesses and bloggers "cashed" in on the newfound ability to reach literally millions of people, and with this trend came widespread criticism that people - specifically, younger generations - were beginning to live more in a narcissistic, virtual world rather than reality. Articles questioning just whether social media actually brings people closer together - or simply rips us further apart - began cropping up everywhere, disregarding the incredible reach social media platforms like Instagram (perhaps the most notable) have for various organizations seeking to do good and mitigate bad. Environmental organizations, for instance, utilize Instagram to reach younger generations of millennials to raise awareness about issues younger individuals need to be made aware of. 

Regardless of whether social media really does "rip" us apart from one another, there's no denying the innate power it has to bring people closer together, allowing us to connect with like-minded individuals who share our interests, goals, and desires. But when it comes to conserving the environment, perhaps this could not be more true for nature enthusiasts and those seeking to save our planet. 

Now, I'm not saying social media is the only method of raising awareness; I'm all for a solid petition, a peaceful protest and the odd rally or two. But we may have truly underestimated social media's power of bringing to light the hard-hitting truths and issues surrounding environmental conservation, and all it encompasses. You may assume, for instance, that bumping into a few fellow hikers on a trail run or during a camping trip who are constantly stopping to snap photos with their phones are simply missing out on the beauty of our natural world, all so they can capture the perfect Instagram photo. But those photos may have the power to reach hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people. And that's a good thing. 

Think about it from an awareness perspective: everyday, we are riddled with images of forests, wild species, bodies of water, natural habitats, National Parks and other nature-oriented landscapes devastated by the negative impacts of climate change, forest fires, monoculture production, trophy hunting, species-wide culls...you get the picture (no pun intended). And whilst we accept that Nat Geo explorers and photojournalists working for the Times venture out into these wild landscapes to capture these moments, all in the name of conservation and news, when we capture the same images with our phones, or when we utilize our iPhone cameras to document the beauty of a National Park, often we are criticized for "wasting time" on our phones as opposed to simply appreciating nature. But our photos can be just as powerful as any paid explorer's or journalist's. 

Take, for example, The Outbound Collective. The platform offers both Stories and Adventures, many of which give great reason to get outdoors and explore this stellar planet, soaking up the vast expanses of green space around the globe and offering advice as to how you can adventure into nature without leaving a negative impact on it. If not for the everyday adventurer who took photos of National Parks in need of protection, would many of us even be aware of the issues impacting them? Would we know how to ethically hike the Appalachian Trail or responsibly camp out in Zion National Park, if not for those who have been there, done that, and done it responsiblyProbably not. That's because someone had to go out and have those adventures so the rest of us could. And that "someone" had to take their phone or camera with them to document it. There's a strong likelihood of you having discovered these beautiful territories and natural landscapes through social media. 

Now consider how effective environmental conservation could be if more people utilized their photo-taking skills - amateur or otherwise - to document for social media the environments they adventure into and the issues impacting those specific places. People do it everyday for magazines, newspapers, journals, publications and digital platforms; why can't you do the same, even if it is just for your own personal social media feed? It is, after all, a Leave No Trace method of raising awareness about environmental issues such as land and nature conservation that costs you nothing and takes mere moments to do. 

You may also discover that such social media sharing can lead to some pretty awesome opportunities, least of which could be meeting new people and discovering new places. This past year, I was approached by a biodiversity group and asked for my help in documenting the various marine species and bird populations in a local area for a biodiversity project. It just so happened that this group connected with me via Instagram, after taking note of my outdoor adventures and various published pieces on environmental and wildlife conservation. Simply by snapping a few photos of outdoor adventures, I was able to be a part of a life-changing project, and helped raise awareness of key environmental issues. People are doing the same everyday, starting with social media. 

Of course, there exists a line (or rather, there should exist a line) between simply traveling or hiking for the sake of a cool photo, and actually exploring for the sake of discovering the great outdoors. For the most part, we are constantly absorbed in our phones, tablets and other mobile devices which have the ability to consume our everyday lives, causing hours to be wasted scrolling through food porn and photos of fast-fashion. But if your use of social media could help raise awareness of key issues and encourage others to discover all our naturally wild world around us has to offer, perhaps we should ask ourselves if social media really does tear us apart, or simply helps unite people for the causes they care about. 

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.