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If You Love the Outdoors, You're an Environmentalist. But How Can You Take Action?

The days of chaining ourselves to trees may be far from over, but for younger generations, it's a start on the road to becoming a steward of our stellar planet.

By: Jacalyn Beales + Save to a List

Everyday it's something different: climate change destroying our world's oceans, palm oil causing mass destruction of irreplaceable forests, wild species being slaughtered in country-wide culls. If not for the plethora of natural disasters, overfishing, deforestation, pollution and other severely detrimental issues plaguing our planet, few news stories would feature anything but Donald Trump drama and a comic-strip section. We've become conditioned to expect ongoing trends of natural and man-made disasters we simply can't look away from, and seemingly can't do anything to prevent.

But what if all of that could change, starting with our connection to nature?

For many, connecting with nature means to quite literally get outdoors and immerse ourselves in it; we seek those adventures and experiences which bring us closer to nature, but not necessarily closer to saving it. Our awareness of the issues currently concerning the destruction of the environment - including valuable land, oceans and habitats - comes from news reports, journals, statistics, broadcasts and the odd article to two with factual evidence for the dangers of climate change. When spending time outdoors, it's unlikely most of us stop to consider what needs to be done to preserve the pristine-looking lake we're swimming in or building fires by; it's also unlikely we think about ways in which we can actively work to conserve these environments. We leave that up to influencers like David Suzuki and organizations like the Wildlife Defence League to figure out because, simply put, we're not environmentalists; we're outdoors enthusiasts. Adventurers. Explorers. 

What if we could be both? Or all? 

As daunting as it may sound, it begins with forming a compassionate and empathetic relationship with, and concern for, nature. And, far be it from needing to film a documentary (looking at you, Leo) or spending six months of your life in the Arctic tundra, building this relationship doesn't have to be as difficult as you might think. 

Few of us were raised with parents who strapped us to their backs and took us hiking with them through the Andes; buckled us into a canoe and paddled us through Banff; or spent every family vacation camping in a new National Park. We may assume being raised from a young age as an environmentalist, trekking through woods and scaling mountains, matters most when forming a deeper connection to nature - and on some level, it probably does. But this connection can also be forged in adulthood, starting with how we perceive ourselves as part of the natural environment. 

Celebrate the National Parks by Preserving the National Parks | Photo: Jakub Konieczynski

Several studies - like this one, and this guy, too - have found that our concern for and connection to nature revolves around our own ideas of how we fit into it. To expand on that further, such studies suggest that our attitudes towards the environment and the conservation of it are based upon the value we assign to nature and, in some cases, the species inhabiting it. In his article, Empathizing With Nature: The Effects of Perspective Taking on Concern for Environmental Issues, Schultz argues that our environmental concern is tied to the interconnectedness we feel between ourselves and nature. Schultz performed a two-pronged study wherein he had subjects take on the perspective of an endangered animal to prove his hypothesis that people would likely feel a greater inclusivity with nature and, thus, greater levels of environmental concern if they were able to consider environmental destruction from an animal's perspective - unsurprisingly for some of us, I'm sure, Schultz was right. Based on his findings, it stands to reason that the closer we feel to nature, the greater our concern for it becomes.

What these types of studies seek to prove is not that pretending to be a hunted animal or a wild species affected by deforestation will lead to a greater understanding of nature but, rather, will help us to comprehend what value we place on it and our level of concern for it. We cannot assume that taking the perspective of a wolf or moose will allow us to understand nature, but like many others, Schultz has simply tried to prove that we do place value on the environment relative to where we see ourselves fitting into it. Perhaps that's why people so often protest important environmental injustices - they see their place in nature as being closely related to it and, as Schultz suggests, attribute significant value to it. Getting arrested, chaining ourselves to trees and donning masks to protest such injustices is common theme in the world of environmental altruism today, but far be it from a cry for media attention, the value people place on nature is increasing the more we begin to recognize, and realize, our connectedness to it. 

Though some politicians and major corporations may disagree, lending our voices to the fight for environmental rights and welfare is a start on younger generations' journeys to becoming stewards of our environment. 

Leave No Trace Over Likes | Photo: Emily Noyd

But environmental issues are not purely the sum of their parts; in fact, for the most part, we don't actually know how to help nature or prevent environmental destruction, especially when we are unaware of the issues at hand and exist in a bystander-society whereby it is incredibly simple to avoid taking responsibility for our environmental actions and behaviour. In psychology, they have a common term for this behaviour: the Bystander Effect. As you've probably guess, the Bystander Effect stipulates that, when in the presence of a large group of "others" (be it people or otherwise), individuals feel less responsibility to step forward and help in a negative situation. That's because the more people or, in the case of the environment, organizations there are to help, the less duty or responsibility we feel to step in and help also. We take this attitude towards environmental governance and conservation because, as individuals who just want to be outdoors and enjoy the experience, we take solace in the notion that a bigger organization than ourselves is helping to curb the impacts of a dying Earth. In other words, our anxieties about the environment and helping to protect it are lessened when we know others are working to save it. 

To reverse this, we have to look at nature as more than just our playground. National Parks, for instance, do not simply exist for tourists or hikers. Protected areas are not given such status purely to keep explorers out, or to avoid an onslaught of tourists. They have been designated as habitats and environments whose ongoing survival rests upon people - like environmentalists - who see the necessity of helping them to continue to flourish. If we canoe on a lake filled with fish one year, but return the next to find it barren of marine life, we become saddened by the missed opportunity to once again enjoy canoeing on it - but what we should really be doing is looking at the barren body of water as an environmental concern, with solutions as to how to fix the issue. To become environmentalists, we must first look to nature with a can-fix approach, an attitude geared more towards protecting it than simply having fun in it for a few days before packing up and leaving it. 

An interesting study by Stephen Kaplan in the Journal of Environmental Psychology discusses the restorative benefits which spending time in nature hold for people, specifically the reduction of stress and sensory overload. In what he calls the "Attention Restoration Theory," Kaplan argues that being immersed in natural environments is particularly beneficial for restorative experiences, which could explain why people often feel an inclination to protect or preserve nature or a specific habitat when they are immersed in it and become further aware of the issues impacting its survival. What it boils down to is whether we place any value on nature and if that value increases the more closely we feel tied to it. 

Celebrate the National Parks by Preserving the National Parks | Photo: Sonja Saxe

Luckily for us, humans seem intrinsically drawn to nature, specifically the discovery of something new or unknown. When we spend more time in nature, our ability to identify with it inevitably grows, which often leads to our desire to protect it, especially those areas where we've had positive, often life-changing or memory-shaping moments. We begin to place an inherent and sometimes unconscious value on these habitats and environments, which though slightly egotistical in nature, can actually lead us to caring more about their survival, in turn motivating us to protect them. So the first step in becoming an environmentalist is not necessarily to go get yourself a fancy biology or environmental studies degree but, rather, to consider how you see yourself fitting into nature, then recognizing what value you place on it. 

Once you've established both, it becomes easier to formulate solutions as to how you can help protect the environment. You don't have to go join a Greenpeace ship, but consider how you could help protect a specific area, a National Park, or a hiking area. You may achieve this by getting involved in a conservation group, a local hiking chapter, a club for outdoor conservation biologists, etc. Others may find joining activism and advocacy groups is preferable, whereby they lobby for the rights and protection of certain areas or habitats. Some may join protest groups, individuals might find themselves involved in charity work, or many of you may even put our experience, knowledge and educational background to use by doing fieldwork or working in National Park associations. But you can also be an environmentalist without a job title to match. Photographers, for example, are often known to use their skills and talents to capture influential images of the planet and the issues impacting it. Wildlife advocates often dedicate their own time to working with or creating initiatives which save endangered species and raise awareness about wildlife conservation. 

If being an environmentalist means to be an individual concerned with the environment and the advocacy for its protection, then it's easy to take up the staff and help protect nature without needing to be the next Hemingway of conservation. Simply by advocating for the environment, you are working towards a healthier planet. You can be a writer reporting on the issues, a blogger educating readers on environmental concerns, or a hiker who leads a weekly hiking group and encourages people to get their families outdoors more. Just by being an outdoors enthusiast with a concern for the environment, and a desire to protect it, you are an environmentalist. The key, however, is to not be a slacktivist - meaning, to not advocate for something you yourself are not willing to stand up for and work to change. Love the outdoors and respect nature, but also consider helping the countless others who, just like you, hope for a healthier environment and a better tomorrow. 

Cover photo by David Marcu


We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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