Last autumn, I ran into Susan Clark, professor at the Yale School of Forestry, founder of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and our next-door neighbor here in Jackson. When they’re back in town, she and her wife Denise live in a log cabin hewn out of lodgepole pine they cut, skinned and barked themselves, back when East Jackson was mostly pasture. Now, it’s a well-developed neighborhood of Boise-Cascade modulars in danger of being scraped by nouveau arrivistes for more modern digs, and Susan’s in her mid-seventies, with a scratchy voice and a mildly tamed mop of silver-gold hair capping her off. She was in Jackson on a short break, and asked how SHIFT was going.
“Good,” I responded, searching out her eyes behind her wire-framed glasses. She’s a provocateur, and a good one at that, always pushing to get another layer deep into the conversation, even when it had just begun.
Give her a rhetorical response, or a real one?
What the hell. “We’re developing this SHIFT around the business case for public lands,” I said. “How investments in outdoor recreation and the conservation of public lands create economic prosperity in local and rural communities.”
She paused, arched her golden eyebrows and lasered in.
“But then you’ll just be working within a system that’s unsustainable,” she said.
Damnit. She’s right.
Capitalism is inherently unsustainable. It’s predicated on returning value to shareholders, which in turn requires incessant growth, which depends on infinite resources that we don’t have.
We’re headed for collapse.
The carrying capacity of the world is measured not only by its ability to provide us with the natural resources that comprise capitalism’s engine, but also by its ability to accommodate the detritus of our consumption. As Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth…. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture.… [O]ur industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.”
Work, produce, consume. Jack Kerouac, in his book The Dharma Bums, describes us—me, you, and all the other card-carrying members of the Great American Experiment—as subscribing “to the general demand that [we] consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming… all of [us] imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume….”
Susan nailed it. Work, produce, consume is leading us on a lemming-like march off the cliff of the 6th mass extinction.
A paper came out not too long ago called The Anthropocene Biosphere. In it, the authors note that this particular extinction—one we’re in the midst of now, and in which species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than in pre-human times—is driven by a few key factors:
- global homogenization of flora and fauna [i.e., the worldwide spread of invasives]
- a single species (us) commandeering 25–40% of net primary production as well as fossil fuels to break through the photosynthetic energy barrier
- human-directed evolution of other species; and
- increasing interaction of the biosphere with the “technosphere”—the global emergent system that includes humans, technological artifacts, and associated social and technological networks
The same factors are contributing to climate change. Result? A world that is increasingly unstable. In the past six months alone, hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma and wildfires across the West have walloped America. As FEMA Administrator Brock Long recently put it, “If this is the new normal, Americans can’t rely on a federal cavalry when disaster strikes. They will have to take care of themselves.”
In other words, in the face of increasingly erratic and powerful climactic events, our governmental systems are not going to be able to respond to natural disasters the way they have historically for much longer.
I live in Jackson, WY—or “Jackson Hole,” as the marketers and tourists like to call it. Have you ever walked around the town square in Jackson Hole on a morning in mid-August? You think the same folks wandering about with their Starbucks and iPhones affixed to their hands are going to be able to care for themselves in the event of a natural disaster?
We lost our refrigerator for a few days last summer. It was an eye-opener to see how much our lives depended on that electrified rectangle: we shuffled goods to the coldest places in the house we could find and ended up losing more than a gallon of milk and a few steaks. A disaster, natural or otherwise, that knocks out our power for a week? I’m honestly not sure how we’d do.
Terrorist hit to the grid? Given obesity rates and our increasing reliance on screens and technology, I’m not sure how any of us would fare.
When I wake up at 3 a.m. and think about where we are as a species, as a planet, and about the world my daughter is inheriting, I’m well aware of one thing: in the face of what’s coming down the pike, I’ve got no idea what to do.
But I was talking to the Patagonian conservationist Kris Tompkins last year about how the enormity of it all—mass extinction and climate change and mushrooming populations and the rest—often made me feel helpless, and how at times it seemed easier not to try at all.
She wasn’t buying it. “The more you know,” she said, “the more you have a moral obligation to try.”
Mark Williams, a geologist from the University of Leicester, was one of the authors of the paper noted above. Scientists like Mark agree that avoiding mass extinction – and tackling the current environmental crisis – will require large-scale changes not only in how society operates but how humans view their relation to the natural world.
In other words, we need systematic change, which in turn requires disruption to our current modes of thinking.
“It’s about recognizing that we are stewards of nature and that every action we make will have an effect on the biosphere somewhere,” said Williams. “If at a very basic level we could get people to make that connection, then we would have fundamentally changed human behavior.”
He goes on: “[H]umans must move on from the view that we are somehow separate from nature (or that nature somehow exists separate from us) and, instead, embrace our role as ‘permanent shapers and stewards of the biosphere and the species within it.’”
I’ve been working on SHIFT for five years now. Our goal is to leverage outdoor recreation for conservation gains—but let’s be honest. “Conservation gains” in the face of the sixth mass extinction is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if we could alter our species’ trajectory by a degree or two, it wouldn’t keep us from hitting the iceberg. Not one tiny little bit.
So I’ve been wondering: How do we fundamentally change human behavior to embrace our essential and intrinsic connection to nature when we continue to not just steam, but accelerate toward that shining berg of ice?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been looking for an alternative to capitalism. Can’t say I’ve had much luck. Even if there were one, as Yvon Chouinard said to me a while back, “I’m not giving up my car—are you?”
Nope. Or my phone either. Still, there are a couple of things about SHIFT that give me hope.
This past year, we developed an evening showcase for three board members of Utah Diné Bikéyah, the intertribal group out of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona that helped advance the creation of Bears Ears National Monument. We wanted to hear why the Monument was important from their perspective.
Simultaneously, we selected a number of Native Americans to participate in this year’s Emerging Leaders Program, which trains rising stars in the outdoor rec and conservation communities to help lead the conversations at SHIFT.
In conversations during the lead-up to both SHIFT and the ELP, I realized that some of these same people had a different way of looking at their relationships to nature than I did. Jonah Yellowman, Zintkala Eiring and Marshall Masayesva—Navajo, Lakota and Hopi, respectively—all described a relationship to nature that felt less like my experience-based relationship, which I’ll get to in a minute, and more like the relationship people have with their families.
Only a fool would generalize the perspectives of members of different tribes, but I’ve been called worse, so here you go:
This relationship of theirs, I began to realize, was based on respect. It had been passed down from generation to generation for millennia, through stories and oral traditions that reached back to the migration over the Bering Strait 15,000 years ago. It took as a foundational truth the understanding that trees and animals and rivers and plants and mountains and rain and even things like rocks that I consider to be inanimate possessed in fact animus, spirit, agency, lifeforce, whatever you want to call it—and that they’re related to us, and we to them.
In the perspective I heard from Jonah and Zintkala and Marshall, we’re kin. Family. With rocks.
I started to tune in. When I did, what I began to hear was the articulation of a system that had also existed in a reasonable state of balance for thousands of years.
I’m not saying that the Hopi didn’t kill the Navajo, and vice versa. I’m not saying that the Chako culture didn’t blip out for similar reasons (plus a helping of drought). People are people. We kill things, other people included, with regularity.
But: we’re some five hundred years into the Industrial Revolution and it’s not going so well. In half a millennia we’ve fundamentally disrupted the balance of the planetary ecosystem. So the idea that a system existed that had permitted a balanced relationship between man and land for a very long time was of interest.
The other day, one of this year’s Emerging Leaders, Len Necefer, came to visit. He’s a big guy, 6-foot-2, handsome, charismatic, a big round face and big brown eyes and a thatch of thick black hair cropped short on his big round head. Smart as hell. Like me, he’s a climber, one who enjoys trad climbing and in particular the physical and psychological challenge of climbing mountains. Unlike me, he’s got a PhD in engineering from Carnegie Mellon under his belt at the ripe old age of 31. Also unlike me, he’s half Navajo: he grew up on the reservation outside Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona.
Len and I like adventure. Specifically, we like to be high on a mountain where the outcome is uncertain, making decisions out of self-imposed necessity: if we make the right ones, we live, and if we make the wrong ones, maybe not so much. I’m selfish – I have a wife and daughter and have watched way too up-close-and-personal what happens to mothers and siblings and children when a loved one dies – and real adventure is dissonant in a modern world with its value system that places comfort and safety and certainty above risk and exploration and “tickling the dragon,” wherein one gets close to that consequential line between the right decision and the wrong one because—unless you’ve simply screwed up, which happens with some regularity—it makes one feel … alive.
But there it is: adventure—where the outcome is uncertain, and it’s my job to figure out how to come through on the others side intact—makes me feel alive, whereas work produce consume does not, and by interacting with nature on nature’s terms, rather than the terms of work-a-day society, I open myself up to both a sense of invigoration and to a system that differs from the one that conditions the rest of my life. It’s a system I like. A lot.
So the other day, in SHIFT’s world headquarters—a 1914 sagging Victorian surrounded by a fence made of skis in downtown Jackson—when Len started talking about “k’e”, I started listening.
At the risk of fetishizing a word I don’t really understand from a culture that has been systematically destroyed by my own, here’s what I heard.
In Navajo, the word “k’e” refers to kinship. Len’s society is based primarily on relationships that in turn stem from clan affiliation. It’s complicated, and I don’t totally get it, but the internet tells me that “each person is a member of the tribe by reason of his or her affiliation to one of the other numerous clans of the Navajo”, so you’ve got to know how you’re all related if you want to avoid marrying, for example, your first cousin.
But “k’e” is more than that. It’s about the transactional relationship between not just brothers, sisters, parents, children, but between all things—between people and plants, and animals, and even things that I consider to be kind of inanimate like rocks and snow and sunlight. And importantly, it’s based on respect: if you take something, you give something back—the way you would, say, with your mother, if you’re a good kid and she gave you a kiss with your dinner, or your child when she gave you a hug, or your dad when he told you he loved you.
I’m not as good a son or husband or father as I should be, and giving back, even within my immediate family, is a work in progress. Fortunately, there’re lots of social support mechanisms, books and therapists and peer pressure and what not, to keep me on the straight and narrow.
But this giving back—or more accurately lack thereof—extends to my adventures.
Usually, I go into the mountains to get something: experiences; solace; mental and physical wellbeing. I take. I extract. Rarely do I give.
Which is to be expected: I’m society’s child. Everything about my life—my home, my car, my gear, my trips—is conditioned by capitalism—and the space I work in, the one that has been my home, my community and my livelihood for a generation, is too. I work in the outdoor industry, which trumpets stats like some idiot savant: $887 billion in economic activity generated every year, 7.6 million jobs, $59 billion in tax revenue, etcetera and so on. We are the third-largest economic sector in America, as the mantra in the halls of the outdoor rec trade shows goes, and we demand more of that American pie.
My experiences in the mountains are consumptive because everything in my life conditions me to consume, to extract, to take. That’s the point of capitalism, so it’s not surprising that that’s the point of my adventures, too. Even the media I consume is designed to stoke my consumption. Check out that dude in the ad/article/video. If only I had those new Scarpa Alien boots—3.9 pounds!—I could go faster, longer, higher. And wouldn’t I look great in that orange pair of Norrona pants?
On a deeper, quieter level, of course, I know this isn’t what nature has to offer. It’s not why I go up there.
But I honestly don’t have much of a framework with which to understand and appreciate a different kind of relationship with nature. Until I heard about k’e, I had neither the language nor the perspective to help me approach the natural world in a more sustainable way. After all, it’s not like my relationships with mountains and rocks and clouds and seracs are reciprocal, the way they are, or at least are supposed to be, with my family.
Or are they?
I know this: my interactions with nature must change if I’m to sustain life on this planet, for myself and for my daughter.
Len and I had been talking about starting an outdoor company that focused on the 40% of America the outdoor industry overlooks / ignores / acknowledges once in a long while with a—whoops!—tokenizing photo of an anomaly in the back page of a catalog: people of color. His reasons for doing so are more obvious than mine—he rarely if ever sees an image of someone who looks like him in the mainstream outdoor media.
I’m basically a cliché: a rich, middle-aged white guy who has lived in predominantly white communities all his life, and who derives his perspective from things like climbing and skiing that are accessible to a lucky and privileged few. Working with people like Len who come from backgrounds radically different than my own has been the most enlightening, inspiring part of the last few years for me, but beyond that my reasons for engaging communities of color in outdoor rec and conservation stem from something Paul Hansen said when SHIFT was just getting going.
The legendary Jackson biologist Olaus Murie, when confronting the enormity of the planet’s challenges, used to say to Paul, “It’s going to take all of us to do it.”
That clicked for me. If we’re trying to create systematic change, and yet we only have the usual conservation suspects on board—lucky old white guys like me—we’re going to fail.
85% of Americans live in urban areas. America is increasingly a minority majority country. It’s not hard to do the math: if we can’t figure out how to engage communities of color and urban Americans, we’re screwed.
Len and I spent half a day brainstorming the value system of our company. We’d use outdoor recreation as a vehicle—because we love it and it’s sexy and healthy and fun and attracts young people, which the space dearly needs—to empower communities of color—because communities of color are often marginalized, disregarded and more disconnected from the outdoors than Caucasians in America, and thus have less access to the power of nature and this subversive ability we were scheming up to disrupt traditional modes of thinking—and create a more sustainable interaction with the world.
We agreed: It’s going to take all of us to do it. Interactions with nature on nature’s terms: that’s the ticket. K’e: that’s the value system, and all of us who go outside with any regularity know it, even if we don’t have the tools to understand it quite yet. That’s the company: we’d give people the tools, the language, the framework.
Problem was, we just couldn’t figure out what to sell—and, capitalists in a capitalist society, we ended up with a mission in search of a product.
So we did what any aspirant entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry would do. We went skiing.
It was a beautiful day, crystal blue, the light low and limpid as only a deep mid-winter day can be. We drove Len’s late-model BMW SUV to the top of Teton Pass, put on our thousands of dollars’ worth of fancy backcountry ski gear and booted up Glory, breathing in that clean pure air and talking about k’e and value systems and skiing and climbing and sweating and generally having a very good time in a mountain sort of way.
It was Len’s third time backcountry skiing. We got passed by lots of folks. Some were friendly; others were, well, kind of agro, heads downs and charging up the mountain like they were in some kind of race we hadn’t heard about.
I had to wonder: if they were aware of k’e, of a deeper way of relating to the sun and the wind and that crazy clean air, would it even matter? Would it change a thing about their experience, or more importantly about their experiences when they got back down to town?
On top, there was a phalanx of white young whippersnappers laughing, snapping photos of each other with their phones, posting them to Instagram. One of them kneeled a few feet away from me, fiddling with the straps on her backpack.
What the hell.
“Excuse me,” I asked as politely as I could manage. “Could I ask you a question?”
She stood up and turned to face me. She had multicolored ski garb on, snowboarder-type pants—though I can’t remember if she was a skier or a boarder—hat, reflective goggles. I couldn’t see her eyes. A late blush of acne graced the parts of her cheeks that were exposed.
“Sure,” she said. Perfectly friendly in a way she might not have been if I’d stopped her on the street.
“When you’re up here, do you feel a connection to nature that’s different from what you feel back in town?”
She laughed, a lilting thing that caught an updraft and soared out over the valley thousands of feet below. Her gloves were off.
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “That’s why we’re up here!”
Her name was Alex. She was a river guide from Hood River, as were a lot of her friends standing behind us. “We’re living in our cars this winter, just skiing. That’s why we do this—it’s all about feeling connected.”
There’s a lot one could say about luxury, privilege and living in your car for the winter to feel connected, but bear with me here as we save it for another essay.
Alex went on to say that in the summer, when she was guiding, she tried to get her clients to feel connected, too, to slough off the uniforms of their daily lives and feel their own skin again. If she could get them to do that, she might be able to get them to feel the breeze on their skin, too, and look up and see that same wind dancing in the treetops or eddying the tops of the little waves lapping at their boat.
“That’s how I give back,” she said. “By helping people feel connected to nature.”
“My name’s Christian,” I said, “and this is Len,” I said, introducing him. “Len’s Navajo, and he’s been telling me about this concept they have called k’e, which regards mountains and rivers and plants and animals the same as family. It’s a relationship system that’s grounded in respect.”
She listened, popping one hand into a glove, then the other.
“If you were introduced to a system that considered elements of nature to be … part of … your extended family,” I said, searching for words for a concept to which I’d just been introduced, “would that… I don’t know… resonate with you?”
Interacting with nature on nature’s terms opens us to a different mode of being, one that respects the environment in which it occurs. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell we’re going to get the world to about-face, ditch capitalism and start vibing out to a respectful rapport with the nearest chickadee—but up there on the top of that little mountain, Alex got it.
“Yes!” she said, laughing. Her friends were clicking in, swinging backward glances at her, ready to drop down the line of their choice. “That’s why I’m up here!”
There’s not much of a vernacular for k’e in the language of people like me and Alex. We’re part of the work produce consume world—and if you’re not working producing consuming, you’re dropped out, unplugged, unproductive. And on top of Glory, by those yardsticks, none of us were really that valuable.
Or were we? If we could introduce k’e to more people, would that be of value?
On the descent, Len and I skied through ghost forests. The trees had died because the climate had warmed and the pine beetles had flourished. I flinch every time I see them, but it’s not like I’m responsible, right? I’m just part of a system that happens to result in climate change and the sixth mass extinction.
But I wondered: how would I feel if those dead trees were my brothers, and I was responsible for their demise? After all, I bought the car/the house/the airline tickets that kicked the temps up a notch.
Would I live differently if the trees were part of my clan?
On the drive back down to town, Len told me that before he started up the bootpack, he introduced himself to the mountain and asked if he might ascend. He addressed Mt. Glory as if it were part of his family.
Mother earth, father sky. Brother tree, sister stream. The mountain, my kin, my family.
I didn’t introduce myself. I’m pretty sure Alex didn’t either. But I think I kind of get it, this k’e thing, and I think she does too.
We need a new system, one that respects the environment in which it exists. We need a perspective that sees the extraction of experience from nature as a continuation of capitalism that’s leading us off the cliff. We’re missing the sacred in our mountains, our trees, our rivers, our wind, and it is the sacred that will bind us to this world, and to its future.
We have a responsibility to disrupt current modes of thinking because they’re inherently unsustainable.
Never use a ten-penny word when a nickel will do, but here’s one for you: “inchoate”. Google defines it as “just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary.”
On top of Glory, Alex’s understanding of k’e was inchoate. It was there, but needed a nudge of help with definition and context. She interacts with nature on nature’s terms on a regular basis, though, and thus has an inherent understanding of what k’e means. And that gives me hope.
In the article I mentioned above, Mark Williams said, “It’s about recognizing that we are stewards of nature.”
We’re not stewards. We’re sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. We’re kin. It’s not about us taking care of the mountains and rivers, the raptors and white bark pines. If anything, it’s about opening ourselves to the opportunity to let them care for us.
Nature can give us the system we need. It always has. We just need to listen, the next time we’re on the mountain, to what our extended family has to say.
What I want to do—with Len, with the Emerging Leaders, with SHIFT—is help verbalize the inchoate so people have a better chance of recognizing it the next time they’re outdoors. Maybe then we’ll be able to bring the realizations and revelations it provides back to our lives to affect and disrupt the current system of thinking.
Every time we go outside we have the chance to come into contact with the animus of all natural things. If we open ourselves to this gift, if we open ourselves to k’e, we have an opportunity to enter into a new relationship with the world—and that’s the only way I can think of that our species and the millions of other species on the planet will survive.
Communities such as the Navajo have sustained themselves for thousands of years because of k’e. In Navajo culture, the wealthiest person is the one who gives the most. The poorest is the most selfish—that is, the one who keeps what they have for themselves.