Could you imagine if humans never left a trace of their existence? It’s arguably impossible, as our fossil records show. Even when we have no intention of leaving our mark, we fall into a tar pit while hunting mammoths only to be discovered tens of thousands of years later as fossils. It’s almost as if we are destined to leave some trace behind. The thing is, up until the last few centuries, it wasn’t a big deal if we left some pottery around or even large scale cities or monuments. It was when we started moving beyond our interwoven relationship with the natural world and began to attempt to conquer nature and saw what happens when we leave a very big and sometimes irreversible trace. Leaving a trace does not become a big deal until it becomes unsustainable.
I initially starting writing this article about the non-profit organization created by the USDA in 1994 called the the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The national organization is amazing. It was founded to help protect the outdoors by educating and inspiring people to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. The organization’s vision is “to sustain healthy, vibrant natural lands for all people to enjoy, now and into the future” with a goal that “every person who ventures outside puts Leave No Trace practices into action.” Leave No Trace has gone as far as to partner with major businesses (such as Subaru and REI) to travel across the country and educate folks of all backgrounds on the importance of this outdoor ethic. Every outdoor adventurer that I have met is familiar with the term and it has become a tenant of outdoor adventure. Whether you’re camping, backpacking, hunting, or walking your dog, the ethic stands true that you should never leave a trace of you (or your kids or pets) behind. Nobody wants to set out for an outdoor getaway for revitalization only to find a trail full of trash or a campsite overrun with someone else’s mess.
But then I got to thinking, leave no trace goes far beyond this incredible non-profit. The USDA did not come up with this concept. In fact, humans have been following this principle for most of our existence and we have most certainly lost track of it. It seems the further away we get from the “outdoors” or nature, the harder it is to remember our utter reliance upon it. This is more than just picking up after yourself. This is about ethics.
The standard definition of environmental ethics is “the study of the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents.” In other words, environmental ethics pertains to how our human decisions directly impact our environment and all non-human things in it. This essentially expands on our idea of ethics (right and wrong) to include everything else besides humans.
As our global human population continues to grow alongside the intrinsic need for people to get away and spend some time in the woods amidst our hectic lives, the need to respect the natural world and its life-sustaining systems has grown as well. There is a delicate balance between the natural world and our modern society with potentially catastrophic results with regard to to global-scale issues like climate change, species loss, and the development/destruction of natural space, among others.
Maintaining this balance is essential, yet sometimes these heavy, large-scale concerns can become so overwhelming that we are overcome with a sense of helplessness. The best solutions can be so simple if we work with what we can contribute. Focusing on the impact you have on your environment, other people and living creatures, as well as future generations, can be the game changer. Could you imagine if we changed our collective modern mindset from one of “outof sight, out of mind” to one of “what happens to this ____ when it leaves my possession?” If even a fraction of the global population shifted to a “leave no trace” mindset, the world would be a much different place and these large-scale concerns would seem manageable.
What Trace Are We Leaving?
How do we make a giant change like this a possibility? Aside from shifting our focus, we can take actionable steps everyday to reduce the waste we leave behind. Replacing your disposable container or cup with reusable bottles or storage containers can make your daily routine one of minimal waste impact. Even simply thinking about where packaging ends up and that it does not just disappear when it leaves your grasp is a conscious step towards making change.
I often find myself in a bubble within a bubble that might even be within another bubble. I work for a business that is incredibly conscious of its impact both locally and globally, with coworkers that are extremely aware of their impact, all while living in Madison. And we still have our challenges. What about the big box store in the middle of nowhere? How do we get them on board? Well, we are slowly but surely getting the message across and we are doing it with the most powerful tool capitalism has to offer, money. As consumers turn to alternative energy, local organic farmers, and neighborhood co-ops, the larger market machine is paying attention and shifting to organics, energy—and cost-saving initiatives and an overall smaller footprint. We must continue to be conscious shoppers and hold the larger retail industry accountable for the very large “trace” that they are leaving. Ultimately, we can only do as much as any individual can and that is to educate ourselves, share that knowledge and take action for the greater good: the health of our planet.