We make sense of our world through stories. In my part of the world the accepted story is one of a separation of humans from nature.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes nature as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans or human creations.”

This story of nature as separate is an important part of our capitalist extractive system as it gives us the freedom to exploit, the very thing that gives us life.

The English writer Alan Watts wrote this in response to the idea that we’re separate “it is absolutely absurd to say that we came into this world. We didn’t. We came out of it.” 

Watts goes on to describe that the story of separation and ideas of seeing nature as a machine would suggest “that intelligence, values, love and fine feelings” are things only humans are capable of, something he did not support.

The story of nature as soulless and mechanistic is crumbling with emerging scientific research suggesting that animals are not only conscious, but self-aware. 

At the same time the extractive capitalist system is destroying all life on earth.

It is time we wrote a new story.

Here are 6 ways the outdoor community could play a role.

1, Change the language

To help us all see and feel nature we need to stop using language that separates us from nature. 

Brands in the outdoor industry advertise products for “uncompromising adventurers” with “impenetrable barriers” to “charge up and down vertical terrain” made of “waterproof, windproof and breathable textiles that offer fully protective environmental shelter.” 

The outdoors has a rich history of adventure but even here the language is divisive, words like “conquering Everest” added to the above kit descriptions gives us the sense that stepping into the outdoors is to step into a battle. 

One that pitches us against nature itself, every time we leave the house.

And it doesn’t stop there, with confusing brand messaging like this contributing little sense to the community: “More breathable. More protection. More Nature. Whether commuting, cruising around town or hiking dirt trails.” 

More Nature? In what way can you have more nature if the very thing you’re selling is designed to protect us from it? Even adding the word dirt is to suggest that the natural world is a more dirty place than our human constructed landscapes. A space to be feared as you may get dirt on your hands.

2, Take fashion out of the outdoors

Our use of language makes nature sound like something we need to insulate ourselves from. Add this to a churn of seasonal products that define how we should dress outdoors and you begin to question whether the outdoor industry places barriers to participation, rather than aiding it.

For a new story to grow, participation and equality are an important factor.

I was fortunate to grow up in an outdoor centre in the Peak District. There we wore thick waterproofs, designed to be worn thousands of times, by different groups and dragged over rough gritstone. Waterproofs you’d only put on in the worst conditions as you’d get just as wet wearing them from sweat. Their purpose wasn’t to keep you dry; they were designed to keep you warm, and to be indestructible. 

Growing up in this environment taught me how to travel safely in the outdoors. I learnt that I can spend time outdoors using basic clothing, and nature is not there to be feared, rather embraced. To this day, I often step out in the rain in nothing more than a t-shirt and a hoodie.

Sure, lightweight breathable modern garments have made the experience more comfortable, but that doesn’t explain why next year they need to come in a different colour with new features – as if protecting yourself from the elements is some kind of arms race. 

To help us reconnect with nature, the outdoor industry should stop trying to define how we dress, and how we take part. 

Fortunately, there are simple things that can help improve access to clothing and equipment. We can build local repair and sharing communities. Creating a kind of commons for the outdoor community, where we think of ourselves more as a collective. A community that focuses on information & skill sharing, equipment sharing, and inclusivity. 

3, Change our relationship with the outdoors

One for the professional athletes and online influencers. Your influence matters and so do your words. 

There’s a growing movement of influencers focusing on how the outdoors is good for our mental health. Whilst this is great, I think it’s worth thinking through our use of nature. 

Is it the outdoors itself that improves our mental health? Or do we use the outdoors to run away from the capitalist system?

Using nature to escape creates a transactional relationship, and in that space it’s easy to forget about the other half. Maybe you’re there for the cold water to wash away your stress, surfing to escape screen time, running to forget a busy life?

Thinking like this can focus on what you’ve escaped from but not what you’ve escaped to. You’ve escaped to a place of stunning flora and fauna, animals and insects of every shape and size. A space that creates the air you breathe, the food you eat, and as Alan Watts describes, the very place you came from. 

Maybe the outdoors exists in your mind as a set of challenges? A combination of distances and mountains to be conquered in record breaking time. Where your focus resides on aching muscles, your own heart rate, a wrist watch and your individual achievements.

The mechanistic view sees nature as an unintelligent machine, one to be plundered. A space where we can extract our happiness and wellbeing, where we build our legacies at whatever cost. Nature, seen as a machine, is a space for us to do as we like.

If you have influence, choose your words carefully and celebrate the “intelligence, values, love and fine feelings” that Watts describes of nature. Lend it your voice, and next time you’re rushing through your outdoor activity, stop, listen, and reflect on your role in the extractive system.

4, Make nature accessible to all

Our outdoor spaces aren’t visited by a diverse group of people. Why?

Well, the last thing we need are the words of another white guy explaining the situation, so I’ll hand it over to Teresa Baker. 

“I would ask questions of family and friends as to why they never wanted to explore nature with me. I tried to instill in them the importance of stewardship and our natural connection to and responsibility for the land. Their responses were always the same: they didn’t feel comfortable, nor did they want to spend time where they were the only faces of color around.”

“It is vital that we began to engage communities of color with respect to outdoor spaces. If communities of color are missing from outdoor spaces, they are also missing from the conversation about conservation.”

You can read the rest of Teresa’s excellent article about diversity and the outdoors here.

5, Stop exploiting nature

For our capitalist story to continue it must grow. For that to happen we must exploit nature. 

Outdoor sports are a good lens to look through to see this very truth in action.

In Artouste, a small french ski resort, a plan is in place to carpet an Alpine meadow to introduce year-round dry slope skiing. A perfect example of the exploitation of nature and a failure of imagination. 

As climate change brings about the end of skiing, is the only possibility we see, one of a battle with nature in an attempt to prolong the inevitable?

Another example of exploiting nature is through the very outdoor sports communities themselves. Take the meteoric rise of ultramarathon running as an example. These events become bloated and they can only grow and function with outside funding. This is where sportswashing comes in, nature used to help clean the image of the sponsor organisations tarnished by wrongdoing.

The exploitation doesn’t end there. For the industry to survive it has to exploit another part of nature – people. The news is awash with stories of exploitation in manufacturing, including a report of a factory in Bangladesh which produces products for some of the industries biggest outdoor brands, and where staff report verbal and physical abuse.

For the outdoor industry to continue in its current form it must grow. It must sell more clothing and equipment, accept sportswashing, cover alpine meadows in plastic, and hold people in servitude. Is that what we want? Could we not imagine something different?

A new story will not come from the industry itself. Big corps distract us with detail, part of this clothing is made from recycled bottles, we’re working on technology to recycle fabric into fabric, when really we should be questioning the system as a whole.

New stories will grow out of our outdoor communities, from localisation and collective action, not from a story of exploitation.

6, Turn up for nature

When nature is in trouble we need to turn up for it. We can’t thrive, if nature doesn’t thrive. 

Matt Barr from the Looking Sideways Podcast has been delving into this issue, and questioning why it’s so hard to get his community to turn up to protect the Brighton sea from sewage discharge. 

Last year raw sewage was discharged for more than 3.6million hours into rivers and seas in the UK – more than double that of the previous year. We treat nature as a dumping ground for our extractive system. During this release of sewage, the companies that run the water systems have continued to extract billions in profits.

In Brighton, Surfers against Sewage have been holding paddle out protests to raise awareness of the problem. Although the community that uses the beach and seas around Brighton is huge, they don’t turn up in the same numbers to defend it. This alone suggests our relationship with nature is very one dimensional.  

Next time you see an opportunity to turn up for nature, just do it. Defend the Alpine meadows from carpets, defend the waters from sewage, defend events from sportswashing, and you’ll be defending yourself.

An Opportunity

In conclusion, let’s talk about nature in all its glory, not in the terms of something to fear. Let’s make nature for everyone, let’s think about the way we relate to the outdoors, and let’s turn up in greater numbers to protest exploitation. 

We have a huge opportunity. It’s rare to be at a point in history where you get to lay the seeds of the future story. As one story collapses another emerges.

Now is the time to write a new story. A story to be written collectively, a story without exploitation. A story that celebrates the “intelligence, values, love and fine feelings” of all things. A story written with creativity, joy, and equality.

The beauty of this new storytelling is it comes from us. We don’t need technological developments or top-down leadership. We need to recognise that the system must change and then work collaboratively to seed the new. 

We have a role to play, it is our story to write.  

Want to start right now?

Sign the “We Are Nature” petition, an important step in reframing the narrative.

It’s a “campaign led by Lawyers for Nature & House of Hackney, and supported by a fast-growing group of organisations, charities, academics, artists, writers, politicians, activists and school children who believe passionately that humans are a part of Nature.”