Reflections on American Outdoor Industry

After attending part of the Northeast regional conference of Association of Experiential Education, some thoughts come to mind regarding the United States’ outdoor industry. My disclaimer reads as: I have limited exposure to the industry as a whole, so my thoughts would be biased and incomplete. Since I could say so many wonderful things about the conference (which most people would agree), here I will focus on my reflections and critique, which people should feel free to disagree.

1. Outdoor industry is called an “industry” for a good reason. It is closely tied to industrial production and consumerism. It has its own guild, conference, publication, etc. It sells nature and the outdoor experience as its products. Money-making might not be the primary goal, but it is definitely the industry’s chief worry and bottleneck.

2. Outdoor industry as a whole is probably the most eco-conscious industry. Organized in an industrial form, the outdoor industry is actually teaching and practicing anti-industrialist philosophy and methods, like leave-no-trace, land preservation, intrinsic value of nature and human, etc.

3. Outdoor industry, by embracing the industrial form, can not escape the curse of industrialization: the commodification of nature, the packaging of outdoor experience, the lack of accessibility, etc. The outdoor industry carves out a part of nature, mix it with gears and commercial practice, and then sell it to the customers who pay a high price for a pre-packaged, non-organic experience. The outdoor industry has become the gatekeeper of nature’s beauty and magnificence, only letting in those who have the free time and money. Should nature be hijacked and sold to the affluent for a profit?

4. The entire conference was 99.5% white and has only one black person. This might partly reflects the demography of the Northeast, but is no excuse for the shocking absence of any diversity. Some workshops are titled “multicultural” and “underprivileged neighborhood”, etc. I wonder who the audience is.

5. The outdoor industry is in the grip of an insatiable Fetishism of Certifications. There are all kinds of cards and certification you must have in your wallet to be a qualified outdoors person. Is this a good use of people’s time and money? Do certifications translate into real abilities? Is there an inflation of skills? Is it just the certification-agency’s money-making needs gone wild?

6. The outdoor staff in the college has continually been treated as second-class educators. They are over-worked and under-paid. This might reflects American society’s imbedded discrimination again physical labor, but why are football coaches paid so handsomely? At the bottom of this, is the dominance of money-making logic, "if you are not making money for the school, why should you get paid more?" However, I have to say that I have spent more quality time with my college's Outdoor Program than with all my professors combined.

There’s a long way till we could reinstall the intrinsic value of nature and labor. The outdoor industry, despite its paradoxes and limitations, still holds great hope for true progress.


Greg Lais said...

Zilong- I've been running an outdoor organization for 34 years and I think your blog is spot on. You say you have limited experience, but you make the most of what you observe! Do you mind if promote your blog to others and use it to improve the "industry?" Greg Lais, Wilderness Inquiry

Zilong said...

Hi Greg, thank you for your kind response. Please feel free to use any content any way you see fit =)