Cell Phone Naturalists

Affluent adventurers are changing the face of environmentalism

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I must have been crazy to think I could trek all the way across the REI outdoor-gear store in Seattle without a professional guide and months of training. I'm only a few steps inside the front door, in the ice-ax section, and already I'm feeling oxygen-deprived. Before me stretch more than 80,000 square feet of snowshoes, kayaks, tents, crampons, and parkas. My goal of reaching the coffee shop upstairs at the store's summit suddenly seems an absurdity. Yet somehow I must summon the strength to trudge on. If I am ever to penetrate the essence of our environmentally conscious culture, I must conquer the north face of REI.

To get this far, I drove my rented minivan to downtown Seattle and parked among the muddied-up sport-utes in the REI lot. I walked through the postage stamp–sized forest where customers test-ride mountain bikes. I rode up in the slate-floored exterior elevator and stepped on to the front balcony with its huge benches. A plaque on each reassured me that the bench is made of wood from trees blown down in 1995; no tree was murdered in the making of this rest spot. Above me, clocks told the time atop Mount Everest and Eiger in the Swiss Alps.

Up to this point, I was feeling good, but now that I'm inside, the sheer vastness of the place knocks me back. It's not the salespeople who make my brain spin. I knew they'd be products of Seattle's cult of hiking-shorts macho. They bounce around the store flashing their enormous calves, looking like escapees from the Norwegian Olympic team. Nor is it my fellow customers who have put me in this state. I was ready for squads of super-fit software designers with glacier glasses hanging around their necks (because you can never tell when a 600-foot mountain of ice might roll into town, sending off a hazardous glare).

It's the technology I am unprepared for. I was expecting to enter a world of reverence for nature; I didn't realize I'd need a degree in physics from MIT. Every item in the store comes with a mind-boggling number of chemically engineered options that only experienced wilderness geeks could possibly appreciate.

I'm dimly aware of some code of gear connoisseurship to which I should be paying attention. For true nature techies, some things, like boots and sport-utility vehicles, should be as big as possible. Other things, like stoves and food packs, should be as small as possible.

But the REI store's real raison d'être is upstairs on the mezzanine, in the clothing department. While only a few people actually climb glaciers, millions and millions want to dress as if they did. Just a few miles east of here at Microsoft's headquarters, for example, you'd get strange looks if you showed up for work in a suit, carrying a briefcase. But if you came dressed for Everest in a parka and boots that keep you warm to minus 70 Fahrenheit, you'd blend right in.

I climb up to the mezzanine looking for a respite from all the high-tech mumbo jumbo of the gear section and do indeed find a few soothing racks of all-cotton shirts in muted colors. But I don't go far before I am assaulted by a blaze of magenta and cobalt blue glaring off a vast profusion of polyester. It soon becomes obvious that while in the '70s the polyester people were low-class disco denizens, now they are high-status environmentalists. I find $400 parkas with core-vent kinetic systems and sleeves with universal radial hinges. There are high-denier parka shells, power-stretch tights with microfilaments, expedition-weight leggings, fleece, microfleece, and Bipolar Fleece (for people on Prozac). My favorite is a Titanium OmniTech parka with double-ripstop nylon supplemented with ceramic particles and waterproof taped seams. I stop. I imagine myself sporting this number, saying to myself, “Here I am in the middle of the forest and I'm wearing the Starship Enterprise.”

Part of what makes the REI phenomenon so disorienting is the perverse way in which it revives the “dandy” ethic. In 19th-century England, Beau Brummell and his confreres paid obsessive attention to the quality and material of their clothing. Here in the Pacific Northwest, bastion of casualness, the same sort of attention is paid, only this time to rugged outerwear. My main problem, though, was that I brought to REI a set of false presuppositions. I thought that if you were the type who wanted to go out into nature, you would want to be natural. You'd be a woodsy sort of person who likes to get away from the pollution and artificiality of civilization and find spiritual cleansing in the wilderness. In short, you'd value nature, not high-tech wizardry. You'd aim for anti-commercial simplicity, not flashy consumer connoisseurship.

Throughout American history, after all, nature and technology have been cultural combatants. This rivalry comes from what literary critic Leo Marx, in his book The Machine in the Garden, identifies as two conditions of consciousness in American life. On the one hand is the party of technology, which was as enthusiastic about the locomotive and the steamship in the mid-19th century as today's technophiles are about the computer. Marx quotes an 1840s journalist intoxicated by the power of steam: “Steam is annihilating space. . . . Traveling is changed from an isolated pilgrimage to a kind of triumphant procession. . . . Caravans of voyagers are now winding as it were on the wings of the wind round the habitable globe. Here they glide over cultivated acres on rods of iron, and there they rise and fall on the bosom of the deep, leaving behind them foaming wheel-tracks like the chariot path of a sea god.”

Not all were so grandiloquent, but the technologists shared other traits. They tended to be utilitarians, materialists, rationalists. They believed in logic, statistics, calculations, and science. They thought that God had created nature for man's use and had granted man dominion over it. The howling wilderness was there to be mastered and made productive. For them, technology meant progress, opportunity, wealth, and well-being.

The party of nature rebelled against this worldview. Its devotees were romantics. They prized sensation and intuitive understanding more than reason and logic. They tended to value contemplation more than action. They sought simpler and more spontaneous ways of living. Nature for them was no howling wilderness, but a remnant of the pristine paradise that was man's first home and the great cure for all the greed and shallowness of urban civilization. Emerson concluded that “the Land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false .  . . in our culture.”

The party of nature saw the path to happiness in throwing off unnecessary wealth and artifice in order to reconnect with the kindred patterns of nature. As Aldo Leopold wrote in his hugely influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, America “has become so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.”

The culture war between the party of technology and the party of nature eventually turned into a political contest whose outlines are familiar to this day. The technologists favor economic growth and development; the naturalists favor conservation and limits on growth. Especially in Washington, D.C., the battle lines are stark. The Republicans have become the party of the machine. They are the ones who propose legislation that would increase logging and mining on public land. They take the economic side of any debate, denouncing the job-destroying effects of environmental laws. When Republicans see liberals going to environmentalist extremes, they say scathingly, “It's a religion to them,” as if religiosity were synonymous with zealotry (an odd sentiment coming from conservatives).

The economic arguments are often compelling, especially considering the environmentalists' tendency to exaggerate ecological problems and deny economic costs. But it is striking that even to express love of nature has become almost taboo in conservative circles. You could read through a mountain of conservative journalism and come away with the impression that conservatives have no interest in preserving nature. And when it comes time to talk about the things they love, conservatives wax romantic about technology, not wilderness.

Liberal Democrats occupy the opposite pole. They disdain economic thinking as a mere camouflage for the exploitation of nature. The Sierra Club's magazine, for example, is riven with anti-corporate and anti-capitalist sentiment (though most of its overwhelmingly affluent subscribers presumably work for corporations). Environmentalists can be passionately, almost fanatically, anti-machine (hang around some when a snowmobile goes by). They often hiss the word development. This prejudice leads environmental activists to adopt all sorts of absolutist approaches to environmental problems. Carcinogens can't just be reduced to innocuous levels; they have to be purged, no matter how much it costs to remove the last 0.1 percent. Forests can't be harvested in moderation; the policy must be zero cutting. In short, nature must be cleansed of human interference. The forest must triumph over the machine.

Back at REI, however, the culture war between the party of the machine and the party of nature is obsolete. The people here are simultaneously pro-technology and pro-nature. Seattle is one of the most technologically advanced cities in America and also one of the most environmentally aware. No matter how conservative or libertarian the people in suburban Seattle may be on economic matters, they are environmentalists through and through. And the equipment at REI seems to have reconciled nature and economic development. Today, after all, the machine in the garden is a cell phone in the forest. In the postindustrial era, technology and nature no longer seem such rivals. We are now seeing the emergence of the Cell Phone Naturalists (a phrase I owe to National Public Radio's Julia Redpath), who are technologists, capitalists, and environmentalists all at once. Cell Phone Naturalists are optimistic about material progress, as were the materialists of yore. But they don't see society as a giant mechanism run according to rational, comprehensible laws, as their techie predecessors did. They don't think mechanistically at all. Instead, they think organically, like romantics.

The difference between the Thoreauvian Romantics and the Cell Phone Naturalists is as stark as the contrast between building a railroad and building a Web site. A railroad involves a far-flung network of iron tracks and runs like a great metal machine. The Internet is organic. It sprang up spontaneously. No headquarters controls it. It is infinitely complex and always changing, yet it works. It's more like a rainforest than like a giant clock. And if you listen to Cell Phone Naturalists enough, you realize they see all life as an ecosystem. They use pastoral terms and nature metaphors to describe man-made institutions, whether they are talking about their company, the marketplace, intellectual life, or their own neighborhood. An institution is deemed to be working well when it functions like a forest: when it is diverse, filled with autonomous creatures fulfilling their individual missions, when it lacks a single autocrat or clear hierarchy, when it allows each member to adapt continually to changing conditions and opportunities. Cell Phone Naturalists are comfortable with dynamic order, with systems that are always changing yet fundamentally stable. Sustainable.

So when the Cell Phone Naturalist drives out into the Cascade Mountains in his Land Rover to sit in the woods and fiddle with the global positioning system he bought with his Sierra Club credit card, of course he doesn't see any contradiction between his lavish consumer spending and his natural experience. The old-fashioned naturalist-moralist may have sought the simple life. He may have wanted to retreat from civilization and all its corruptions to return to basic modes of existence. He may have been convinced that wealth poses a mortal danger to virtue and that self-denial is the only course to happiness. But that way of thinking is out of place amid the cornucopia of REI and in the pages of the lavishly funded environmental magazines (some of which carry Rolex ads on their back covers).The Cell Phone Naturalists aren't looking to recreate the simple life of the Shakers or the Transcendentalists or the hippies. They're not waging war on the automobile or weaving their own clothes on hand looms. They're not trying to escape from society. They are society's winners. In short, they are not renouncing money for simplicity. They're using money to buy turbocharged natural experiences.

Somebody once said that the history of America is the history of a people turning Eden into Wealth. These days, if you've got the right investment plan, you can turn Wealth back into Eden. You can buy a palatial mountaintop estate with environmentally friendly outbuildings and a view unmarred by any sign of human habitation. For $15,000 a person, you can take an expedition, advertised in Natural History magazine, to Antarctica or the Galapagos or the Serengeti. The Cell Phone Naturalists seem to have discovered a new gospel of wealth: Money can be purifying if you spend it on things that permit you to experience nature. That $600 walking-around money in your pocket won't corrupt you if you keep it in a waterproof canvas wallet. Technology won't distance you from nature if you use it to hammer your way up a rock face in Nepal.

But ultimately you might find that your concept of nature changes. The old-fashioned naturalists saw nature as a remedy for and escape from society. But the Cell Phone Naturalist walks around the forest looking for a place to set up a wilderness office. She's using her newfound wealth and the geographical freedom of the telecommunications age to renovate her work life, to move to Montana or Idaho or New Hampshire, where she can tap on her keyboard in a home office with breathtaking mountain views.

For past generations, the simple life meant renouncing ambition and social mobility. But the Cell Phone Naturalist takes his ambition with him. He doesn't just sit in the forest, he treks up a mountain, climbs a glacier, bikes to the Continental Divide. He turns nature into an obstacle course, a series of ordeals he can conquer. After all, why does he need all those polyester coverings? Because he is challenging nature on his own terms.

Sooner or later the rise of the Cell Phone Naturalist is bound to have consequences for our environmental politics. It's bound to lessen the animosity between economically minded developers and romantically minded environmentalists.

In some places it already has. One of the most important events in recent environmental history was the formation of the Quincy Library Group. In the mid-1990s a group of local environmentalists, citizen leaders, and timber executives started meeting at the public library in Quincy, California, to work out an agreement on preserving, yet allowing lumbering in, the Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe national forests, which cover a huge expanse of Northern California. The compromise they forged won the approval of the Clinton administration and the House of Representatives. But the San Francisco and Washington offices of old-fashioned environmental groups like the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club declared war on the agreement, seeing any effort to bridge the divide with big timber as a deal with the devil. It passed the Senate as part of a flurry of special riders added to the omnibus spending bill and was signed by President Clinton. The Quincy Library agreement probably has flaws, but it is a harbinger of the sort of reconciliation of environmental concerns and private-sector development that is a natural outgrowth of Cell Phone Naturalism.

It's striking that the groups that have worked most effectively to harmonize nature and economic well-being are not conservative or liberal, but libertarian. Two Montana-based foundations, the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), have been busy bringing economists and environmentalists together for years. They devise ways of using economic incentives to encourage environmental preservation. For example, in Africa they favor giving villages a stake in the wealth derived from elephant hunting so that herdsmen have an interest in keeping the number of animals up. In the United States, they'd like to reverse the budgetary arrangements that give the Forest Service an incentive to cut down trees to gain additional revenue. I'm not qualified to judge the practicality of these plans. But in their behavior and outlook, the people at PERC and FREE, as well as those at more mainstream groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, seem to exemplify the coming environmentalism, which is neither enthralled by the beneficence of corporations nor hostile to the development of wealth.

According to people who follow these trends, there are numerous signs that the orthodoxy of the environmental movement is slowly being affected by this cultural shift. There are more fissures within groups than before. And a lot of Quincy Library–style mediation is going on in the states.

It's funny the way changes in technology can alter our perceptions of nature. Yesterday's rivals may be today's allies. And, by the way, once I found a jacket in my size on the mezzanine at REI, I started to feel reconciled to high-tech polyester. I even discovered I could quite easily traverse the obstacles before me. I made it past the rain chamber, where you can test your all-weather gear. I crossed the boot section and followed the little forest trail that allows you to try out your footwear. I walked through the nature art gallery and past the Park Service information booth in the middle of the book section. And finally there opened up in front of me the glorious vista of the coffee shop: a vast range of mission furniture and a paradise of multicultural aromas. There it was.

One small step for man. One venti cappuccino for mankind.

Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard  (Oct. 26, 1998). Subscriptions: $78/yr. (48 issues) from Box 96153, Washington, DC 20090-6153.