MANN: The not-so-great outdoors

Mother Nature abuses her children

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As someone who doesn’t like to freeze to death or sweat uncontrollably, I enjoy this time of year. The mild temperatures, blooming flowers and amiable sunniness make the outdoors a great place to be. Which is why I stay indoors. The downside to good weather is that it brings people outside.

According to the government, people should go outside more often. The U.S. Forest Service proclaims, “Outdoor recreation is fun - and so much more.” To give us fun, the government gives us bureaucracies. Last year, President Obama established the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation, which involves the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’re not talking about a big federal agenda being driven out of Washington,” the president said.

The most popular bureaucracy is the National Park Service, which oversees 84 million acres of land on an annual budget of $2.8 billion. “There is nothing so American as our national parks,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt, neglecting to mention the Constitution as another possibility. By going to a national park, Roosevelt said, “you will perform the double function of enjoying much and learning much.”

Kids are doing the former and feigning the latter. To celebrate National Park Week (April 21-29), a group of middle school students visited Prince William Forest Park in Northern Virginia. “I like it here,” one student said. “The clock runs a lot faster when I’m doing stuff than when I’m sitting down doing math homework.”

What stuff did they do? According to The Washington Post, the students played “a game of rock-paper-scissors to learn how a meadow grows into a mature forest and a version of tag to understand how predators affect the deer population.” They also “caught frogs and dunked their heads in the creek.”

In similar fashion, on Youth Conservation Day (April 24) in Reedsburg, Wis., “students screamed and ran around the open field as boys and girls,” according to the Reedsburg Times-Press, which described the screaming and running as “a learning experience.” By going outdoors, the kids learned how much fun it is not to learn.

At national parks, the National Park Service reports, “history is an unbelievable experience, not an exam.” Which is why kids like national parks.

So do poor people, supposedly. “If you are poor,” Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times, “you can feel rich just minutes from the city, in your estate that is a national forest.” Your estate that is a national forest isn’t really yours, of course. It belongs to the public.

John D. Leshy, a former Interior Department solicitor, said, “There’s no square yard of public land that somebody doesn’t love.” Unfortunately, this is true. There are people who love public land simply because it is public, and most of them are public officials. FDR saw national parks as part of “a constant struggle to protect the public interest … from private exploitation at the hands of the selfish few.”

The real problem is public exploitation. Public restrooms are gross because no one has any reason to keep them clean. People of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds walk into public bathrooms and do everything imaginable to toilets but flush them. Ecologist Garrett Hardin called this “the tragedy of the commons.” When a resource is available to everyone and owned by no one, everyone has an incentive to exploit it as much as possible before someone else does.

Human nature, for all its defects, is still better than nature. The New World, as described by the Pilgrim leader William Bradford, was “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” A little ecocide was necessary to advance civilization. If we didn’t kill trees, we wouldn’t have books or houses. Nature isn’t worth universal illiteracy and homelessness.

Instead of killing trees to make our lives better, some radical environmentalists say, we should kill ourselves to save the world. “Phasing out the human race,” wrote a member of the human race in Wild Earth magazine, “will solve every problem on Earth, social and environmental.” This proposition has its charms. There are humans whose planetary absence would be a boon, not so much to the world but to other humans. What we need is not population control but population avoidance.

If you go outside, you will find more bodies than brains. For every marine biologist at a beach, there are 10,000 people lying under the sun for hours with no other object in mind but a tanned epidermis. Pale skin is no guarantee of a high IQ, but there never has been a great mind on top of a bronzed body.

Nature encourages imbecility. Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years living at Walden Pond, wrote, “My head is hands and feet.” I have no idea what this means, but I don’t question the author’s sincerity.

The more time I spend outdoors, the more I love the great indoors.

Windsor Mann is the editor of “The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism” (Da Capo Press, 2011)

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