“Into the forest I go. To lose my mind and find my soul” - John Muir
With one single, supple stroke, I plunge my oar into the water, hoping to make contact with the underbelly of a rock that I pray will send my boat in the right direction. While the passengers in my raft clutch for dear life to any extruding portion of rubber in sight, I become all too aware that we have now entered the class V section of the river, aptly named ‘widow maker’. One powerful paddle after another, my attempts to maintain composure of my guests waivers under my own sequestered uncertainty.
The waters are high; my confidence dwindles.
Slowly, but surely, I regain control of the raft, which has just completed a thorough 360 rotation atop whitewater moving at 3,000 cubic feet per second. The family of six I am entrusted in guiding – I recall them being from LA – scream for joy as splashes of water dampen their kempt trunks. Meanwhile, my internal screams can be heard from miles away, so I feel. Nearing the end of this stretch, my confidence in receiving a hefty tip increases; this will be one summer vacation they’ll never forget. When out of nowhere: WHAM! The side of our raft slumps onto a massive boulder and we begin to take on water. Fear-stricken of losing a guest, I scream with all the force within me: “High side!” Immediately, every guest on the raft lunges to the side of the boat, so as to counterbalance the submergence.
Perhaps my guardian angel chose to grant me a helping hand that day, or maybe those weeks of training were starting to pay off… it all happened so quickly. Either way, we instantaneously emerge from the choppy waters and begin gliding alongside the most brilliant mountain landscapes that Colorado has to offer. One of my guests, a young girl, asks if we can do that again. Obviously that won’t be happening. That day was the closest encounter with danger that I’ve experienced. Not a danger for my own safety, but uncertainty for individuals I had only just met, and for whom I was responsible. They will never know how close they came to falling into a river that has taken too many lives. And somehow offering these guests the chance to experience unconditional zeal for the treacherous majesty of nature gives me gratitude. Our environment has a way of inciting joy and zest within all of us, not only in the context of adventure, but as a passion for life.
The conception of nature – from the ant colonies that scour the ground to the towering redwoods that touch the sky – serves as a gateway into an entirely new reality, free from the chaotic mayhem of the city. One’s perception of the outdoors is completely unique to where one grew up; the woodland glades that defined my childhood cannot be compared to the frozen Wisconsin lakes that my best friend speaks endlessly about. And in this way, each human on Earth holds a deeply personalized and individual relationship to the planet, and the abundance of knowledge that stems from it. The common denominator amongst each of our experiences, however, is the fact that our environment never ceases to teach us. It demonstrates how symbiotic relationships can, indeed, form an ideal model of cohabitation. It instructs us on how to live a life not pursuant of riches and fame, but the personal enrichment that emanates from climbing the highest peak. And perhaps, most importantly, it provides us with an opportunity to look within ourselves; to use our outward surroundings to reflect inwards as we rediscover our unbridled existence…the essence of life that drives us to become, to emerge, to explore.
In a generation dominated by headlines that read ‘Global Temperatures Continue to Increase’, immediately following an anecdote on how another billionaire plans to take over the moon, it can be difficult to make sense of our world. There is no doubt that climate change poses a significant threat to the livelihoods of millions across the planet, the real question, however, is: how do we plan to change our ways? It would seem that nothing worth doing can be achieved without the aid of some form of carbon. Without planes, factories or even mobile devices, our existence would more accurately reflect neolithic survival as opposed to the 21st century. Something’s gotta give if we expect to sustain a growing population of hungry humans, whose cravings are not satiated by having all the necessary provisions for survival, and who must over-consume until nothing remains. However, amidst the plethora of climate chaos, there is still hope for remediation of our planet.
The solution I prescribe involves first exploring how our respective relationships between our inner being and the environment have been diluted through carbons. And secondly, redefining our relationship with the outside world as a starting point for conversations about how to progress as a collective society. Zest is one unique quality that allows humankind the ability to experience the outdoor world with enthusiasm and excitement. From rafting treacherous waters to backpacking the Rockies, zest enables us to find gratitude in the planet’s abundant natural wealth. This trait is complicated, however, as the very activities that allow us to engage with nature have also become a driver of climate change. Between the fossil fuels burnt in the vehicles we use to truly access the wilderness to the carbon-reliant equipment that facilitates our outdoor experiences, zest becomes a complex and thought-provoking trait.However, just as zest contributes to the plight, so does it present a solution: by orienting zest in a method that fosters reciprocal, life-giving connections with ourselves, others, and our environment, we may find ways to decarbonize how we engage with zestful actions. Our character is influenced heavily by our unique environment; the friends we spend time with and the foods we eat play an influence on the people we choose to be. And so, to heal our planet, let us first begin by amplifying our minds, body and souls.
The attribute of zest, which enables a new outlook on the association between climate and character, falls beneath the larger virtue of courage. Courage references one’s capacity to drill deep and find the discipline and stimulus to tackle one’s ideals, regardless of the challenges that will inevitably be fronted. While courage is often confused with the quality of bravery, there is a distinction between the two in the sense that bravery is the action of willingly clinging to a pursuit no matter the barriers. Alternatively, courage is waking up each day intending to take risks, step out of one's comfort zone, and selecting to welcome life with enthusiasm and optimism.
Zest is a special subset of courage that entails offering life and energy to every duty, as well as relishing the aliveness and satisfaction from even the most prosaic tasks. Retaining zest is the initial stage in designing a more fulfilling direction in life. A common feature within many zest-pursuing individuals – myself included – is the demand for endless adventure. And while there is dignity in erratic spontaneity and willingness to simply say 'yes', true zest is present even during periods of monotony and drab. This dynamic exists strongly in spaces and environments that seemingly confine us: universities, corporate employment, the like. In these places, our existence, which ought to be enlightened by the magnificence of vitality, can feel restricted by the reinforcement of routine and pressures. Zest is one tool that allows the mind to reclaim contentment and discover enthusiasm for life, once again. A critical technique that can be used to facilitate this mindset shift, meditation, has altogether changed my reality and perception of enthusiasm. This practice of providing myself the courtesy to examine my well-being, from an unbiased gaze, enables me to discover how to better support myself and my community.
Zest plays an essential role in approaching environmental problems, as well. If more people were able to meet life with excitement and vibrancy, there would be a more significant focus on safeguarding the natural environment that offers so much fulfillment. The feeling of aliveness that emanates from scaling to the top of a mountain, or the adrenaline rush of rafting down a class V rapid highlights how interacting with the environment produces happiness and creates meaning in one’s life. Yet, like everything else in this carbon-dominated society we live in, there are elements of zest that rely heavily on carbon, and more notably, fossil fuels, to be achieved. And so, it would seem, the abandonment of carbon manifests as more of a treadmill scenario as opposed to rejection; an impending doom that seemingly advances nearer as we push to flee.
Like many other character traits, zest has been ‘carbonized’ in the sense that engaging with this quality is often closely correlated to the contribution of further environmental injury. The search to encapsulate zest within the environment is most commonly perceived as requiring some form of direct engagement with the outdoors. Yet, to even facilitate this exchange, there must be some form of energy consumption. With the largest polluters reported as being energy, transportation and agriculture, respectively, it seems virtually impossible to contend in zest-filled activities without employing one, if not all three, of these defiling sectors.1
Take the activity of whitewater rafting for example; the adventure industry, which is intended to reconnect individuals with the outdoors, frankly, leans heavily on the very measures that are damaging the planet. A guest seeking to "reconnect with the outdoors" unknowingly engages in a series of actions that inhibits the very ecosystem they intend to plug into. The initial step in an outdoor adventure begins by reaching the adventure outpost before the voyage, which requires gas to fuel the vehicles of the journeying guests. After checking in for the reservation, perhaps a purchase is in order.
Will it be the neoprene socks or the polyester swim shirt?
It doesn't matter, either purchase will inevitably find itself castaway to the dark abyss of a storage box if not thrown out. Once through safety training, it's back on the buses for a 30 minutes drive carrying the plastic rafts made with enough PVC to reconstruct the eiffel tower. For the two hour excursion on the water, guests are finally offered authentic engagement with the outdoors. Aside from the lunch break, in which processed meats in plastic packaging are dispersed, this is a genuinely awe-inspiring experience. At the trip's end, guests will remount the bus, drive an additional 1 hour until arriving back at the outpost. Here, guests will be greeted with questions about the recent experience, to which responses of affirmation are reciprocated. After warming up next to the cozy gas fireplace, it's time to review the footage. After all, no great adventure is complete without a picture to substantiate the experience's occurrence.
The single photo is fantastic, but I'd recommend the complete album for only $85.
Perhaps a few additional purchases are in order, but then it's time to jump back into the massive, fuel devouring suburbans that transport guests on their adventures in paradise.
Off to Aspen!
Whitewater rafting is not alone in its "carbonized" qualities, however. Camping relies on nylon tents. Climbing requires harnesses, rope and chalk, all of which are processed through some form of carbon manipulation. Even outdoor meditation, thought to be one of the most restorative and healthful practices, demands a mat made of vinyl. It would be inconceivable to maintain an interaction with nature without burning fossil energies. This struggle of seeking to bridge the gap between urban and outdoor settings whilst rejecting carbon output is made even more challenging by the lack of understanding or unity in the fight against pollution. After all, humans are consumers, and there is perhaps no single worse parasite to the planet than human activity.
The Anthropocene is a concept denoting the period of time in which humans have dominated the planet and its resources, often times involving wide scale degradation for the sake of human advancement. Climate research indicates that global temperatures have increased 0.14ºF per decade since 1880,2 largely due to our innate desire to consume and conquer. It would seem as though the initiators of this issue would be the ones willing to remediate it, yet, this progression of human-induced climate change continues. In their essay, Address, Marina Zurkow and Una Chaudhuri touch upon this idea:
What if we killed off all of our first-born?
What if we cordoned off 50 percent of the world from us; you take that half, we take this half?
What if we offer up a unicorn for sacrifice? What if we let wolves live?
Yours with hope, and great good will
In this excerpt, the authors are attempting to demonstrate a cyclical mindset present throughout humanity: we are willing to initiate the problem, but once we begin to feel the sting of these problems, we disassociate ourselves from it.3
This idea is further emphasized through the concept of malthusianism, which is the idea that population growth is potentially exponential while the growth of the food supply or other resources is linear. Ultimately, our food supplies will reach a point unable to sustain our growing population, not to mention the lack of additional resources or space. The solution to this problem is obviously not to mandate birth or child laws, as some countries have done, but rather become conscious of the supply of resources we have access to and how our overconsumption will inevitably bring destruction to humanity.
In considering how we might incorporate zest into our own lives, it is critical to seek to attain internal gratification from our engagement with the environment as opposed to seeking only material fulfillment. In her book Coal: a Human History, Barbara Freese discusses the migration from Europe to the ‘New World’ as being highly motivated by the potential for resources. Freese writes, “They built log cabins, log fences, wooden furniture, and tools, and they also shipped timber back to England. Most of the wood went up in smoke, though, burned with abandon in enormous fireplaces.”4 While this idea of moving to a foreign place for the promise of a better life is not unique to the United States, it is time we change our perception of the environment. To decarbonize our strained relationship with our environment, we must leave behind all notions of greed or self-desires in favor of gaining the innate joy that comes from maintaining a symbiotic relationship with nature. Not a one-way stream of thanking the planet for giving us food to eat and fuel to use, but a mutual understanding that the planet’s resources are to be engaged with responsibly.
The topic of climate change is a deeply rooted issue, the extent of which is only just being explored. There is no single solution to combating this issue which affects each and every human being and will continue to do so. However, in determining the best course of action, we can look to character to offer strategies for maintaining individual relationships with our environment.
To decarbonize zest, we ought to consider how we might integrate enthusiasm in not only our dealings with nature but as a fervor for life and one another. As meditation teaches us, taking moments to consider our impacts, the favorable and adverse, enables us to assume responsibility and determine how we might engage those around us. Numerous ties can be drawn between our exchanges with the planet and our relationships within our families, communities, and even foreign cultures. The interdependence and mutuality that derives from cohabitation are only attainable through first probing inwards and celebrating the soul. Whether barreling down a waterfall on a raft or waking up to endure another day of work, zest enables us to emanate life and passion in all that we do. However, taking on the calling to do better, outperform, and set examples leans on strong leaders to guide.
As our boat called Earth plummets down the unpredictable class V section of climate change, we have several responsibilities. We must suspend battling over the matters of pollution and deforestation but rather quiet ourselves in favor of uplifting the voices of our ‘guides’ who understand the issue and can mobilize groups to perform jointly. As Shannon Elizabeth Bell touches upon in her book Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed, mothers are one particular demographic that can understand the issue of climate change from the lens of maternity and nurture.5 There are endless groups and individuals who have the ability to motivate and turn the hearts of our policymakers and industry leaders against the dangers of carbon usage, and it’s time to let them call the shots, as we carefully follow their instructions. Alternatively, for those of us not commissioned to guide, it is critical to hold an open heart and mind, whether we agree with the judgment or not. We must be keen to take risks and step outside of our comfort zones if that is what is needed of us in order to bring about necessary change. It’s time to get wet, or rather get soaked – the sun is always shining bright on the other side of the bumpy section. If we get stuck on a rock, as we inevitably will, we must be willing to band together tightly so as to counterbalance the weight of our actions.
While it might appear perilous at the moment, the narrative of our interpersonal relationships with one another, and our ecosystem, is not finalized. Choosing to defend and sustain zest does not warrant support for the activities that have become all too carbonized. It is the individual actions of each human on the planet that determines how to access zest for life and the outdoors. Whether it is pulling the bike out of storage to ride to work, or making a homegrown salad rather than opting for the Burger King Whopper, there are methods for attaining zest that necessitate neither capitalism nor greed. Reframing a relationship with nature that we have neglected for far too long requires the efforts of society as a whole, but begins within the soul. The road to this truth will be paved with undercurrents and surges, but we will emerge on the other side as a stronger, better integrated, and more zestfully enthusiastic humanity.