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The Capitalist Lens of the Outdoor Community

The author enjoying the great indoors at Outdoor Retailer. Salt Lake City, UT

The author enjoying the great indoors at Outdoor Retailer. Salt Lake City, UT

 This week in the New Yorker, I came across a curious story called Do Good Climbers Make Good Capitalists?  The piece was about Alex Honnald giving a lecture and demo at a conference called Pinnacle Focus: A Day with Alex Honnald, hosted at Brooklyn Boulders in Sommerville, MA by Lexington Wealth Management, a financial management firm.  Brooklyn Boulders, a New York based chain of climbing gyms is an obvious venue to host Alex Honnald but not necessarily an entrepreneurship forum, until we learn that the gym markets itself as a quasi-coworking space. What’s seemingly stranger though, is that Honnald was there in the first place, leading me to wonder: Why is the outdoor community so comfortable with capitalism?

Capitalism, especially the pure form promoted by financial firms like Lexington Wealth Management, with the singular obligation to create profit for shareholders, is frying the planet.  The climate breakdown we’re experiencing is obvious, the causes are obvious, but the marketplace and the villains who occupy it are willfully ignoring the crisis for the simple sake of cash. 

Honnald understands the threat of climate breakdown and the market’s inability to address it.  Much of his time and money is devoted toward his non-profit, the Honnald Foundation, that funds and supports solar energy projects.  But his willingness to speak before a bunch of bankers and budding capitalists, as many famous people do for lucrative speaking fees, illustrates a blind spot in the outdoor community.  Despite what we know big business is doing to the planet, corporate America, entwined in nearly every aspect of the outdoor recreation world, is not viewed as a threat.

Professional athletes rise to success with the blessing and funding of corporate sponsors.  Influential photographers and filmmakers produce their work thanks to corporate contracts, sponsorships and commissions.  Institutional magazines, and the creatives they employ, thrive and survive on corporate advertising revenue. Even tangentially, an accountant who likes the outdoors would rather be an accountant at ClifBar than H&R Block. Dreams are made with corporate money and those dreams become the basis of the culture we see today: the figures we admire, the activities we pursue, the media we consume and the brands we develop loyalty to. 

And money talks. 

Corporate America doesn’t just leverage this influence to sell gear to schlubs like us, they use it to portray themselves as allies in the climate crisis. Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones’s environmental non-profit, Protect Our Winters, is so pro-business it would be considered an Astroturf group if they weren’t so up front about their allegiances.  For Jones, whose life has been shaped not just by snowboarding but the corporate money that enabled it all, he can’t help but see private industry as basically good. Capitalism worked for him and he has apparent faith it can work in the climate fight. The result is a policy and advocacy strategy that is sympathetically non-threatening to industry and, more importantly, the system.

Humans are reluctant to bite the hands that feed them and the most influential members and institutions of the outdoor community are fed by capitalists.

But a corporate friendly attitude is antithetical to the future of the outdoor community. Not only is capitalism forever altering our landscapes and making them more dangerous to play and live in, it’s also limiting the time, funds and access most Americans have to participate in the activities they enjoy.  We work longer hours for lower wages. Public land is privatized for the sake of industry. Increasingly massive corporations make our gear and spin our chairlifts and many sports are being restricted to a wealthy strata.

Breaking from a corporate orthodoxy is difficult.  The majority of us, no matter how independently active our soul searching we are, primarily consume outdoor culture through a corporate lens—on Instagram and YouTube, print articles and feature films, at gear stores and tradeshows and even at protests and polling stations. The line between the industry and community is more blurred than it's ever been.

There is a real community out there: at the crag, the surf break, the trailhead and rope tow.  Here you’ll find a lot of like minded folks incredulous toward capital and committed to, or at least compassionate toward, the climate struggle. That community has real skin in the game. The Community™ has cash.

The New Yorker article asked the wrong question from the outset.  Good climbers may or may not make good capitalists. Look at Yvon Chouinard against Warren Harding.  What’s definitive is that advertisements are good at selling things and professional athletes are highly influential advertisements.  On most days, Honnald sells North Face clothing. On a Thursday in April, he was selling capitalism, it’s willingness to torch the planet and the idea that paying day rate at a loud and smelly climbing gym is an enviable workplace of the future.  You gotta’ love the guy, but I’m not buying that shit.

GearTed RyanComment