In the April 1973 issue of Parks & Recreation — 50 Earth Months ago — contributor Lloyd Barnhart authored an article titled, “Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Attitudes.” In the article, Barnhart poses the following issue: “Over the past decade we have begun to realize the negative effect man has had on the natural world. We now run around like the proverbial chicken searching out reasons for this desperate situation and the key to getting ourselves out of it.”
The solution, according to Barnhart, is outdoor recreation. “[T]he first thing outdoor recreation does is to reunite man with the natural world from which he is far removed in his technological, urbanized society,” Barnhart writes.
In the years since, society has only become more technological and urbanized, with these trends growing at an exponential rate. As the landscapes — literal and figurative — continue to change, how are environmental attitudes and solutions changing with them?
“Legislation and education often are proposed as the keys to solving the environmental crisis. True, legislation can prevent some forms of environmental destruction, but can it bring about fundamental changes in our attitudes?” asks Barnhart.
In Michael Pollan’s 2008 essay, “Why Bother?” he addresses the question of which should come first — legislation or individual action:
Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge…. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us…and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.
For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice….
Fifteen years after this article, many environmentalists are likely to say that enacting legislation that holds large companies accountable for their environmental impacts is the first and most important step to take. This sentiment rings true; as the consumer, it often can feel as though we are left to choose between one not-so-green choice and another that is equally harmful.
For the environmental movement to succeed, we will need progress in both legislation and individual participation — and park and recreation departments can play a role in each. These multidimensional challenges require multifaceted solutions, and legislation is a piece of that puzzle. For park and recreation professionals, participating in this process can look like introducing your local representatives to your facilities and programs or providing them with evidence about the importance of parks and recreation.
“Can we teach attitudes — positive attitudes relating to the environment? Perhaps, but only in a limited sense,” says Barnhart. “We can teach facts, and facts (the interpretation of such) do influence attitude development. It is important, however, to realize that the development of attitudes, particularly those relating to the natural world, is dependent upon many, many factors outside the realm of formal education. Thus, the effect of education must be viewed as limited.”
While Barnhart speaks of education in a traditional sense (think textbooks and a classroom), the idea of education can be expanded to include many other forms and methods. By the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition, the components of environmental education are awareness and sensitivity, knowledge and understanding, attitudes, skills, and participation. Again, this takes a more interconnected approach that favors both emotional and rational knowledge.
Park and recreation departments in communities large and small, urban and rural, are very familiar with this idea; many are their community’s primary provider of programming that combines science and research with hands-on learning that encourages participants to get to know their environment intimately.
Modern Solutions for Modern Challenges
While Barnhart’s article views technology and urbanization as opposed to nature, we are increasingly finding ways to integrate them. Large city parks, pocket parks, public art installations, outdoor programming, tree planting initiatives, BioBlitz events and more serve to connect people living in urban environments with the nature around them while increasing the amount of nature available to them. Meanwhile, technology — such as augmented reality, QR codes containing interpretive or helpful information, and phone applications for those with vision or hearing impairments — makes outdoor spaces and experiences more accessible to some while enhancing the experience for others.
Many people today — especially those who consider themselves environmentalists, naturalists, conservationists or just “outdoorsy” — would agree with Barnhart that experience in nature is what fosters love and stewardship for it. In his words, “It takes time for even the avid recreationist to appreciate these intangible values of nature. One does not become a Thoreau or Burroughs overnight; but when the realization and the appreciation do come, we have the budding of a true environmentalist, a true conservationist — one who will fight to protect the forest not merely as a place [to recreate], but as a place to be — to sit and hear, and to see, feel, smell, and to experience the true essence of nature — one who will strive to protect fish for the sake of fish as well as fishing — one who realizes that he was not meant to be a master of the natural world, but rather a part of it as the ‘thinking animal,’ a guardian of the treasures that are a part of it.”
Fifty years later, Barnhart’s assertion that reverence for nature is key to sustaining the environmental movement still holds true. As the world becomes more interconnected, so do its challenges and the many various avenues we must take to address them. The good news is that parks and recreation holds many of the solutions, and those professionals already are taking action — first and foremost by cultivating connections to nature and each other.
Lindsay Collins is Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.