Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Am I a Hypocrite for Driving to the Wilderness?

Our ethics columnist weighs in on balancing conservation and enjoyment


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Dear Sundog: There are some pretty good trails within an hour of my big-city front door. I shouldn’t complain. But by driving five hours, I can spend a few nights in real solitude. Is it ethical to advocate for wilderness and seek it out, even as it means burning a tank or two of gas? —Driving My Life Away

Dear Driving: That’s easy: stay home! Sundog has parked his single-wide for 20 years on a cheap plot of weeds at the edge of wilderness precisely so that he can poke around the canyons without you.

I jest.

Proximity does not beget exclusivity. If it did, many of the public lands preserved for all of us would have long since been hacked into dune-buggy playgrounds and toxic-sludge incinerators by the yokels whose great-granddaddy ran cattle through here, blah blah blah.

But the question, Driving, of burning dinosaur bones while you’ve got a “Save the Earth” sticker on your bumper is a good one. It’s true that pristine public lands of the West are being drilled; however, the vast majority of that is natural gas that goes to your home furnace, not to your gas tank. The oil that your engine burns comes largely from private lands in Texas and North Dakota, and from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Persian Gulf. More than 90 percent of both oil and natural-gas production occurs on private land. Strictly speaking, driving your Outback to the outback is not what causes gas drilling at your campsite.

But if you endeavor to protect the planet, you might consider the broader effects of driving. A warming planet will eliminate species and change the character of forests and deserts and wetlands. But the real victims of the climate crisis will not be white Americans such as Sundog, who can afford to fritter their days wandering the woods. It will be the people of the global south, in places with limited infrastructure and greater susceptibility to drought, superstorms, and rising seas, like Haiti, Yemen, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

So while driving to your favorite wilderness may not immediately affect that place, all burning of fossil fuels does collectively add to worldwide misery. Are you your brothers’ keeper? That’s for you to decide. Another difficult question: Is it ethical for the largely white global north to maintain a lifestyle that will wreak havoc on the largely brown and Black global south? Start pulling that thread and, if you’re like Sundog each time he stumbles across an arrowhead, you’ll unravel an existential crisis rooted in centuries of colonialism.

Does that mean we must never take road trips? What about weddings, concerts, family reunions, and visiting your ailing granny in the nursing home? Sundog believes that travel has inherent value: rejuvenation, opening of the mind, connecting with loved ones, and outright necessary fun, to name just a few. Again, you’ll have to weigh the costs.

But this question is specifically about the use of gasoline in order to enjoy wilderness, which is peculiar, because Sundog sees a long-held belief among the outdoorsy that their recreation is somehow a net good for the earth. And that’s because it feels right to let your raft swirl down some lazy river, or to summit a snowy peak and gaze at the endless range. Aren’t we loving the Mother, and isn’t she loving us back?

Almost by definition, the great outdoors are far away from you, and once you’ve arrived, it’s easy to forget the carbon emitted on the way there. Take Sundog’s first true love: weeklong floats through river canyons. There’s nothing greater than not seeing a car or hearing a motor day after day. We forget the trucks and trailers that delivered us to the launch and were then shuttled to the take-out to await us.

What about fuel efficiency, Driving? Of course it’s better to get high mileage, and you actually don’t need that Ultra-Duty Mega-Stroke Limo-Cab F-750 to drive on asphalt and gravel from your house to the trailhead. But let’s not pretend that electric cars run on rainbows and sunshine, or that lithium is mined by artisanal small-batch cooperatives. Sundog tends to agree with the mad farmer Wendell Berry: the solution to problems wrought by technology will not be solved by buying yet another expensive piece of equipment.

So take another look at the trails and parks and creeks and hills near home. You may find something beautiful and surprising. And by cutting the commute, you’ll have a full extra day to enjoy them.

Sundog isn’t ready to tell you whether or not you should drive five hours to camp. But I think it’s high time we divorce recreation from protection, and accept that our being outside isn’t serving anyone but ourselves.