Communication Currents

Back to the Future in Red Rock Canyon

August 1, 2008
Critical and Cultural Studies, Environmental Communication

Birth control pills, cloned animalsgenetically modified foods, global warming: The triumph of technology over the physical world has erased the distinction between nature and culture. There is no baseline reality against which human artifice might be measured and judged, no authentic over here and inauthentic over there. Yet nature-culture binaries dominate our communicational practices, and thus shape our ways of living. Take Turtlehead Peak, for instance—a recreational hiking trail in Red Rock Canyon on the immediate outskirts of Las Vegas. Here, in the coil-bound notebooks kept at the Peak's summit, the hikers' hand-written reflections exhibit the persuasive power of the nature-culture binary. Here, hikers use the journals to re-write the history of our future connection to the planet.

Typical examples of the nature-culture binary found in hiker entries are:

Our hikes are ‘sacred.' It's our therapy—escape—reality check. (Sherri and Pam, 1997)

A most spectacular day in all its wonders I was drawn here subtly guided by silent powers the magic of nature perhaps my love for her this is most definitely the best part of my stay in Vegas. (Joshua S, 4/22/98)

Contrary to these sentiments hikers are never actually in nature, because there is no way to get out of culture. There is no exit from language and technology—think about maps, fences, pollution, and satellites—the historical imprint of human life on the planet. The journals' theme of escapism thus illustrates not how hikers get out of culture but rather how they use the notebooks to write their way back in to its future.

The nature-culture binary helps simplify the ecological mysteries of everyday life—paper or plastic, farm raised or wild caught, grain fed or grass fed, organic or local, ethanol or biodiesel or hybrid or coal or nuclear, and so on. The activities of hiking to and writing entries at Turtlehead Peak therefore have much to say about the communication practices of collective self-maintenance. The entries depict a seemingly trivial hike up a mountain as an act of civic hope. The nature-culture binary enables hikers to affirm—and in affirming make possible—the highest aspirations of future life on the planet. Indeed, when hikers sit down with the journals they are in effect renewing their civic vows. They are rehearsing a set of promises about how to co-exist as members of a common physical world. Nature is the justification hikers use to renew their promises to the planet and one another, thereby recommitting to an ethics of shared living.

What the Turtlehead notebooks demonstrate, then, are the ways that a routine hike up a mountain can affirm one's attachment to an improved future. As hikers sit at the peak with notebook and pen, overlooking the southern Nevada valley and relaxing after a difficult trek, they are participating in a ritual of civic renewal. The nature-culture binary is thus an example of what Kenneth Burke called equipment for living. Although merely a form of expression, a simple habit of thought, the binary is deeply practical. It does real work in the world. The point of the binary is specifically not to understand the complex relationships between humans and their physical environments. The point is simply to facilitate action.

If the first law of ecology states that “everything is connected to everything else,” then the ethical implications of our daily habits take on a paralyzing magnitude. If this is true then an ordinary trip to the grocery store can become a vote of support for the military-industrial complex. As Michael Pollan observes in his must-read book, The Omnivore's Dilemma,

“In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, Detroit, pharmaceuticals (without which they couldn't keep animals healthy in CAFO's [Confined Animal Feeding Operations]), agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Growing corn helps drive the very industrial complex that drives it. No wonder the government subsidizes it so lavishly.” (p. 201)

The nature-culture binary does not want to sort out the dizzying implications of our routine acts of consumption. It does not want to dwell on the fact that when we put the corn-based sweetener in our coffee each morning we are, at some distant but real degree of separation, participating in an industrial economy that has ravaged the planet for three hundred years. Indeed, the most habitual behaviors of our daily lives—the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the meals we eat, even the films we watch—have significant, if invisible, ecological consequences.

In the face of these ethical dilemmas, the nature-culture binary offers the consolation of a better future through the rosy sentiments of civic harmony. A last example reads:

My name is Duane! I am here with my wonderful sister in law Laura. We hike to journey in the mountains. My wife is in Houston and I miss her very much. This is definitely communing with nature. As I look across the valley, I realize how large life can be! I wish everyone good health and unlimited wealth (2/09/97).

With these rosy sentiments Duane helps nurture a future of improved human-environmental relations. The catch is that, in doing so, he also ignores the messier task of understanding the gap between that future and what Al Gore calls our fevered present. The remaining puzzle is knowing how to calculate the cost of preserving such a romantic view of nature, given our increasingly troubled ecological realities. This is an urgent calculation, for if the nature-culture binary proves too persuasive it could end up costing us our shared physical future.