on the page magazine

issue no. 6, winter 2001–2002


Risky Business Outside

On Suburban Sprawl and Armchair Adventurers

The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man.
                                                                                   ~ Rachel Carson

When OtP recently approached an attorney and an editor for comments on how failure touches their work, their remarks shed light on the way we live. In the following discussion, Stephanie Pearson, an editor at Outside magazine, explores the public's taste for tales of dramatic—and disastrous—adventures. Chris Sproul, a long-time lawyer with the EPA, offers another perspective on American's run-ins with nature, dispelling the myth that all environmental failures are irreversible, but warning of the ecological disaster inherent in our pursuit of the American Dream.

Dreaming of Disaster
Stephanie Pearson

an overabundance of life
In Richard Linklater's animated film Waking Life, an old man sitting at a bar leans over to his youthful pal and says (I'm paraphrasing here): "There are two types of suffering in the world: a lack of life and an overabundance of life." I'm convinced this is why people are so fascinated to read about failed adventure: those who suffer from a lack of life are comforted by the fact that those who enjoy an overabundance of life also suffer.

challenging the elements
Outside magazine, a publication I've worked for in various capacities since 1995, is perhaps best known for two epic stories of failed adventure: Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, a true story about the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that was annihilated in the North Atlantic in 1991; and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a firsthand account of the tragic 1996 Everest climbing season. Both of these features became New York Times bestsellers and, eventually, major Hollywood productions. It's easy to understand why: Each was a riveting tale about man losing out to nature big-time—for reasons of utter bad luck in one case and poor judgment and big ego in the other.

loungers' longings
There's an old saying that goes: "If your life gets boring, risk it." Unfortunately, risking life in the elements has almost completely disappeared from Americans' daily lives. But as hard as we try to stuff the urge to control life, there's still a tiny chunk of our brain that is hot-wired to tempt fate. For some of us, that means hopping the next plane to Peshawar. But for the rest of us, it usually means cracking the nearest copy of Outside and reading about someone else who has attempted to live life to the fullest with sometimes fatal results.

Stephanie Pearson is a senior editor at Outside magazine.

Disaster in Our Dream
Chris Sproul

turning back the clock
It's standard rhetoric to say that all environmental failures are permanent and all successes temporary, but it's not necessarily true—look at Bruce Babbitt's work tearing down existing dams, with ecosystems that people came to see as forever damaged [now] returning. But there are other successes. For example, Chrissy Field in San Francisco went from a salt-water marsh to a military junkyard and now has returned to marsh state. And the air quality of Los Angeles is far better now that it was in the 1950's. Environmental failure isn't always permanent.

some things will never change
The biggest problem with the lack of prosecution isn't politics, it's inertia, bureaucracy, and a fear of taking risks. Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II...There's a tremendous amount of paperwork and an elaborate existing hierarchy. And no one wants to give up power, and everyone is afraid of getting in trouble by acting, so they do nothing. No one ever got bad marks for doing nothing; it's only in acting that somebody gets in trouble.

American Dream: ecological nightmare
There is one area that I'm pretty pessimistic about. It's the government regulation of land use: suburban sprawl. There's a lot of attention in the environmental world to "smart growth," but the EPA doesn't have any ability to act on it. The biggest pollution problem in this century is suburban, and it all stems back to land use. There are only two solutions—1) limit population growth and 2) density—but there's zero political will in either direction. All the fears that environmentalists deal with—extinction, watershed disaster—all will come to pass, if Americans continue to want their house with a big lawn and S.U.V. People will have to find a new way of realizing the American Dream if ecological disaster is to be avoided.

Chris Sproul has been with the Environmental Protection Agency since 1987. He is a Staff Attorney in Region 9 in San Francisco.

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