Leave No Trace. It seems like benevolent catchphrase. The 7 principles of this ethic seem pretty benevolent as well:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
2. Travel and Camp on durable surfaces
3. Dispose of waste properly
4. Leave what you find
5. Minimize campfire impact
6. Respect wildlife
7. Be considerate of other visitors
In the 1970s, Barry Commoner wrote the 5 laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. Everything has to go somewhere or there is no such place as away. Everything is always changing. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has limits.
Leave no trace. Say it one more time. Really digest it. If everything is connected and there no such place as a way, then we need to reexamine how we're defining traces and the implications desiring not to leave one. Does it make any sense at all, in this physicality, that we could, or should “leave no trace?” Did you know that bears can smell 20 miles away? Or that the avocado you had with your breakfast will eventually have an impact on the ground you stand on today, even if the ingredients came from hundreds or thousands of miles away? We are walking around with rare earth minerals in our cell phones proclaiming ecological integrity because we've packed out our toilet paper. If we look past even the most basic laws of our reality, from thermodynamics to ecology, we quickly will see that one cannot simply choose to “leave no trace.” “What’s the big deal? If it keeps people from littering or starting forest fires, who cares if it misses the big picture?” These small oversights are everywhere in our culture. They come in from every direction until our entire field of vision is obstructed by them. When critics of leave no trace are accused of “semantics,” it exposes the vast differences in worldview of imperialist culture- differences that are catastrophic on a global scale.
Would the world be a better place if everyone practiced leave no trace instead of destroying and pillaging the earth? Sure. Would it be a sustainable future for humankind? No. Because it is based on false binary and a false pretense, one that disables us from being ethically productive members within an ecosystem. When this isn't possible, the only way to persist is to develop a myth that there is protected lands i.e. "nature" and unprotected lands i.e. industry and development. This a construct of the mind; a lie. Leave No Trace perpetuates the concept of “pristine wilderness”—that nature is only pure and perfect when any sign of humans is erased. This ideology stems from the era of John Muir conservation that sought to remove indigenous people from the landscape. It is white supremacy and Puritanism veiled as environmental stewardship. It comes from the same logic that almost wiped out one of the most important keystone species, Beavers, off the continent. We can warn our children not to flip over rocks for fear of salamander habitat degradation, but don’t realize that the trickling little stream is a scar of the swampy, ecological Eden that existed before we turned those pesky destructive rodents into hats. We told those beavers not to leave a trace either, with our pitchforks and steel traps, and we were repaid with well behaved streams—an ecotype that fits out neat little boxes of idyllic scenery but that serves the greater living system poorly. But salamanders don’t drop trees on your cars or flood your yards.
We should shift the focus from removing any sign of human activity to creating signs of human stewardship and connection. Because we positively do leave a trace, on all our local ecosystems, whether we’re aware of it or not, and whether we step “out into nature” or are just hanging out in our back yard (that’s part of the ecosystem too). We can focus on minimizing our negative impact, and we should, but we need to decentralize this concept of stewardship around purity and separateness. Instead of asking how we can erase ourselves from the land, we need to be asking, "What kind of trace do I want to leave?" When we see ourselves as valuable members of the ecosystem and work cooperatively within that system, it does leave a trace. A positive one. While most of the seven principles of leave no trace are good practice and common sense, the premise severs us from the land, making us see ourselves as separate from it. As advocates of leave no trace will tell you, this policy isn’t just about not leaving litter— it’s also about not disrupting sensitive ecosystems, like avoiding disturbing or removing rocks in salamander habitat. The argument is essentially that it’s impossible for people to learn enough about their local ecosystems to avoid harming them, so just don’t interact at all outside of designated areas and practices. But we can and absolutely should learn the nuance of the ecologies we live in. This kind of education should be woven into all aspects of life from a young age. If we teach our children to never interact with the landscape, the bond they form with the land will be superficial at best. This is not how we raise water warriors and dam breakers and seed protectors. This is not how to halt climate change or deforestation. We can’t turn this apocalyptic mess around unless we see ourselves as inseparable from nature, cultivate an embodied bond, and impact direct and sustainable change on the landscape. That means letting your kids build forts in the woods, it also means educating them (and yourself) about all our relatives who live there. And it means seeing the the parking lot of your apartment complex or the stretch of “hellstrip” in front of your house as an integrated part of your local ecosystem and acknowledging that impact. We can continue to feign ignorance of the broad spectrum that falls between flagrant vandalism and ecological asceticism or we can stand up and acknowledge our impact and try to enact a change that is real, sustainable, and behaves within the laws of the nature. Kat Anderson talks about the “middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone.” It is a false binary we need to stop perpetuating. Imagine with me a world where the impact of humans is visible, but it looks like well tended savannas. It looks like flourishing perennial gardens in the once neglected or grossly manicured spaces around town. It looks like a generation who not only doesn’t litter, but campaigns for their local grocery store to reduce food packaging from the source. It looks like kids who don’t spray paint rocks because they see the rocks as living kin. This is the trace I want to leave on the world.