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The environmental parent trap

(credit: Dan Klotz)
(credit: Dan Klotz)

This summer, I was intent on taking my daughter backpacking. Every summer I’ve tried to bring my family into the woods for either camping or hiking or backpacking; sometimes the effort is a success, sometimes not. But this summer would be no different, and even though my wife couldn’t get enough time off to join us, I still planned a trip into the West Virginia wilderness to help keep my daughter connected to the great outdoors.

Ironically, the MVP of the trip was Lindsay Lohan. Yes, that Lindsay Lohan. You see, one of her first movies was a remake of the Disney summer flick, The Parent Trap, and it involved Lohan (who played both main characters, identical twin daughters) going with her dad on their annual camping trip. So my ten-year-old agreed to go backpacking because it was an annual thing, just like with Lohan.

Only catch was, the climate-change-influenced rainstorms that pummeled West Virginia in June washed out the dirt road leading us to our trailhead, changing our plans. Luckily we found a good place to camp nearby, but then an unexpected stretch of rain forced us into the tent for 24 hours straight—which we promptly spent playing poker, just like Lindsay’s characters did in summer camp.

Parenting, like backpacking, is all about handling the contingencies but staying on track. My dream goal at some point is for my daughter to be grown up and happily take me backpacking (it would certainly be nice to have someone else on logistics). But more than anything, I want her to understand how connected we all are to the planet, and how environmental stewardship is critically important.

This sense of stewardship was something I stumbled into initially. A child of New York City, my first wilderness experience was summer camp—my parents brought me to a wilderness and backpacking camp in Vermont when I was in middle school without fully realizing that it provided a hardcore outdoors experience. I was unprepared—my bargain-basement backpack didn’t even have a hip belt—but the experience cemented an embrace of nature that I still maintain.

In some ways, it looks like nature is getting embraced more. With the backdrop of a nasty hurricane pummeling the Caribbean and the southeast US Coast, this fall the world’s biggest sources of air pollution—China, US, and India—along with the European Union all officially joined the climate change agreement negotiated in Paris in December 2015. That was followed by a new international treaty phasing out one of the nastiest greenhouse gasses, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

The hurricane, Matthew, triggered “thousand-year floods,” events so apocalyptic that they are only supposed to happen once every millennium—just like the West Virginia floods. But the coverage of both environmental politics and meteorological disaster has been overshadowed in the US presidential election. The most we hear is that one candidate’s economic platform rotates around the idea that climate change is a hoax and the coal industry needs to be resuscitated.

Despite all the calamities, environmental conservation remains a bottom-tier issue, not worthy of discussion during the past two presidential debates—and there are no planned questions for the third. As an advocate, this is lousy. But as a parent, it is far worse.

The media landscape is rife with the lament of parents, bemoaning the state of the world we’re leaving to our children. But how do those authors raise their children so that they do something about it? How do you cultivate environmental awareness in the younger generation?

I’ve thought about this question ever since I started working in the environmental movement more than two decades ago. I was shocked that the first green group I worked for was not staffed by people who liked to hike and backpack. Although the executive director was someone who had hiked the Appalachian Trail, no one else even car-camped.

Where we live now, Washington DC, is supposed to be an outdoors city—with whitewater rafting close by on the Potomac and Shenandoah National Park a few hours away—but outdoors people are few and far between. The bike trail near our home, where my daughter learned to ride a bicycle, is going to be paved over for a commuter train line. The baseball field behind her elementary school is home to eight trailer classrooms and no baseball games. In our nation’s capital, teaching our children to embrace the outdoors entails swimming against the current.

I’m not going to watch the last presidential debate tomorrow, and in part it’s because the environment won’t be brought up. And this is too bad. After all, one would hope that a debate between the two candidates for the president of the United States would have more environmental impact than an 18-year-old Lindsay Lohan movie. Maybe next time it will.



  1. Lonnie
    Minong, Wi
    October 20, 9:05 am

    As the owner of a summer camp, http://swiftnaturecamp.com, I know the importance of getting kids outdoors. We see children come to camp stressed about being in nature and leave more in harmony. Summer camp instills a connection with nature. So if you want your child t be outside during the summer and have a hard time scheduling the time they summer camp, it will change your child’s perspective.