Observation affects reality. Even when we’re outdoors.

With all beasts banished back to the East, and the sniff of spring in the air, it should be no surprise that the nation’s thoughts are once again turning to outdoor activities. The reduction in activity and visitor levels of the 2020 spring lockdown were quickly followed by a visitor surge to our outdoor spaces. There is no reason not to expect the same as our current set of lockdown restrictions ease.

This is news to be celebrated but also planned for. As an outdoor writer and influencer, I’ve been thinking long and hard about my future writing strategies and how these can have a positive effect on both my readers and the natural environment.

I have given myself a three-point eco-friendly outdoor writing plan.

  1. Remember that observation affects reality
  2. Give authority to the resource
  3. Avoid creating unintentional honeypots

1. Remember observation affects reality

There is a law in quantum physics that suggests even by observing a reality we have an impact on it. The experiments, as well as the concepts are fascinating and translate frighteningly well to our outdoor spaces.

Here’s an example. The question, ‘Am I affecting the environment by breaking through the ice to swim?’ is perfectly reasonable but take things back further, and, for the purposes of being eco-friendly, we should perhaps also be asking how the following (amongst others) are impacting an outdoor space,

  • Our chosen activities
  • Our noise levels
  • Our arrival methods
  • Our footprints
  • Our experience sharing

We are still grasping the concept of Leave No Trace (although almost certainly not all of the seven really solid Leave No Trace principles) but are we missing an opportunity to take things further with a Don’t Visit Now approach?

This sounds dramatic but the principle is already out there, for example in our Marine Protected Areas, where certain types of fishing are hopefully either restricted or banned altogether. Studies suggest that not only do MPAs enhance conservation, they also have the potential to increase fish stocks for food production. A win on both counts.

Research has proved that people want to look after their green spaces (or at least want to know that someone else is looking after them). Perhaps the Don’t Visit Now approach could be applied to these places as part of this. Perhaps eco-friendly outdoor writers could do our bit to start thought processes moving in the direction of ‘should I’ rather than ‘can I’.

Reality check: I challenged myself on this one and decided that, although I’ve sometimes chosen not to engage in the outdoor activity I was planning, this choice has been related to impact on humans rather than impact on the outdoor environment. For example, not swimming where lots of people are taking photos.

Note to writing self: Writing about a location will inevitably change it.

2. Give authority to the resource

If the Leave No Trace approach offers an environmental manual for visitors to the outdoors, the Authority of the Resource approach does the same thing for those involved in educating those visitors.

It works on the idea that, when explaining environmental concerns, instead of focusing on people-based rules we should refer to the requirements of nature. For example, instead of, ‘We have a rule here that all dogs should be on a lead’, the Authority of the Resource approach would say, ‘We’ve found that loose dogs can put enormous pressure on pregnant deer’.

Although examples of this approach tend to refer to figures we see as being ‘in charge’ of outdoor spaces (for example rangers), it isn’t a big step to extend it into wider fields. I include outdoor writing of all types in this but, in terms of influence, social media is a really good example.

Take a look at the two posts below (both invented). They deliver the same request but the second uses the authority of the resource approach to equip the reader with the understanding and opportunity to be involved in looking after the ponies.

‘Anyone caught feeding Dartmoor ponies will be issued with a fine and asked to leave the area #ponies #nofood #donotfeed’

‘We know that feeding Dartmoor’s ponies encourages them into danger on our roads. Please enjoy these wonderful creatures from a distance #ponies #safety #thankyou’

Reality check: I’ve got news for myself. I’m not just a visitor to the outdoors; as an outdoor writer I’ve given myself responsibility for educating others about how to look after it. I’ve just looked back over my past writing; some of it meets this responsibility, sadly some of it completely ignores it.

Note to writing self: Understanding the needs of an environment should precede writing about it.

3. Avoid creating unintentional honeypots

We are all familiar with the concept of tourism honeypots. These super-popular areas have both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side honeypots offer many visitors the facilities they are used to in less rural locations and serve to protect other, perhaps more sensitive sites. On the negative side, whenever a rush to the outdoors occurs, honeypots can result in overcrowding, damage and frustration.

To some extent honeypots offer land managers the opportunity to control where crowds appear and how they behave but this only works with reasonable sized crowds, and where honeypots are expected. In our social media influenced world, honeypots are appearing almost overnight in some of the most unpredictable and sensitive of places, at a pace that is impossible to keep up with.

As outdoor writers, we of course have contributed to the unintentional honeypot phenomenon. In our search for readership we have selected, some would say exposed, locations that visitors (and search engines) are most likely to be looking for.

To some extent there is nothing wrong with wanting to ‘share the joy’ but we should perhaps bear in mind that online influence is exactly what it says it is. If we suggest people go somewhere they will, and the transition from peaceful to damaged takes far less time than we might think.

This presents a problem. How can we continue to encourage people into an active outdoor lifestyle without showing them how beautiful it can be or helping them to be confident about where to go? The answer is that we can’t. But we can be careful about location choices, avoid at least some geotagging, and encourage a find your own place approach to being outside. If you want to see how this can be done, take a look at the New Zealand Department of Conservation Travelling Under the Social Influence campaign.

Working out how to say ‘find your space’ instead of ‘go here’ sounds easy but it isn’t. People follow influence because it makes them feel safe and permitted. The key here is going to be finding ways to encourage exploration without putting people off or encouraging unsafe behaviour. I know I am not there yet, but I am working on it.

Reality check: I’ve been as guilty as the next outdoor writer of using ‘Five Secret Spots’ type posts to gain search engine and social media recognition. I too have geotagged locations that I now won’t visit because they are too busy. That said, I’ve also taught countless people the navigation skills that will help them find their own outdoor spaces.

Note to writing self: Experiences need to take precedence over locations. 

A joint responsibility

So there we have it. My three-point outdoor writing plan might not be the same as yours but one thing’s for sure. All of us, outdoor writers, app creators, social media influencers, magazine editors, podcasters, video makers, outdoor lovers, we all share the responsibility for what happens next to our beautiful green and blue spaces.

Let’s make it a time of glad tidings for the outdoors.


The 7 Principles

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