But we don’t want to go outside

April 21, 2010

image courtesey of debaird via flickr

I don’t know if Barack Obama eats granola, but if he does, I hope he keeps it a secret. Obama recently launched his “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative to encourage conservation and outdoor recreation.  It may be a first step toward bigger environmental legislation, but right now it’s a loose set of policy guidelines and listening sessions. Our introduction to “America’s Great Outdoors” is heavy on family vacations to Yellowstone and light on the Birkenstocks.  It’s about seeing Old Faithful, not about atmospheric CO2 or wetland destruction. Obama hopes to tap into a nostalgic American outdoor culture of outdoor recreation, but I wonder if he’d be better starting from scratch. Americans spend considerably less time outside than we did in past decades, and children especially are spending more time indoors. The United States does not have a cohesive national outdoor culture. We have granola-crunchers, hunters, boaters, and extreme sports enthusiasts, but I don’t think these groups cross paths very often. Our mainstream culture takes place on screens, in cars and at home. Perhaps America is too big and too diverse to support a national outdoor culture, but I’d love to see one.

To see what a national outdoor culture could be, let’s look at Norway. There’s a Norwegian saying that captures the essence of their outdoor culture. On any given day with nasty weather, you’ll hear someone say “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” The phrase says a lot, but mostly it implies that it’s better to be outside than inside, and tells you to suck it up, it’s fine outside. The Norwegians drill in this somewhat mandatory outdoor appreciation early. On rainy days, you’ll see kindergarten classes walking single-file in their rain slickers. In the United States, being outdoors is about doing something: biking, fishing, running, etc. In Norway, it’s just about being outside; you don’t need to be an athlete to have fun. But this outdoor appreciation makes for a lot of accidental athletes. I know many fit 20-something Americans who have been cross-country skiing at what they think is an impressive clip, until they are passed by a 75-year-old man on his father’s birch skis.

It’s not that Americans don’t like to be outside. Many of us are emerging from the winter and getting outside whenever we can. The hottest ticket in Minnesota right now is to an outdoor Twins game at Target Field. But if Obama wants to tap into our outdoorsy side, he’s going to have to pry us away from our glowing screens and tell us to get off our butts.  Where’s a Norwegian kindergarten teacher when you need one?

image credit: debaird