Joel Hartter is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Masters of the Environment professional graduate degree program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Joel is a National Geographic Explorer, and for the last 20 years has worked as a researcher, consultant, engineer, and educator focused on sustainability and resilience.
I teach students to look beyond just bouncing back to where we were, because that’s not where we’re going
What are the sustainability questions people should be asking today, particularly related to the outdoors?
JH: “There’s a lot of thought right now about the difference between resilience and sustainability, and whether sustainability is the right term. What we’ve seen in the outdoor industry, and consumer products in general, is that sustainability becomes an adjective - it ends up becoming a state: Have you achieved sustainability? This places the focus on an environmental footprint, but sustainability has three legs - social, economic and environmental. By focusing only on a state of sustainability, the critical social and economic elements get left out. And we then think of sustainability as an endpoint.
Resilience is more important right now because it’s the concept that systems are constantly changing. Resilience is about being able to anticipate, cope, mitigate, withstand and react to shocks in the system. And that is the best description of what is currently happening in the outdoor industry, and it is what has happened because of COVID. And I think those are questions about resilience.
I teach students to look beyond just bouncing back to where we were, because that’s not where we’re going. After COVID we are going to be fully transformed. That includes supply chains, national conversations, business, higher education - you name it. And so the focus should be on bouncing forward. It’s the old Wayne Gretzky adage - you don’t skate to where the puck was or where it currently is, you skate to where it’s going to be.
And that’s what we’re working on here at CU - being able to anticipate what’s going to come next. The same thinking applies for the outdoor industry - where does the industry need to be? Because it’s not just about creating a better widget, it’s about answering what needs to come and transform the industry. That’s the kind of thinking that gets me excited.
Beyond that, the critical next question is getting people involved who are not inside our own circle; people who don’t look like me or have the same experience or educational profile.
If you’re solving environmental challenges you can’t just put a bunch of environmental specialists together. That’s part of it. We need many different skill sets and people who understand water, forest management, business, community, as well as local, state and federal policymakers. Without that we can’t get the whole picture. It’s the same for the outdoor industry. We need to bring different people with different backgrounds, lived experiences, skills, and assets to bear to innovate and truly transform the industry and be better prepared for a post-COVID world.”
There’s consistent growth of people recreating outdoors - which is amazing - but can there be sustainability / resilience in that?
JH: “This is really challenging, particularly on public lands. But I firmly believe that we should always get more people outside, and everyone should have access. Here in the Front Range of Colorado we need to account for the changing demographic. By 2050, the population will be much older, and the Latinx population is going to increase substantially. So we have to think about how people are going to recreate, but we also have to think beyond the people who are from Colorado, because we are the world’s playground.
But can it be sustainable? The question should be to whom and for what? Look at the three legs of the stool: environment, economic, social. It’s increasingly more sustainable because hopefully we’re working towards increased access for everyone, economic opportunities for communities, and understanding and managing environmental impact.
The next challenge is managing for growth and increased recreation. Places like Rocky Mountain National Park could theoretically sustain more visitors if people were spread out across the entire park. However, that would present other challenges – many people in the fragile tundra and backcountry; increased need for infrastructure throughout the park (and thereby increased impact). I’m not sure that is the right approach. But if we limit access, that also has its consequences. Take the case of Colorado’s 14ers. People come from all over just to visit and hopefully summit Colorado’s famed peaks. People are often determined to go to their destination. If they are turned away from their destination, we may see increased impacts on adjacent lands. So in a way, concentrating the impacts and recreation use is advantageous, but it also concentrates the impacts.
It comes down to policy and economic development levers because there will continue to be advocacy to get more people outside. We’ll need support from communities and businesses to support the spillover, such as partnerships to let people move between public and private lands.”
There’s a lot of room to really innovate, and to grow. We can’t hold on to the ways it was done in the past.
What do you see that’s positive, and what are you excited about?
JH: “I’m an eternal optimist. First, COVID has presented enormous challenges, but also some opportunities have emerged. But we know times of stress are when we can innovate and think ourselves out of a box. Times like these tend to galvanize communities, and people rally and hopefully emerge stronger. Now is the time to buckle down and think about what’s going to come next - that’s where innovation happens.
At any of the stress points I’ve experienced - 9/11, the recession - we’ve seen that people start to push and find different ways of being creative. They find and create new communities, and I find that really encouraging.
My belief is that we can’t go back to where we were. Every big shock shows that there was some flaw that led us to where we are. And that’s not just COVID, it’s also the important conversations about race, justice and equity.
So there’s a real opportunity to expand the thinking, and those conversations are hard and necessary.
Finally, I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it wasn’t my passion, but more importantly, there’s a lot of room to really innovate, and to grow. We can’t hold on to the ways it was done in the past.”