In August, an iconic rock formation known as the Duckbill in Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda State Park collapsed. Originally, park services reported that the beloved sandstone hoodoo had crumbled due to natural causes. But a man named David Kalas later posted a video online of three vandals pushing the formation over, with one other man standing back and watching the juvenile act. The internet shortly thereafter lost its mind.
Not only was the act illegal, it was disrespectful to both the cultural history of the popular sightseeing spot and its unique beauty. It set off widespread, righteous outrage, calling to mind other viral conservation stories, like the death of Cecil the lion in 2015 or the toppling of a hoodoo in Utah’s Goblin Valley by Boy Scout leaders in 2013.
You could argue that the online conversations about these stories are useful, that we’re bringing issues like trophy hunting and proper, Leave No Trace wilderness behavior to the public eye. In reality, the comments, tweets, retweets, Facebook posts, likes, etc. feed a bigger, uglier beast: the internet news cycle, which thrives on the reactionary waterfall effect and the disconnect between internet conversations and reality. Dozens of news outlets and public figures engaged with this story, millions of online readers got pissed off, and….then what? The anger directed at these vandals is impotent.
Outlets including Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Complex, and People magazine published outraged articles about the act of vandalism. Viral videographer Casey Neistat tweeted a link to an article about the incident along with a caption “Special place in hell for these idiots” (with 4,500 likes). Outside Magazine went so far as to tweet an article about it with the line “Get PISSED.” Complex news called it “pure douchebaggery” and personal accounts on Twitter called for retaliatory violence including lynch mobs, and stoning. The only source that called upon the fact that acts like this happen all the time? Patagonia, a beacon of light for practicing what we preach.
The Duckbill’s collapse is an apt symbol of the industrialized world’s devastating impact on our planet. It was a beautiful feature, and it is no longer. But there’s nothing we can do to reverse it, and frankly, there are hundreds of environmental ills whose impact on our planet’s natural processes, resources, and beauty are much greater and deserve much more outrage. The destruction of the Duckbill is a tragedy of aesthetics.
It’s easy to get viewers’ attention when something is beautiful. In a recent post, Grist declared, “The American pika is disappearing, and you only care because it’s cute.” It went on to discuss the oft-overlooked plight of un-photogenic krill, an intrinsic part of the ocean food chain key to the health of countless ocean species. A New York Times article explains how wildlife photographers, in a bid to increase their viewers’ awareness of threats to biodiversity, post click-bait–like baby seals and penguins–to get their message out into the world.
The guys who knocked over the Duckbill? When it comes to overall environmental impact, the car they drove in to Cape Kiwanda is a bigger detriment to the overall health of our planet than the tower they knocked over. And despite the fact that a beautiful place can spark a love for the natural world and a subsequent commitment to its protection, the kind of “environmental consciousness” that this event raised across the Internet does more harm than good.
It oversimplifies conservation and good stewardship to an either/or equation, to a single instance in which you choose to make a good decision for the planet and the beings living on it, or you don’t. It reduces the conversation about our planet to the beautiful spaces, the places we Instagram (a platform in which the Duckbill made many, many appearances), rather than the places where real change (and real damage) can happen, such as farmland.
In his essay “Our Deserted Country,” environmental activist and celebrated critic Wendell Berry calls out…
…the utter futility of the notion, apparently still prevalent among conservation groups, that the health of the natural world, revealingly called “the environment,” can be preserved in parks and “wilderness areas.” This drastic abbreviation of land stewardship permits no competent concern for the effects of the lowing herd upon the lea or of corn and beans upon the slopes. It holds that the gated communities of “the wild” will somehow preserve the natural health of “the planet.”
I, too, shared the Duckbill story with friends and family, and was entirely outraged at the men responsible. I marveled at their idiocy and lack of respect for natural beauty and our protected spaces. And most any story that can help increase awareness of conservation and stewardship issues is a step in the (general) right direction. But we also need to be critical of our tendency to favor the beautiful over the functional, to only keep up on the re-tweetable news. When we exclusively report on issues with a clear solution or tragedies with a cute picture or a damning video attached, we ignore the complexity of our world and lose an opportunity to talk about holistic solutions to our global malaise.
Photo of Cape Kiwanda by Thomas Shahan.