There we were, overlooking one of the most pristine environments in the entire world, in the heart of untouched Africa. I was involved in the ultimate wilderness experience conducted by NOLS, an organization devoted to training tomorrow’s leaders in environmental consciousness. On the tour were the sons and daughters of America’s affluent elite, to whom Daddy was the smiling TV doctor on national morning news, or the owner of the world’s largest privately-held company (seriously!), and so forth. Pretty high-brow. I was from a struggling middle-class family, still looking for myself, yet even in my confused state it struck me how discontent and insecure these rich kids were.
We had embarked on this tour, whose initial cost was proportional to a semester at an Ivy League college, well-equipped with $175 glacial sunglasses, $200 raincoats, $250 hiking boots, $300 backpacks, $600 binoculars, $2,000 camera outfits, complete with Daddy’s American Express card for the trip home via Rome, Paris, or wherever our whim took us. We were so decked out that I felt like an actor in a Chevy Chase comedy, but hardly anyone put on airs about all the regalia. It isn’t characteristic of those in the environmental stream of things to let on just how well off they really are — well off in the sense of never having to struggle to survive, well off the path of sweating just to make it.
The purpose of the expedition was to form us into conscientious users, educators, and enthusiasts of the great outdoors without marring it. Our major topic of discussion on the three-month trip was the beautiful but needy environment, and its opposite, the greedy capitalists who were working to destroy it. “When we graduate from college,” so the theme ran, “we’re not going into business and just make money. We are going to help people!”
But it was a fantasy, pure fantasy. With few exceptions we had been raised totally isolated from the grim experiences of most of the world’s populations, that life in general and survival in particular was a tough proposition involving hard choices. For most people, life meant suffering through certain things, not avoiding suffering at all cost as we did. Contemptuously viewing industry as cheap giveaways of the earth’s beauty, we were ourselves without any foundation to have compassion on those to whom life had assigned a tougher path. Where, oh where, did we think the money was coming from to support our little jaunt?
For the most part we were walking moral disasters, blindly striking out at what we perceived to be the devastators of an earth we claimed to care about. Not that the pillaging of the environment for the sake of gain was justifiable, but would the earth really be in any better shape if we were in control? Without a doubt, we thought so, yet our relationships with each other were pure hell. We were too selfish to produce anything of value to others, but were well-trained in spending what had been stored up, the very sin we accused those hated capitalists of doing.
Yes, we thought we’d do something about the tormented ecology by condemning, the very system that afforded us the economic advantage to enjoy the luxury of traveling halfway around the world, far removed from society’s ills. After all, when we graduated we were going to “help people,” yet for right now we could only live the way we did by living off of the cream produced by industrialism. With few if any exceptions, Daddy derived his wealth from the modern industrial flow, and we financed our trip from his private well — even smug little me.