I have a confession to make. Most of my friends and family already know about my problem, but it’s time to make a public admission.
I have GAS. Boy, do I have GAS sometimes. Silent but deadly.
GAS stands for “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” and it means that you have an obsessive relationship with certain categories of material objects. For me, it’s outdoor clothing, fishing equipment, and photography gear. I revel in baffle designs and Gore-Tex, corrosion-resistant ball bearings and saltwater plastics, constant-aperture lenses and weather-sealed cameras. Having GAS doesn’t just mean you like the gear itself; it also means that you inhabit a whole world of other GASsy tendencies. Common symptoms of GAS include placing items in an online shopping cart and leaving them for several days, forgetting you’ve ordered something on Amazon, reading internet forums deep into the night, and watching unboxing videos.
For environmentalists, though, Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a complicated affliction. Can you have GAS and at the same time claim to care for the planet? What makes GAS superior to “normal” consumerism, we sufferers imagine, is its connoisseurship: it’s about being intelligent and selective about buying all the things. Isn’t a flawlessly-constructed $400 jacket a manifestation of commitment to one’s environmental concern, a deadly-earnest means of inhabiting the natural world no matter the weather?
Such excuses are, of course, part of the syndrome. This post is going up on Black Friday—that dark pinnacle of the shopping year that has actually resulted in shootings—not merely to be funny, but because GAS is an index of the way that consumerism sneaks into all corners of the American culture and psyche. In what follows, two of my esteemed CHE colleagues weigh in on the problem of GAS. PhD candidate Rachel Gross takes a historical perspective, teaching us how to read outdoor clothing catalogs and how to discern the temptations they offer us, but also the desires we bring to them. In Professor Richard C. Keller’s essay, we learn of the irresistible draw of old bicycles—and the complex “environmentalist” excuses that enable their acquisition.
How to Read an Outdoor Catalog
For many consumers, outdoor adventures begin with the search for new equipment in the latest Patagonia or REI catalog. Some of us request catalogs because we are searching for a particular tent or sleeping bag and want to see our options. Others page through longingly in the off-season, imagining new gear to make their packs lighter. Here, as I offer some strategies for “how to read a catalog,” I don’t mean to tell you what to grab from your mail stack or how to sit on the couch and read. You already know how to turn pages—and when to toss a catalog in the recycling bin.
Below you’ll find some of the myths and messages that advertisers rely on to attract consumers. Perhaps you will also begin to recognize some of the desires you bring to the catalogs. Catalogs tell us stories if we know how to look for them. While I focus here on outdoor clothing and equipment company catalogs from the last 50 years or so, the questions I pose are relevant to other catalogs that might grace your doorsteps, from home furnishings to grocery ads. Americans spend more than $600 billion per year on outdoor clothing gear, and catalogs play a crucial role in stimulating that spending.
Judge a Catalog by its Cover
Outdoor catalog covers often feature climbers, skiers, or campers dwarfed by the grandeur of mountains or desert scenes. At times, the human element (and the gear being sold) is hardly visible at all.
This Early Winters cover from 1982 shows a grand western U.S. desert landscape that dwarfs the tent and humans in the scrub in the foreground of the image. Indeed, the warm hues of the earth render the figures and their tent hardly visible amidst the vast landscape. Yet even as the landscape takes center stage, the very scale of the image generalizes the human figures so that they might be any catalog readers who chose to vacation there. And readers knew that even if they couldn’t make it to the Utah deserts, they might still like to go camping.
By contrast, the REI cover from 1964 features a well-known mountaineer of the day on the summit of Mount Everest: REI sales manager Jim Whittaker. As part of the American Everest Expedition of 1963, Whittaker was the first American to climb the world’s highest peak. Unlike the anonymous figures on the Early Winters cover, Jim Whittaker is the consummate insider/expert. REI’s customers knew that they would likely never attain heights like Whittaker’s, but the image graced the cover of REI because of his role within the company and also because of his success as a mountaineer. Much like the climber on the 2014 Patagonia cover, Whittaker serves as an idealized model for what outdoor people could be.
A is for Air Mattress
Catalogs help us imagine the outdoor experience. The fewer the illustrations, the more readers have to use their imaginations to see the gear on bodies and in landscapes.
In the 1930s and 40s, outdoor company goods fit on a postcard the size of a hand. By the 60s, as this REI catalog shows, limited black and white photography and alphabetical organization—B is for bags and books—helped readers navigate the product offerings.
In the early 80s, outdoor catalogs used color photographs for most items listed in a catalog—alphabetical organization of product lists was rare. Only in the most recent two decades have catalogs put multiple products into a staged scene, where everything the model is wearing, from jacket and pants to boots and accessories, is for sale. In this image from a 2013 Patagonia catalog, for instance, the reader no longer has to imagine how a rain jacket might be used. The photograph of two surfers shows a Torrentshell Jacket at work in the rain. The bag and surfboard are also Patagonia products for sale elsewhere. This is a far more curated image, where the company rather than the reader sets the scene.
You may be the person we’re looking for…
Do you want to be a model in an outdoor catalog? Are you between 21 and 70, in good health, and of medium build? In the early 80s, outdoor companies like Early Winters turned to its readers to recruit models. The chosen few spent one to two weeks on site at a photo shoot on Catalina Island or the North Cascades.
When catalogs select models, they send a message about who participates in outdoor sports. In an effort to distinguish their catalogs from more fashion-oriented catalogs, outdoor companies often emphasized that they did not use professional models. Early Winters hoped readers would see the men and women who donned striped rugby shirts and posed in sleeping bags as similar to themselves. In the 1960s, for example, as outdoor companies began to carry more women’s clothing, female models appeared in catalog illustrations and photographs. Beginning the late 1970s, some catalogs included token minority models that belied the almost exclusively white recreational spaces that the catalogs celebrated.
The questions are different in 2014. Want to be in a Patagonia catalog? Patagonia ambassadors—sponsored athletes who appear in catalogs and create content for the company—are expert snowboarders, surfers, or mountain climbers. Rather than suggest that the people in the catalogs are just like you, the images often take the models and gear to its most extreme: first ascents of mountains, climbing in the dark, foreign travel. Buy this gear, the beautiful photographs suggest, and keep on dreaming that someday you will be here.
Where is nature?
What does nature look like… a desert? Mountains? Water? Are there humans in nature?
The Early Winters catalog from 1983, which shows two people hiking past an alpine lake, immediately suggests that the gear it sells is appropriate for such a landscape. But as we linger on the image, we should also consider other implications. Is the nature depicted idyllic or threatening—and is the gear therefore intended for enjoyment or survival? Are the natural landscapes consistent throughout the catalog?
In the 1970s, companies shifted toward including recognizably natural backgrounds over studio or indoor backgrounds. In the 1964 catalog image from REI shown above, the sweaters for sale remained outside the frame of James Whittaker’s photograph of the “Trail Into High Country of Everest.” Within a few years, rather than waiting for famous mountaineers to give them images, outdoor companies began to head into the high country for catalog photo shoots. In the Early Winters catalog cover, for example, the idyllic snowcapped mountain and an alpine lake hint at what buying an Early Winters fishermen’s sweater and quilted vest would allow customers to experience.
Compare these older images with two recent ones from REI and Patagonia. What receives a more prominent billing: the natural landscape or the jackets?
Asking questions about models or nature in outdoor catalogs doesn’t prevent Gear Acquisition Syndrome, of course. But the more readers recognize the stories outdoor companies are trying to sell, the better readers understand how their choices are never just about gear.
Straight to Hell at No More than 15 Miles per Hour
Richard C. Keller
It’s probably safe to say that most environmental historians generally frown on excessive consumption. After all, the mindless consumption of so many things that we don’t need is at the root of environmental crisis: the harmful extraction of resources, excessive carbon output in both manufacturing and transportation of goods to global markets, the disposal of packaging that resists degradation or recycling. But there’s an important loophole in this contempt for consumption. If there’s one thing that environmentalists from a certain social class enjoy more than sustainability, it’s outdoor activity—especially, it seems, outdoor activity that’s gear intensive.
I witnessed this directly when traveling in Colorado this summer. In Boulder and Crested Butte, I saw person after person who almost certainly had no retirement plan, but was dressed head-to-toe in North Face, Prana, or Arc’teryx clothing, astride a brand-new $5000 mountain bike—or, more often, in a battered Subaru containing at least one Lab/Husky mix named “Loki” and with three or four such bikes on the roof rack. It appears that if there’s one thing an environmentalist wants more than climate stabilization, it’s pages 42-64 of the latest Patagonia catalog. (Okay, maybe they’d prefer to be featured hanging from a frozen waterfall in a photo in that Patagonia catalog.)
But while I don’t have much enthusiasm for many outdoor activities—if I’m lucky I’ll never go camping again—I’m not immune to one particular strain of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Indeed, I’m just about ready to admit that I have a problem. I am powerless over bicycles, and my life is beginning to become unmanageable because of it. There is a rule among cyclists about the correct number of bicycles to own. That number is n+1, where n is the number currently in one’s possession. There are metrics available to help you determine whether you need another bike or not. (Hint: yes.)
There are lots of reasons why cyclists think it’s okay to purchase bike after bike after bike. Some of them are activity-driven: one really needs specialized bikes for all sorts of different purposes. Many cyclists justify such collections in explicitly environmentalist terms. Did you know that you can store fifteen bicycles in the same space as one car? Did you know that you can buy more than a dozen high-end bicycles for the same amount as a Prius? Did you know that riding a bike is better for the environment than driving a car?
Of course, riding a bicycle consumes fewer resources and produces less carbon than driving. Of course, the manufacture of bicycles is less resource-intensive than car production. But I’m convinced that these are justifications—which come with more than a bit of smugness—that allow for the indulgence of wanton consumerism while simultaneously assuaging guilt.
For one thing, is cycling really that environmentally friendly? Most charity rides involve “driving to the ride”: getting in a car and driving for fifty or more miles to an idyllic rural location to begin a tour. There’s also the ephemerality of much cycling consumption. How many buy a new bike for commuting to work, only to give up on the first rainy day? Where road bikes are concerned, every year brings a new consumer arms race of unsustainable and disposable materials that’s fueled by hairy-legged weekend warriors who are convinced that shaving a few grams from their rides—rather than a dozen pounds from their waistlines—is all that stands between them and cycling greatness. Mountain biking is even worse. Twenty-five years ago, I thought of mountain biking as a way to get off the road and into a secluded environment. Now, it’s a form of ecocide that makes downhill skiing look benign in its reconstruction of alpine landscapes.
My particular form of cycling overconsumption comes in the smuggest possible variety. I haven’t bought a new bike from a shop in well over ten years. Instead, I’ve become a salvager (okay, hoarder) of those forlorn abandoned bikes that are left curbside with signs that say “Free” on them. I’ve got a junkyard’s worth of steel, aluminum, and rubber in my garage and basement. Most of these I’ve refashioned and updated into highly customized bicycles that I could never hope to afford otherwise. I get to show the world how I’m saving it in not one, not two, but three ways: I’m riding rather than driving; I’m not fueling unsustainable consumption because I’m not buying these things new; and I’m saving something of great utility from a landfill. So I’m really doing the world a favor by owning a road bike, a gravel bike (sort of like a road bike, but for riding off-road), a mountain bike (because somehow that’s different from a gravel bike), a commuter (racks! Bags! I can ride it in normal clothes!), and a tandem (look—now we don’t have to drive on date nights!).
Of course what I’m really doing is engaging in a hobby that involves both buying and accumulating lots of stuff in a way that I can justify as harmless if I strain credulity enough. There’s also a healthy dose of nostalgia built into this collection. My bikes are artifacts of first-world industrial manufacturing, all made from steel in the United States, France, and Japan. I love the aesthetics of the lugged-steel construction on these bikes, which one can only find on semi-custom and very high-end bikes nowadays. And they just don’t make headbadges or decals like they used to.
Let me be clear that I have no illusions about bicycling saving the world. Sure, it’s better than driving, and cycling infrastructure will get more people to commute this way over short distances. But the reclamation of bicycles left for the landfill is really just another form of consumption—one that may even be worse than buying new. These restorations or recoveries always involve lots of purchases: they all need new tires, new handlebar tape, new saddles, and a number of other new components—maybe even new wheels. I try to find parts locally, but often wind up ordering them on-line (a result of trying to do it on the cheap, or because eBay’s the only source for something so obscure), so this endeavor may have a bigger carbon footprint than merely buying a whole new bike at a local shop—especially because doing it with used bikes lets me do it again, and again, and again.
For me, it’s gotten pretty bad. I’m having a hard time justifying more bikes, so now I’m trying to talk my wife and son into new projects. I’ve even rebuilt a bike for a friend’s kid. For now, at least, I think I’m all set. Although it would be fun to have a faster road bike—something Italian maybe. Or maybe a race-ready cyclocross bike. Or maybe I should build up that frame in my basement as a winter commuter with fenders and studded tires. That would save my other bikes from snow, ice, and road salt. I’ve got almost everything I need for the project—it would really just be practical. Really.
Featured Image: A couple hundred fishing flies. Photo and gear by Nathan Jandl.
Nathan Jandl serves as visual editor for Edge Effects and is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department, where he is writing a dissertation on the social roots of environmental attachment in 20th-century American literature and art. He also writes narrative nonfiction and takes photographs, both of which can be accessed via his website. Website. Contact.
Rachel Gross is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation, “From Buckskin to Gore-Tex: Consumption as a Path to Mastery in Twentieth-Century American Wilderness Recreation,” explores the cultural, intellectual, and environmental history of the outdoor gear industry. Website. Contact.
Professor Richard C. Keller is the advising faculty editor for Edge Effects. His research lies at the intersection of the history and ethnography of European and global health. His most recent book is Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which examines intersections of human and environmental vulnerability in the worst natural disaster in French history. Website. Contact.