Like an unlocked museum, national parks have been left largely defenseless during the most recent government shutdown, allowing scoundrels and cheats to tramp over unstaffed lands.
While much of the federal government is funded during the longest-ever shutdown, the national parks aren’t. Yet in 2018, the Trump administration made the unusual — and possibly illegal — decision to keep many of the nation’s crown jewels operating with skeleton crews.
Destruction, mounds of litter, and vandalism have ensued. This unsavory form of recreation has been especially stark in Joshua Tree National Park, where people cut through locked gates, created roads on protected wild land, and may have committed a bona fide desert sin: chopping down a Joshua tree.
“If they really are a full-fledged asshole, there’s not too much hope.”
But why would anyone exploit such vulnerable national resources for selfish motives, faux perceptions of power, or bizarre satisfaction?
“It’s not only that they knew they wouldn’t get caught, but they take delight in the destruction of the place,” says Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine and author of the book Assholes: A Theory.
James does note that it’s unknown who exactly drove into Joshua Tree, chose to deface the park and plop their tents down on long-protected land. But there’s potential, he says, that some of the culprits were younger.
“Maybe they’re just teenagers going through an asshole phase,” said James.”You don’t know if they’re proper assholes.”
What makes an asshole? From James’ studies on the topic, they are rational adults who allow themselves to “enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes [them] against the complaints of other people.”
This stubborn subset of people may be resistant to changing their ingrained, entitled behavior.
“If they really are a full-fledged asshole, there’s not too much hope,” says James.
“It’s a fundamental split in the philosophy of people,” says Christoph Adami, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University who conducted research illustrating that selfish behavior among humans is not evolutionarily sustainable, but rather a long-term detriment.
Despite that, people act selfishly. This is because, in the short term, selfishness can be a valuable tactic. It could mean getting to off-road and camp in forbidden places or the visceral anti-regulation joy of “sticking it to the government.” Beyond parks, it could mean reaping big financial gain, at the expense of others.
“The selfish strategy will win over the short-term,” said Adami. “Absent certain forms of punishment, this is the rational and correct strategy.”
Selfish behavior eventually loses out to longer-term cooperation, emphasizes Adami. Yet, punishment is the only thing that will stop a certain subset of people who cheat the system.
“If cheaters aren’t being punished, they ruin it for everybody,” says Adami.
But in shutdown-vulnerable national parks with few rangers, people recognize that they either won’t be punished for acting selfishly, or they won’t be caught.
And in today’s polarized-America, this behavior is further stoked by political passions.
“A larger political environment can encourage assholery,” notes James.
Take the anti-government sentiment that’s wafting through the country. “The mistreating, exploiting, and vandalizing of national parks during the government shutdown is of a piece with the anti-government sentiment that helped propel the election of Donald Trump as president,” says Richard Grusin, the director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“It seems like they are attacking nature, but they are attacking an ideology of government,” adds Grusin, the author of Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks.
National parks, places for all Americans, “grew out of an expression of socialism, or democratic socialism,” explains Grusin. These were grand parks for everyone. “Public use and recreation was more important than private profit and development.”
But the Trump administration has successfully reversed course. They are actively promoting development at the expense of protected lands. And Grusin suspects Trump’s base is feeding off the same anti-government, anti-regulation sentiments. He cites the Bundy ranchers armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor center in 2016.
“You have a kind of radical antigovernment individualism,” says Grusin.
Adami, who suspects that most of the national park vandals are Trump supporters, likens the issue to the public’s perception of global warming: One in three Americans don’t accept government scientists’ repeated warnings about the detrimental societal consequences of a globally disrupted climate.
“They don’t really care,” Adami says, noting that they take a purposefully contrarian attitude. “This type of ‘I don’t care about others’ attitude is the type being promulgated by this [Trumpian] politics.”
It’s unknown what percentage of the U.S. population fits James’ “asshole” designation, or Adami’s natural born “cheater” classification. Regardless, the largely unwatched national parks have enabled them.
“This opens the floodgates for a small percentage of people,” says Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health.
This selfish or destructive behavior is a release from their primal instincts, the “Id” or impulsive, biological parts of our personality, as Freud described it, notes Klapow. In the case of national parks, it’s allowed this unpleasant, illegal behavior to emerge even though the perpetrators know it’s wrong.
“A larger political environment can encourage assholery.”
“It’s our less civilized selves,” says Klapow.
To guard against uncivil behavior or persons, the future of the parks is heavily dependent upon the the continued watchful eyes of the people who are invested in conservation, like park rangers and staff. Jon Jarvis, the former chief of the Park Service, has emphasized that the parks shouldn’t be open at all during a shutdown — in part because of bad actors.
“The existence of a punishing body is absolutely essential,” says Adami.
But there hasn’t been enough park staff around to stop them.
“They feel licensed to do it,” says James.