I would like to think that I am a fairly considerate environmentalist. I try to eat local and organic as much as possible, I buy primarily used clothing and furniture, and up until the last few years I forwent owning a vehicle, electing instead to depend on public transit and my 1989 Diamondback bike as my sole modes of transportation. In my early twenties I even worked for the Utah Conservation Corps, which, at least in my mind, solidified my status as an exemplary conservationist.
A fallacy of the environmentalist culture though, is that access and appearance are the lone factors of the environmentalist identity. As I got older and my income allowed, I found myself delving deeper into this ‘outdoorsy’ lifestyle – opting for the latest gear to the best season passes for local ski areas. Your worthiness in a culture built on the pretenses of protecting our incredibly fragile natural world is measured in your ability to look the part and participate in growing extremes of what it means to connect with nature. Rather than hiking on worn trails in an old t-shirt and shorts, many prefer deep dives into the backcountry wilderness, clad in the latest overpriced sweat wicking technology and lightweight backpacking gear. Homemade GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts) has been swapped out for mass produced Clif Bars and cooking is exclusively done on Jetboils rather than small fires. The practice of LNT (leave not trace) seems to only apply to the physical wrappers we leave on the trail, and not the noise and light pollution we bring to the backcountry, nor the incredible amount of fossil fuels that are required in producing and transporting the endless list of modern “necessities” to the outdoorsy lifestyle.
While I worry about the consumerism of the outdoor industry that large chains like REI and Backcountry have made readily accessible and normalized, my deeper concern is the clear dialectic between the booming ski industry and environmentalism. Full disclosure: skiing is my bread and butter. I love it and live it six months of the year–the remaining six I spend daydreaming about it. The outdoor industry and culture has normalized consumerism as such a staple to being a good environmentalist that I rarely have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of evaluating the very real flaws of declaring my allegiance to protecting our natural lands while then spending my weekends on the side of a clear-cut mountain drinking imported alcohol, and skiing manmade snow on this year’s latest K2’s. If I’m really feeling the vibe, I might even post a photo on Instagram of myself enjoying mother nature’s incredible views while riding a chairlift powered by non-renewable energies. The irony is not lost on me; I just rarely pay attention to it.
Skiing was once an innocuous hobby of moving through the pristine backcountry on rudimentary equipment that only required an adventurous spirit and little money. Nowadays, it acts as a means of social stratus – separating the haves and have nots, and is a hallmark of an elite class that can literally afford to destroy the environment for pleasure. Despite growing alarm of climate change’s impact on the ski industry, a Bolivian resort just closed in 2009 due to melting ice caps (National Snow and Ice Data Center), the industry continues to push forward, requiring little question on the part of the consumer in determining if it’s time to relent and put the emphasis back on the environmental toll of our hobby instead of the desires of the predominately white upper and upper middle class. As our winters become warmer, our snow packs melt, creating shorter natural ski seasons. As a result, many resorts find themselves making snow through an energy and water intensive process at the beginning of the fall just to open with minimal pack by the anticipated opening date. Rather than address the larger problem causing warmer winters, ski areas are attempting to fix a terminal problem with hopes and prayers.
I don’t have an answer to the flawed relationship environmentalist have with outdoor consumerism, and the degradation of our wild lands by the very interest groups who claim to protect them. I do however believe that as a flawed environmentalist and skier myself, the first step to finding an answer is to listen and pay attention. Continuing to live in this cognitive dissonance is no longer working for me. While I do not intend to give up skiing, I do want to be more conscious of my impact and get involved in the conversations around ecological efforts to slow the damage and protect our crucial snow packs.
For those interested in getting involved as well, I recommend checking out these great organizations: Protect Our Winters (POW), and Climate Progress. And of course, let your legislators know that climate change and responsible land-use matters to you. You can find their record on environmental voting by checking out Better Utah’s 2019 Progress Report.