Opinion » Alta States

The art of mountain living

Knowing when to say enough

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"Maintaining the national park system is almost the only nice, decent, friendly thing the Federal Government does for ordinary people."

– Writer and self-proclaimed 'redneck ecologist' Edward Abbey

I've been reading a lot of stuff of late about how fast our planet's wild places are disappearing. Old stuff. New stuff. Provocative stuff. Alarming stuff. And from all sorts of sources too. From environmental outlaw Edward Abbey to Buddhist monk (and former physicist) Matthieu Richard; from Nobel laureate Octavio Paz to B.C. poet Robert Bringhurst. And no matter the source — from the most obscure to the most mainstream — a consensus of sorts is forming on the subject.

Whether it's an anthropologist decrying the ongoing genocide of indigenous tribes in the Amazon or a biologist opposing the proliferation of oil pipelines across our northwest frontier, the message is becoming increasingly clear. Our wild places are threatened like never before. Time for a paradigm shift. The world isn't ours to plunder freely anymore.

As British Columbia's own Wade Davis puts it: "To define perpetual growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic well-being is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide."

Think about that statement for a moment. And then think about the person who wrote those words. A man who has visited more of the planet's wild places than almost any other living being — an ethnobotanist, philosopher and cultural activist (as well as being National Geographic's current explorer-in-residence), Davis is deeply concerned with modern man's still-cavalier view of Earth. How can it be, he asks, "that the cost of destroying a natural asset, or its inherent worth if left intact, has no metric in the economic calculations that support the industrialization of the wild?"

I know. I know. It sounds totally counter-intuitive. I mean, our whole belief system in the west is based on the idea that the natural world is ours for the plucking. Alas, we're slowly discovering that human greed has no limit. And being the destructively-efficient parasites we are, the risk of us chewing our living host to death is disturbingly high.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the planet's former wild places.

Consider the Whistler Valley. Virtually untouched by the hand of western civilization as recently as 1912, the Sea to Sky corridor was despoiled twice in the intervening century. First by loggers who plucked the valley of its green riches — they say Alta Lake in the early 1950s was a sad-looking, desolate site — and then by real estate developers who moved in and transformed this former wild place into a mountain shopping mall.

Did Whistler really need to develop beds for 60,000 guests to become a vibrant, viable mountain community? Or would 30,000 have worked just as well? Did the decision to raise the bed-base ceiling at Whistler reflect the hopes and aspirations of the people living here in the 1980s? Or was it driven by outside investors who didn't have to face the long-term consequences of their actions?

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