Editor’s note: This is definitely a different type of story. Call it a conceptual montage.
In February, the New York Times ran a lengthy opinion piece, replete with color photos (including one of Aspen), titled, “Why Can’t Rich People Save Winter,” by Porter Fox, ex-features editor at Powder magazine and author of “Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow.”
Fox’s piece was subtitled, “Ski season is shrinking. Yet the people who love the sport aren’t doing enough to stop climate change.”
Members of the “winter sports community” are, according to Fox, “a passionate population more than 24 million strong that includes some of the nation’s most affluent and influential citizens. Of the 14.7 million skiers in this country, 67 percent attended college and more than half earn more than $75,000 a year.”
Fox then writes, “In Aspen and its surrounding environs, nearly 50 billionaires have homes.”
His thesis is, with that much money and that much clout, people who recreate in the increasingly diminishing winter wonderlands of the world ought to have a vested interest in aggressively combating climate change and the fiscal and political wherewithal to do just that.
Fox then runs through a long list of ways that the ski industry and its various devotees are doing exactly the opposite: nothing, or at least not nearly enough.
Fox’s sources include Mario Molina, executive director of the nonprofit group Protect Our Winters (POW), Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of Western Resource Advocates, Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries, Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association and, toward the end, the only person quoted in the piece who is directly employed by a ski area: Basalt Town Council member Auden Schendler, who was interviewed in his capacity as vice president for sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company, board member of POW and author of the book, “Getting Green Done.”
Fox’s opinion piece garnered almost 600 responses, which is borderline astonishing. His words obviously struck a chord with the Times’ readership. Those comments covered the gamut from predictable “eat-the-rich” fist-shaking to contentions that climate science is pure bunk to poetic recollections of the way skiing “used to be” to admonitions that people forgo chairlifts in favor of skinning their way up ski runs to well-articulated observations about the perceived hypocrisy of the entire winter-sports industry.
Given his undeniable standing in that industry, we thought it might be illuminating to get Schendler to respond to a cherry-picked handful of the most locally applicable comments appearing in response to Fox’s story.
(As previously stated, this is definitely a different type of story.)
Schendler asked to make “one overreaching comment that addresses most of the online criticism” associated with Fox’s opinion column.
We will commence with that.
“The most pervasive and damaging myth now dominating the climate conversation is the idea that the fix has to do with how we behave as individuals outside the political arena. Climate is a giant-scale global math problem influenced by public policy and power structures, not what you had for breakfast. We shouldn’t be duped into blaming ourselves. (And, at the same time, we shouldn’t stop changing light bulbs and taking the bus; but we need to recognize these actions as our obligations as citizens, not as climate solutions.)
“The idea that the climate crisis is about me and you is a distraction, one the fossil fuel industry welcomes. And the comments below confirm that they have won the battle. We widely blame individuals instead of the corporations and paid politicians that nurtured and maintained a fossil economy by hiding science, maintaining subsidies and obstructing progress, all so that they could monetize every last drop of oil, every last chunk of coal. This approach also neatly ensures that entities with power and access to it, like Aspen Skiing Co., that can actually drive change, are mercilessly criticized as hypocrites and frequently neutered as a result. This is in large part what has prevented widespread political climate action from the corporate sector, and it’s certainly why large and influential publicly traded resorts like Vail are mostly silent on climate policy and instead have focused on cutting their own carbon footprint.
“Yes, yes, Aspen uses a ton of energy and people fly here. Get over it. The whole first world uses vast amounts of energy to do virtually everything, and depends on transportation for commerce and lifestyle. We need to fix that in its entirety, not simply in one small instance. And the way to do so is not to say ‘we’re all guilty,’ and therefore to give ExxonMobil a pass, but to wield power for systemic change. So we do have personal responsibility: but it’s to be participatory citizens. At Aspen Skiing Co., we don’t care if you call us hypocrites. The ski industry has an obligation to engage in aggressive political activism around climate because we are affected by it and because we can make a difference. The place to wield and access power is in the very wealthy, jet-flying and champagne-spraying enclaves so many detest, and from a popular but consumptive industry that has huge media appeal and influence. Ironies abound, but so does meaningful work.”
Now, on to the responses (lightly edited) to Fox’s column and Schendler’s responses to those responses.
Reader, Southbury, Conn.: We all live in a state of denial. I stopped skiing a few years ago. Although mounting injuries and the increasing cost of the sport were significant factors, I was most motivated by the environmental impacts of skiing. The destruction of forest, often on national forest property, the heavy consumption of water, and overall urbanization and pollution of mountain valleys were costs that became unacceptable to me. That so many skiers fail to see or fail to care about these undeniable facts shows me that it is no surprise that neither skiers nor the resorts address climate change seriously.
Schendler: The ski industry has huge and far-reaching impacts. Even forgetting obvious problems like energy and water use and industrialized public lands, think about housing scarcity and sprawl, and resulting traffic, largely our fault but rarely considered. Agreed: nobody is taking the climate threat seriously enough.
J.M., Massachusetts: Have you ever seen a vehicle with ski racks/Yakima boxes that is not a behemoth, gas-guzzling SUV or pick-up? This in itself is part of the problem. The sight alone of the carved-out slopes on a mountain's face is environmentally questionable. Skiing is a dying activity here in the U.S. Good riddance.
Schendler: Well, the science would agree that skiing is dying, not just in the U.S. But good riddance? I’m not quite there yet, but I could get there with additional therapy.
R.A., Toronto: Please. Global warming is not going to be stopped by skiers. And global warming is itself just a part of the wholesale changes effected by human planetary domination, including massive resource extraction, fishing out the oceans, burning rainforests and eradicating any number of species. In 40 years, there will be around 40 percent more people on the planet and the human juggernaut will be even bigger. There is a massive gulf between the palliative measures of (fake) carbon sustainability and what really needs to be done.
Schendler: I don’t think climate change will be stopped by skiers, at least if that means skiers buying Priuses. But by becoming a political force? Maybe. The big changes we need can only happen through a peaceful political revolution. What if the outdoor industry could wield power in Washington like the NRA? It’s bigger, probably tougher, certainly healthier and maybe crazier. Couldn’t the revolution start here?
Ludwig, New York state: While children are dying in Yemen, you are worrying about snow on ski slopes?
Schendler: Wake the hell up man! Climate change — which is hammering ski slopes — has also been tied to conflicts in the Middle East. But people in Yemen, they don’t have power. Guys with jets have power. Ski resorts that get covered in the Times have power. That’s where levers of change exist.
Clifford Edwards, Vail, Colo.: Skiing is a lifestyle choice for me and many of my peers who moved to Vail to work and ski. In the ’70s, we were called ski bums. Today, more and more people are coming here to live and work and raise their children. Our homes are here and our livelihoods depend on our guests coming here to enjoy skiing and the beauty and natural wonders of the mountains all year long. You can go on and on about the “rich people” ruining everything, but this is a tourist economy that depends on people coming here for all four seasons.
In the summer we depend on water that runs off the mountains into our rivers to support rafting and fishing. Our wildlife depends on water and a positive climate as well. We are not safe from wildfires if we don’t have snow and the forest becomes dry. We need water of course for our everyday lives.
Please stop the blame game and get out and vote. Vote for the people who care about the mountains and the lifestyle that so many Coloradans enjoy and the people that visit here enjoy and love. My parents gave me the gift of skiing and I chose to raise my children here. I can only hope that my grandchildren receive that same gift and pass it on to future generations. Climate change is real, but we as a country can work to fix it. It’s not just for the ski industry. It’s for all Americans who like to be outside and for all the future generations. Vote for politicians who want to help this cause.
Schendler: I hereby hand over my responsibilities to Clifford Edwards.
Richard Parrise, Cleveland, Ohio: Actually, the ski season is being extended throughout the U.S. Don’t let facts get in the way, though.
Schendler: Colorado has lost more than a month of winter since 1940, and we’re 2 degrees F. warmer, according the Aspen Global Change Institute. That’s all just based on records. Last year, there weren’t even ski seasons in some places in the U.S.
Karen Beck, Danville, Calif.: Ski resort owners are more interested in selling giant homes around the resorts — skiing is an afterthought. They just need snow long enough to sell off their giant homes. After that, the poor suckers who bought them will be left holding the bag without winter sports.
Schendler: Most American ski resorts, including ours, make money through lift ticket sales. Supplemented by ski school and food-and-beverage revenue and sometimes hotel room revenue. Not real estate sales.
Lou Good, Page, Ariz.: Downhill skiing is hardly a green sport and never has been. From resorts in beautiful places used as tax havens such as Jackson, Wyo., with rarely-used huge houses like the Cheney's surrounded by endless fencing that blocks wildlife movements to both Sun and Deer valleys owned by the Holding family, whose fortune comes from Sinclair Petroleum. All on federal land on sweetheart long-term leases. That’s just a couple. Looking for movement or leadership on climate change? Look elsewhere. Because the customers and ski bums really don’t count, just the 1-percent resort owners and the gutless federal government.
Schendler: Wait, nobody ever said this was a green sport. But attacking Cheney? I’m in. Don’t think that he, or others, however, are gutless, so much as “owned.” Typically the way to move the 1 percent is to mobilize the 99 percent where the 1 percent congregate.
Christy, Washington: I used to live within an hour's drive of Colorado ski resorts. I used to ski. But I gave up skiing when the soaring price of lift tickets combined with five-hour traffic jams on the I-70 drive home became unbearable. All those idling exhaust fumes contribute to global warming and shrinking snowpacks that so distress the likes of Mr. Fox.
Schendler: Hopefully this writer didn’t stop with stopping. Did she then join the movement to stop climate change through activism and citizenship, and create solutions to the traffic and the fumes that go beyond her own actions? Start by joining Protect Our Winters.
Miguel, Silverdale, Wash.: The irony and tone-deafness of this article are the root of the problem. What about the responsibility of the skiers? Transportation, lodging and consumption are the main problem. When will trains be developed to transport people to all the Colorado resorts or California/Nevada resorts? How many SUVs does it take to transport families up to their 4,000-square-foot homes for a weekend? I’ve skied all my life. I’ve watched resorts like Vail, Mammoth and Squaw devour land and resources. And people mindlessly take part in it. Maybe the solution is to make everyone skin up miles away from a resort and carry in their own supplies. The resorts won’t make any money, but at least those that come worked to get there.
Schendler: As someone who is irony-scarred and often tone-deaf, I resemble these comments. Like the author, I have also “skied all my life … [and] mindlessly take part in it.” But this seems like another vague diatribe blaming individuals, missing the whole structural problem (Listen to the podcast “Drilled!”), and presenting an utterly unenforceable solution. This guy should work in government, or my office.
Anthony Effinger, Portland, Ore.: I grew up at Copper Mountain, Colo., and every time I go home, I marvel at all the Escalades, Tahoes and Tundras idling outside the new Whole Foods in Frisco. If anyone should know better than to flagrantly burn carbon, it should be skiers, and they can afford not to. Every little bit helps. Use your carbon budget for things that have no alternative, like flying (yet). On the ground, get a hybrid.
Schendler: Only problem, and I hate to be heretical: but every little bit does not help anymore, given this problem. If you think it does, you’re failing global math class. Just fly into any major city and look around to understand what we’re dealing with. We’ve got 10 years to restructure the global energy system. Your local beet salad does not matter. Instead, wield power where you can find it.
Evan, Brooklyn: It’s a shame you didn’t mention the rise in human-powered backcountry skiing/riding in this article, especially because of your contact with POW. A growing portion of the hardcore snow people are ditching lifts/snow machines/snow cats/helicopters in exchange for walking up the mountain with specialized equipment. The main motivations are obviously superior snow quality, solitude and exercise, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a single AT skier or splitboarder who doesn’t take pride in their personal carbon footprint reduction because of their non-traditional mountain travel.
Schendler: These are God’s children. But if they don’t vote, if they don’t march, and if they don’t push on business to be better, they’ll end up in the same hotbox with the rest of us, but a bit fitter and happier and more enlightened. (Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad … ) That’s the whole point of POW — to make revolutionaries out of the dirtbags, to turn passion into purpose.
M.R.F., Davis, Calif.: Maybe some backcountry skiers are going to be sensitive to the ongoing effects of climate change, but the average resort skier doesn’t ring any bells in my mind in regards to the environmental issues leading to the reduced snowpack. The sport isn’t the quaint, rigorous discipline that puts the average person against the implacable forces of nature. It’s a commoditized product for bored city types. The vast majority of skiers out there are mediocre in fitness, skills, outdoor experience, etc., etc. They get there in gigantic SUVs with all-wheel-drive or fly. The corporate owners now are increasingly foreign entities with vast sovereign wealth from what .... yup, sale of fossil fuel. Don’t worry about the super-rich access to deep snowpack. The lucky few are already buying mountains with some likelihood of 20-plus years or more of snowpack. The rest … let them ski on cake.
Schendler: This post sells short all the badass ski bums, community members and resort employees, 95 percent of whom put me to shame on the slopes and in the simplicity of their lifestyle. The sport has a deep soul, and a new generation of skiers and riders is making sure of that. I find some hope there. As for corporate ownership, it’s true that there are big conglomerates, but of those, none is dominated by fossil fuels wealth. (Sun Valley and Jackson are privately held.) Though it’s true that fossil influence is pervasive anyway.