Skiing is arguably one of our oldest forms of transportation, well established in recorded history across the globe. Well, anywhere with substantial snowfall. But as a recreational sport, it has only come into its own over the last 140 years, since railroads provided a means of getting large numbers of people up into the mountains. And the real commercialization of the sport, predictably begun in the United States, really only began after the Second World War. A combination of large mining and lumber investors looking for new opportunities, the ongoing influence of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, and a ten-thousand strong contingent of highly trained skiers, war veterans of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division who had been trained to fight in the snow and now wanted to turn their military training into civilian employment. Finally, developers of the Sun Valley resort were the first to really see the money that could be made in the whole tourist arena surrounding the sport itself, by creating a resort with all manner of entertainment. The activity of skiing was just the gateway.
We live in a modest ski area ourselves, just ten minutes from the nearest lift. The real stuff is across Lake Geneva from us – the Alps. In some areas, the ski industry accounts for 60% of all local income. Throughout much of the Alps, the ski industry attracts many locals, but 50% of the business is from foreigners. Most national ski industries, however, are overwhelmingly domestic in their appeal. Foreign visitors only make up about 10% of U.S. ski tourism annually, a 6 billion dollar industry. And certainly from an employment standpoint, the ski industry is by and large a domestic industry.
It is no surprise that this industry is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.
A few days ago, German news broadcast a report of the difficulties facing the Vierschanzentournee (Four Hill Tournament) this year. The large ski jump competition, held in Garmisch-Patenkirchen, Germany, was facing the increasingly common bugaboo of the ski industry in many areas: not enough snow. There had been massive snow fall in early December, but much of that had melted, and new snowfall wasn’t forecast for a few more days. So, with the can-do cheerfulness of an old-timey newsreel, the report showed large numbers of local volunteers merrily shoveling snow from one area of a mountain onto trucks, which carried the snow to the competition location. Additionally, artificial snow-making machines were in continual use. Another example of human determination and positivity to get the job done.
Now, because I am me, my reflections on this were not particularly cheerful. The negativity train left the station at the thought that while emissions due to the use of fossil fuels are a large part of climate change, which is one reason ski resorts in many regions are suffering from a long-term decline in reliable snowfall, it is poignantly ironic that ski resorts utilize vehicles with gigantic carbon footprints to shovel what snow is on the ground from one place to another. The use of fresh water to manufacture snow (again, with heavy machinery) is another issue. Of course I understand the immediate economic implications of not taking action, but this seems almost egregious. I admire the spunkiness of the locals and organizers in Garmisch-Patenkirchen, and the tournament is reported to be a success, but there are larger issues at stake.
When we talk about sustainability – and there are many good initiatives underway to render the ski industry carbon neutral and sustainable – what we often mean is
this: Finding strategies to continue in the same fashion as we always have (or at least, for the past fifty years or so), while lowering the carbon output/water footprint/pollution/impact on biodiversity etc. on a given activity, be it skiing, driving, heating our homes, buying out-of-season produce.
And what I thought about when watching those lines of snow shovelers, some of them in their late 70s who said they had been volunteering every year for decades, was this: Sustainability, in some areas and in some industries, might mean choosing between the sustainability of our habits, likes and existing industry, and sustainability of global good. It might mean that all the employment, turnover, tourism and recreation offered by the activity of skiing on snow needs to be re-fitted – not to more sustainability of the skiing activity itself, but towards other activities that don’t require such paradoxical contortions. There might be some activities that are simply no longer feasible in their current configurations. Like bad habits, we might have to curtail our own indulgence in them.
But then, as you might have guessed by now, I am not a skier.