By Donella Meadows
–December 17, 1998–
A 17-year-old friend convinced me to take her to a ski store on a Saturday afternoon right before the supposed start of the supposed ski season. I guess it’s been 20 years since I was last in a ski store.
This one was a happy place, full of torchy colors and young, energetic people. It was packed, but my companion was blonde and tall and slim and beautiful, so three young, energetic salesmen buzzed right up to us.
During the next hour, as she questioned and pondered and tried on and rejected and enthused and racked up many bucks on her papa’s credit card, I absorbed the modern world of skiing.
“Are you an aggressive skier?” they asked, and when she said she liked to go really fast, they led her off to the aggressive skis, the aggressive boots, the aggressive bindings. These are made of supermetals and superplastics and superfabrics, bonded in layers with superglues. “Imagine all the toxics,” I thought. “And that layered stuff can never be recycled. And it will last in a landfill for a million years.”
I must have been the only person in the store with such thoughts. My companion had long conversations with the salesmen about shaped skis, cutting edges on sharp turns and what an extra quarter-inch of height in the bindings does for maneuverability. She picked out equipment of steel gray and flaming red.
I pondered, “What if all this care and design, this cleverness, these exotic materials, this money went to ending hunger? Or solar collectors? What if these great young people poured their boundless energy into reforestation or insulating the houses of the poor or at least the kind of skiing where you have to haul yourself to the top of the hill?”
I shared none of these dark thoughts with my bright friend. But all the next week, a week in December during which the temperature in New England hovered between 40 and 60 and the ski areas couldn’t even make artificial snow, all through that strangely balmy week I was in a bah! humbug! mood. “They load their pricey skis into their gas-guzzling vans,” I harrumphed to myself. “They drive to mountains covered with effluent from diesel-belching, stream-destroying snow guns. They use still more fossil fuel to pull themselves uphill so they can slide down. Then they’re surprised when global warming comes along.”
Finally I turned to some wise 23-year-olds for enlightenment. “Why is this high-tech, high-expense, high-emission kind of skiing fun?” I asked them. “Or, no, cancel that, I can see why it’s fun. But why isn’t cross-country skiing just as much fun? Or snowball fights or skating or snowshoeing or any of the less destructive ways to play outside in the winter?”
“Because they’re not In,” my friends explained patiently. “Because you can’t compare your flashy equipment with your friends’ flashy equipment. Because the good parties are on the ski slopes. Because no one sells designer clothes for snowshoeing. Because it’s fun to go really fast.”
I listened, and then I dug out my copy of Brave New World (written in 1932 by Aldous Huxley) and found the place where the Director of Hatcheries describes why his society programs children to hate nature.
“‘Primroses and landscapes,’ he pointed out, ‘have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature … but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it. The problem was to find an economically sounder reason for consuming transport than a mere affection for primroses and landscapes. It was duly found.’”
“‘We condition the masses to hate the country,’ concluded the Director. ‘But, simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport….’”
Old Aldous got our number 66 years ago, didn’t he? But he did not foresee the possibility of environmental backlash.
It’s easy to label environmentalists as anti-fun grinches. It would be easy to label my young friend as shallow or gullible. Neither she nor I deserve those labels. There is nothing I want more for her than that she should have fun. And she would never deliberately hurt other people or the earth. She is just doing what I did when I was 17, going out with friends, having fun. In my day we had lots of fun without much in the way of fossil fuel, fancy equipment, or credit cards. But the economy had not yet perfected the art of conditioning us to buy elaborate apparatus and consume transport.
She’s not to blame. If blame is useful here, it should be directed toward an amorphous system that charges her papa a high price, but gives neither him nor her any sense of real, full costs.
And I’m not a killjoy. I’ve just been educated to see the whole system, to see how those real, full costs fall upon the air and the waters and the land and the climate in ways that will ruin the very fun that is causing the damage in the first place. And I’m old enough to know that there are far less costly, far more sustainable kinds of joy and fun.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998