Sustainability: Is the Mount Everest gridlock a metaphor for our planet?

The pictures that emerged this past week of the long line of climbers waiting their turn to get to the summit of the tallest mountain on our planet was staggering to behold. This is perhaps the most remote and inhospitable place in the world. Those people were waiting in frigid temperatures, requiring oxygen tanks to breath, and they were waiting in line – kind of like the lunch line in the high school cafeteria or the line waiting for the door to open at a popular store for shopping deals on Black Friday – and they waited for up to 12 hours, with several deaths along the way. Commentators are suggesting there is a sustainability issue around the number of people who are attempting to climb Mount Everest. You think?!

Photo credit: thestar.com

It was in 1953 that Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to be recorded as having reached the summit. Sixty-six years ago. It was considered the most remote of remote and inaccessible places. Who could have imagined that it would become a popular tourist destination a few decades later – albeit very fit tourists, experienced or semi-experienced mountain climbers with plenty of money to spend on their dream – or that such a pristine place would become littered with the detritus of the climbers’ experiences as well as the bodies of many of those who didn’t make it. Neither the garbage, the discarded oxygen tanks, the human waste, nor many of the frozen-in-place bodies are easily removed from this challenging terrain.

Photo credit: Namgyal Sherpa/AFP/Getty Images

But surely this is just an extreme and particularly visually impactful example of the disturbing impact we inventive humans have had on our planet in those 66 years. Or maybe not. The pictures of the plastic washed up on remote islands in the Pacific is pretty impactful. The notion that whales are dying with huge quantities of plastic in their bellies is pretty unsettling. The changes in our weather patterns that are causing more extreme weather events right around the globe should be pretty unsettling as well. Floods, tornados, hurricanes, torrential rains, forest fires, droughts. The big question is: just how unsettling does all this have to be before we take action. And will our politicians have the nerve – and moral fiber – to take the drastic action needed or will it be left up to the world’s students, who seem to understand the calamity that is already in progress better than the “grown-ups”?

Just as the current number of climbers being given permits to climb Mount Everest is not sustainable, in the long run neither is the current lifestyle of most people in the developed world and those in the developing world who have attained a similar lifestyle. At least not unless we change the way we do things. Taken together, this group makes up at most one-third of the world’s population. One-third of the world’s population – and that’s a generous estimate – is using virtually all of the world’s resources. And in using them, we are depleting the world’s resources (fish, rain forests, naturally fertile land, water, etc.) and ruining its habitats (dying coral reefs, polluted oceans, eroded land, toxic rivers, etc.).

We are a remarkably resourceful, innovative species. We have found ways around many of the problems we have created in the past. But our solutions rarely include trying to restore nature to the way it was, even remotely so. We just find new ways around it – using our advances in science. But we are running out of solutions. Our best scientists have been telling us for some time now that climate change is here and is going to start accelerating as the ice caps melt – which they are doing now. One of the great ironies in the world at the moment is that the richest and most powerful country in the world, whose wealth and power has come precisely from harnessing the advances that their scientists and applied scientists have introduced, is choosing to “deny” the advice of their own scientists, even muzzle them. With that kind of frightening, head-in-the-sand, I’m-all-right-Jack-screw-the-rest-of-the-world mentality, it’s hard to know how the world moves forward to preserve our planet. But move forward we must.

Jeff Bezos gave his vision for his space program last week, explaining that as we use up all the resources we have on Earth, we will need to establish new places to live, like in his envisioned space stations, complete with Earth-like pseudo-environments in outer space! There’s a solution that’s nothing if not intriguing. Actually, this is what humans have been doing for centuries, even millennia: using up the resources at their “home base” and then going off in search of new places with new resources. No more fish, let’s see what’s further out to sea. No more big trees, let’s sail across the big ocean and start cutting down those trees; there are so many of them they’ll never run out. That technique doesn’t work anymore. We need to start doing with less, start doing more things locally. That’s a hard sell, especially for politicians who want votes. But if we keep on with our out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach, we’re all screwed.

Scientists project that by 2100 the oceans will have risen by between 1 foot and 2 meters.  Two meters is 6.5 feet. Folks, depending on your age, you, your kids, or your grandkids are going to be alive and thriving in 2100. Well, alive, but maybe not thriving. If they live in Miami, New York, LA, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Vancouver, Halifax, Saint John, NB or anywhere else near the ocean, much of their city, if not all, will be under water. Under water. Is this not scaring politicians because they want the votes and know they will be dead by then? Do they have no humanity, at least for their own grandchildren? Will short term profits and continuing the good life for the few rule the day until it’s too late for everyone else? Convincing those who believe their leaders when they’re reassured that there’s no climate emergency may be good for votes and good for traditional businesses in the short term, but it’s irresponsible at the least and, if truth be told, immoral.

A few quick observations:

  1. A news report recently revealed that a single cruise ship emits as much pollution in one day as one million cars. Yet, cruise ships are not required to have catalytic filters and are allowed to use the dirtiest possible fuels, which of course are the cheapest. And this is just particulate pollution from burning fuel; there’s also the untreated sewage being dumped in the oceans as the ships ply their routes.

    Photo credit: CBC News

  2. It has recently come to light that private companies in Canada that have contracts to recycle the plastics we faithfully put at the roadside each week are, in fact, sending our plastic to developing countries for cheaper “recycling”. This involves putting our unwanted plastic waste on container ships and shipping it across the Pacific Ocean, to be dealt with by others. Often it’s not even of recyclable quality and just becomes waste in someone else’s backyard. Why didn’t we citizens know this? Canada can’t be the only one with recycling firms doing this.
  3. We learned a fascinating story from an IMAX film about Cuba while at a museum in Ottawa last week. When the Soviet Union collapsed and, accordingly, their subsidies for many aspects of the Cuban economy disappeared, one of the many things they suddenly lacked was chemical fertilizer. The Cubans had to revert to “natural” agricultural methods that they had used before chemical fertilizers had changed everything. Starting in 1992, Cuban agriculture reverted to natural fertilizers (manure) and mixed farming. [Some would call this organic farming!] Guess what happened? Within twenty years or so, their famous coral reefs, which had been dying, just as others around the world have been doing, came back to life. The coral was able to recover from the toxicity of the chemical runoff and the fish habitat is now thriving.

    Photo credit: TravelChannel.com

Ecological destruction and resource depletion have been the top causes of the collapse of societies throughout history. We can no longer resolve such situations by moving to a new place; we’ve already used them all. We can either hook our stars on Jeff Bezos’ vision to move to outer space or we can take the difficult but brave steps necessary to save our planet. Please, let’s take those steps.

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25 Responses to Sustainability: Is the Mount Everest gridlock a metaphor for our planet?

  1. alesiablogs says:

    Cuba’s coral reef story shocked me! Great article. Hope all is well. Alesia

  2. K E Garland says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I’m baffled as to why we’re not more innovative as well.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know. If people of influence and power could/would encourage/incentivize/harness the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit to concentrate on new forms of renewal energy, biodegradable products, etc instead of taking the easier but self-destructive approach of continuing to support a fossil-fuel economy, everyone could be a winner. It’s called enlightened leadership.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    I think we all know that each of us is likely to wish to maintain our present standard of living while pushing responsibility onto those more powerful than us. The more powerful, individually, will do likewise until there is no one left to take appropriate actions. Governments all over (Jersey included) are declaring climate emergencies only because they’re easy to declare and the can can be kicked further down the road. Little will actually be done.

    Our generation have f*cked it up and our only hope is that our children and grandchildren will grow into responsible citizens who will put personal interest before collective interest.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Sadly, you have nailed it, Roy. However, there are SOME things, as small as those steps may be, that try to head in the right direction by incentivizing renewable energy over fossil fuel, for example, or placing strict regulations on vehicle fuel consumption, etc. Trump has just undone all that in the US, or at least tried to. Banning or restricting the use of plastics, e.g. bottled water, would be a baby step, as would banning plastic bags in grocery stores. Some of these things would not change our lifestyles. However, it would change the bottom line of corporate interests and their stockholders.

  4. barryh says:

    Thanks, Jane. Great post. I’ve reblogged it.

  5. barryh says:

    Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    A great post by Jane Fritz. There are just too many people on the planet to go on as we have done recently, and some major realignments of politics, business and people’s aspirations is required. What on earth is the point any more of climbing up Mount Everest in a queue?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Barry. These are important messages to get out. It’s hard for us to see the full picture of the ravages we have wrought on our planet, and if we can’t see it we won’t believe it. Until it’s too late. We humans are very good at denial and at believing we can fix anything when push comes to shove. It’s called self-deception!

  6. Pingback: Rethinking climbing Mount Everest | Where on Earth is Francine?

  7. Robert Brown says:

    Oxygen tanks only give you an advantage of 3000′. So if you are waiting around at 28,000 ‘, it’s like you are waiting at 25,000′ (Still the death zone). I’ve been to Kala Pattar (18,500′) which overlooks the base camp (17,500′). Most painful experience of my life. Never again. Why bother, you can get a similar view in Banff at 7000’.
    Ready to give up air travel, much less meat, personal transport, etc., ? The kids are starting the change.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know. It’s truly remarkable what people will put themselves through to achieve their personal goal. Happily, that is not my goal. And it’s also remarkable – or probably not so much remarkable as sad – that people, almost all of us, want solutions but not solutions that affect us directly. NIMBY. Yes, I’m ready to give those things up, but I’ve already been everywhere I want to and done everything I want to do, so it’s not a fair answer. As you say, the young people seem to get it.

  8. LA says:

    It’s hard to draw the line between what’s good and what’s bad. The Everest numbers are staggering…assuming Nepal needs money badly

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m sure Nepal really does need all the money they can get. Our oil and gas – and coal and cruise line – companies think they do, too. I know where my sympathies would lie if I were in charge of making the choices! But unless real changes are made, if your daughter’s kids want to live in Manhattan, they’ll probably need to be in Central Park! 😥

      • LA says:

        The people in charge on nyc are pro environment….just ask them…..😆

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Yay for NYC, for sure! Unfortunately, what they are able to do isn’t going to keep the ice sheets from melting and causing the seas to rise precipitously, right around the world. Sad and scary.

        • LA says:

          I was actually being tongue in cheek….they say one thing and do another….the over building has reached ridiculous proportions. And it’s pretty telling by who lives in some of the most egregious buildings.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Lol. Especially one of the buildings. I was thinking about various traffic restrictions they’ve tried, but of course a drop in the bucket. It’s all about money.

  9. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Thank you for your insights and now if we could only start listening and acting accordingly.

  10. Thank you Jane for this provocative post. I am with you and not Jeff Bezos. Apparently his ex agrees with us. Did you see today’s news? She’s giving half her money over her lifetime to charity.
    Jill
    Sent from my iPad

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Jill. I’m definitely not a space station person myself! I was delighted to read of MacKenzie Bezos’s commitment. Funny, when their split happened and her net worth was made public I did spend some time thinking about the impact one could have with billions to donate. And here I had been thinking of the fantasy of being able to give away millions! 😏

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