Monday, March 11, 2013
High Contrast: What Does the Simple Life Mean?
Cedar Wright just released a video about Alex Honnold (who's been in a lot of videos these days) and him climbing somewhere in Chile but with the angle of meditating on the environmental crises caused by modern high-consumption lifestyles. After watching I was struck mostly by the contradictions raised by the piece, contradictions picked up by some of the comments at the Vimeo page.
Now accusations of hypocrisy or at least inconsistency are neither here nor there in the climbing world. Pots calling kettles black is all in a day's work. But it's clear that the message of the video is that somehow we need to change our way of life ( a message I wholeheartedly agree with) and reduce the consumption of valuable resources that sustain our planet. There are a number of context-free vignettes of street concerts in Chile and portraits of locals who, it seems to be implied, are living low-stress, less materialistic lifestyles than those of us, say in Boulder Colorado. Now this may be the case. Unfortunately we don't actually hear from them. Instead Alex narrates the virtues of the simple life prompted by his reading various environmentally themed books (Bill Mckibben comes up, for example). A few quotes from the film give a sense of this:
"With slightly different priorities, people could be content with less stuff"
"Climbing is an interesting vehicle in which to see this world and to explore the idea of simplicity and harmonious living"
And so on. Now my point in writing is not to take either Alex or Cedar to task for promoting what is a pretty important theme, that materialism and consumption are not worthy ends in themselves. It's more about what the film, and it's pretty short, leaves out. For example, it does nothing to explore the ways in which sponsors like Black Diamond and North Face promote consumption and whether they are installing solar panels and taking steps to offset impact. Alex and Cedar are not going to be able to live the simple life in Chile without a substantial number of climbers buying gear, gear that the people filmed in Chile (and I am guessing here) would not be able to afford. Suppose we all decided to live the simple life and go climbing in Chile? What would happen to the environment in that beautiful mountain valley?
It's riddled with contradictions like this and ignores the obvious truth that a lot of infrastructure supports the simple life, a life that, it should be pointed out, is not sustainable as it does not produce the basic goods required for life and is devoid of the real challenges of community and family. Climbing rocks and making film depends on a lot of other people doing the kind of real work that is conveniently ignored in "High Contrast." This work is ignored because it doesn't promote the lifestyle dream that is what BD, North Face, etc. are actually selling. Which leaves us with the biggest problem with these brand-oriented lifestyle videos. Nobody asks the hard questions in them since that will create the perception that it's getting "negative" or "too critical." It would be really nice if there was a proper film on the subject of the contradictions inherent in outdoor sports consumption. Let's see if Yvon Chouinard, recently grumping in Outside about polo shirts and Skymall, will sponsor it.
As Alex says near the end, "the thing is, it's all super-complicated...It's hard to know what the impacts of your actions are."