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."


splitter choss said...

Great points Peter, thanks for giving us something a little deeper to think about.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with much of what's discussed in the video, besides traveling across the globe when I "feel like going to an exotic location". For a long time I've found it super corny that clothing and climbing equipment companies used an environmental appeal to attract consumers. Basically, this is only a way to sell stuff, and if the concepts weren't popular in the target communities, the businesses would fail. Therefore, there is inherent contradiction in that a brand's ideals are only as deep as they are reinforced by consumption; this relationship is even more contradictory if the specific ideals are something ridiculous like anti-consumption (not that that is a ridiculous ideal in general, just in this context). If you really care about your impact, wear your clothes until they're worn out or buy second-hand; spread your message through a non-profit or community service and volunteer work (not a commercial); climb near your home, ride your bike to the crag, or better yet quit climbing! I will mention that I do almost none of these things myself, and I especially despise the defensiveness common in these discussions (and somewhat present in the vimeo comments). Thank you for posting Peter!

Cole Gibson said...

Great post Peter and thanks for putting in words the exact thoughts I had myself when watching the short film.

To me the obvious hypocrisy of the film was overshadowed by the glaring naiveté. It's exactly true what you said that the life Honnold is living is devoid of many things that make up a normal, self sustaining life.

To not even acknowledge the fact that the whole trip they were both on would not have been possible without the help and support of massive corporations who live and breath on consumer over consumption is laughable.

If actions speak louder than words then I'm afraid watching Alex's Citi Bank commercial for the umpteenth time today tells me what he really suports.

Jens41 said...

Watching the video I was thrown off by the very points you make in your post. I agree with what you say and thank you for taking the time to discuss this contradictory issue.
As a mechanical engineer I may have a different perspective on what you say about producing the basic goods needed for life. Most of us, working in normal jobs, buying climbing gear and supporting the life of pro climbers are not producing theses basic goods either. For instance there are people (like me) who spend a ridiculous amount of their time improving the automated painting of cars. You will not be able to see any improvement in the paint, unless you use about 1000 high powered lamps and hold the painted part in the exact right direction towards the light sources. If then you have good eyes you might be able to see a difference. But in advertising we can say we have the best quality cars and pay most attention to detail.
On first thought one might say any engineer is pulling his weight and supporting his living. But in reality most of us and most of the people working ‘real’ jobs are not. I bet there are tons more examples where we might be able to redirect resources towards the really useful issues and thus be able to save the environment and maybe even have more time to go climbing.

Anonymous said...

it is a bit depressing the environmental state and welfare of the natural world in the sense that so many really dont care about whats taking place! obviously climbers and outdoor enthuists care more and do things to help the planet , one could argue that pro climbers have a much bigger carbon footprint than amateurs, pro climbers travel the world from antartica to greenland to the himalaya to the rocklands by planes, trains ,auto and any means to film a human climbing a rock and leave their impacts on the environment, and when return home unload their stories to magazines where more waste is issued around the world in magazines unless they are recycled, think about the packaging and energy that goes into all those magazines at barnes n noble for our amateur dose of consumption as we flip through the pages and leave the mag inspired by the pros who left their mark and chalk and trash on the places we may never go and some wish to keep those places as such, left alone!! while most amauters I know dream of those places but are content staying in the good ole us of a as their is plenty here, but on the larger scale its fairly unimportant as the professionals of other sports and giant corporations that sponsor them wrap their products in boatloads of packaging that eventually get to the customer sporting a new pair of addidas or north face jacket or jordan jersey, how many pro golfers or nfl players really care about the environment when they are making millions and driving 6 cars, personal jets and so on and this is where pro climbing is heading it will eventually get their ,, so unless we go back to living the lifestyle of like the people on the aran islands in ireland who knit their own sweaters, live in a small stone house, fish themselves and grow their own garden and dont fly or use a car I dont think we will see any drastic changes as the planet is warming fast, to see them I think it would take the majority of earthlings to do so this primal living but if climbers cant sail to the rocklands or the himalaya with their safety pads and boatload of equipment without the aid of their sponsors as it could be considered by some a form of aid fueled by fame and money, red bull cans , ah its all so depressing I need a dose of a new climbing movie the worries will go away for a bit , maybe get a red bull as they are addicting and sit on the couch, nah I will resist the urge

"liberal Media" exists for a reason said...

Personally the message was lost on me because in this video Alex is not the change he wants to see in the world. As a result, he comes across as an idiot with his head in the clouds. I loved the message of the video, and would love to see it get out there more, however for the sake of the integrity of the message (which is critical), I would like to see the next such video have someone actually being that change.

Unknown said...

Dear All,

Having just seen the video and then read the original blog post above, and now some of the comments that follow, I do wonder whether the forest is lost for the trees.

While I do honestly sympathise with those of you who clearly have a commitment to building self-sustainable lives and setting examples through your everyday actions, I at the same time wonder whether the message that Alex is hinting at - although in my opinion not perhaps hitting on fully - is also worth considering. That being that when we think of the way in which we as a global community use this planet, we do so subject to systematic constraints that are unsustainable. As John Bellamy Foster argues:

“The chief causes of the environmental destruction that faces us today are not biological, or the product of individual human choice. They are social and historical, rooted in the productive relations, technological imperatives, and historically conditioned demographic trends that characterize the dominant social system."

If we would accept that, then there is much more to be done than simply assert 'live the change you want to see in the world today' for as one previous commentator notes, while a different world is something many of us wish for ourselves and our children, we nevertheless have to realise that we also exist in the here and now.

In this respect I think some of the criticisms leveled against Alex and Cedar here are a bit unfair. Especially the one relating to the Citi Bank sponsorship. This is especially the case as I think that it is pretty clear nowadays that the latest crisis we find ourselves in is largely due to the irresponsibility of the finance sector. As such I for one am completely fine with a climber who I presume has had to think hard about how to sustain himself and keep on pushing the limits of our sport, getting some cash back from the 1%.

My own view is that instead of using stark either-or distinctions on the matter, we would do much better to recognise that the ideals we feel we need to enact will only materialise through solidarity and common action, through respecting each other rather than tearing each other apart, and by beginning a dialogue rather than falling victim to divisions amongst ourselves even before the discussion begun.

And to think that any of this would be easy is probably the purest example of the naivéte so eagerly already raised by others.

Thank you all for reading and thinking this through.

- Paavo

Nietzsche said...

Best M&W post ever?