A Note to My Readers: It has not been easy to write this essay and I am scared to see my name displayed publicly next to what follows. I am sure these ideas will win me few friends in Park City and the broader ski community. Nevertheless, what follows is the truth as it has been shown to me. My allegiance belongs, first and foremost, to life, to the land, to both the human and non-human victims of the insanity of the dominant system. I love to ski. I love to walk the aspen groves in the Wasatch Mountains above Park City. I love seeing moose cross Park Avenue almost weekly. In short, I love living here. But my desire to live here should not trump the land’s ability to survive.
At the south end of Brown’s Canyon, about 6 miles northeast of Park City, Utah, there’s always an engine running. Usually, there are more than I can count.
If it’s not commuting car engines coughing to life in cold, winter air, it’s snowblowers blasting snow from driveways. If it’s not cars or snowblowers, its excavators flattening the next hill over, clawing out one bucketful of earth at a time. If it’s none of these, it’s diesel generators compressing air for nail guns popping boards together.
Standing on my small deck, sipping my morning coffee, I try to focus on the winds’ words. The winds speak a harsh tongue, full of curses. They are busy rattling aluminum drains on the roof’s edge, dragging loose gravel across a construction road, and navigating concrete right angles forming condominium building walls.
To the east, a red-tailed hawk is pinned against the wind above a snow-muddied expanse littered with cinder blocks, discarded hand tools, and a brown skid-steer ran off its rubber track. The sight of the crippled skid-steer brings half a wry smile to my face: a small, if only momentary delay in the destruction.
Just a few months ago, this expanse was a ridge line washed in the bright turquoise light of morning sunshine seeping through sagebrush. There were a few healthy stands of pinyon-pine and juniper trees. You’d see their branches jostle, first. Then, mule deer or elk would step into sunlight, grazing with blind confidence in the immortality of their basin home.
The hawk seeks the valley on the far side of the destruction where she might spot a mouse or vole. I often seek that valley, too. I love visiting late at night when rabbits with white winter coats wait for clouds to cross the moon so they may risk sprints across open spaces to the safety of shadows under gnarled rabbitbrush roots.
The sigh of a dump truck’s exhaust and the squeal of its brakes brings me back to the present. The engines resume each morning. This is daily life in Park City, a town expanding at a dizzying pace.
Eight new condo buildings have been built in my neighborhood in the last eighteen months. Just a few weeks ago, a large commercial and housing project proposal – part of the Promontory Development – was publicly unveiled. The proposal would destroy 666 acres with 190,000 square feet of commercial space, 350 hotel rooms, and 1,020 residential units. The proposal also includes plans to build yet another dam for yet another reservoir.
Over in Old Town, a group called the “Treasure Partnership” intends to force the Park City Planning Commission to vote on a project that would cut 1 million square feet out of the foothills above Park City to allow another 2000 people to stay in town. The project would involve parking space larger than a Super Wal-Mart, towers as much as 10 stories high, and the travel of 300 heavy trucks in and out of downtown Park City each day.
Park City is a damned town. Voices on the wind blowing in from the canyons whisper that this has always been true. Hollows groan with miners crushed in shafts long since collapsed, aspens still quake with memories of dynamite, and streams spit with tastes of mining waste.
Mountains say nothing. They simply rise to the sky displaying their wounds. With shoulders flayed by roads and ski runs, their scars are reopened whenever forests threaten encroachment on skiers’ paths. First, these mountains had their guts ripped out by silver miners. Then, they had their skin peeled off by resorts. And, now they’re baking with climate change.
What is happening to Park City is what is happening to the planet and what is happening is civilization. Derrick Jensen’s definition for civilization is best because it is defensible both linguistically and historically while accounting for physical reality.
Jensen explains in his work, Endgame, the root word in “civilization” is “civil.” “Civil” derives from “civis” which comes from the Latin “civitatis” meaning “city-state.” From there, Jensen defines civilization as a “culture – that is a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts – that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities, with cities being defined – so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on – as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”
When people live in populations that exceed the carrying capacity of their landbase, they strip their land of the necessities of life and must look to other lands for what they need. Many scholars date the beginning of civilization with the birth of agriculture close to 12,000 years ago. Despite agriculture’s favorable connotations in most circles, Lierre Keith describes what agriculture actually is: “In very brute terms, you take a piece of land, you clear every living thing off it, and then you plant it to human use. Instead of sharing that land with the other million creatures who need to live there, you’re only growing humans on it. It’s biotic cleansing.”
With its roots in agriculture, civilization has been destroying the planet from its beginning. Over thousands of years, civilized humans – with their native lands destroyed – sought out new lands to exploit. Park City was born from this process. The first European settlers to come to Park City en masse braved the harsh mountain environment for the silver that was discovered here.
When silver prices dropped, the mountains sighed with relief as mining significantly slowed. Park City’s human community would have deserted the area if the few remaining miners hadn’t come up with the idea to open the Treasure Mountain ski resort in 1963.
Park City miners traded one boom-or-bust industry for another.
Park City has no future. Either the snow or the industrial system allowing Park City’s human population to live here will fail.
Park City’s human community relies on snow for its survival. First, snow is water. Park City sits on the eastern edge of the Great Basin with a permanent human population of about 8,000. The operation of the tourism industry means there are more than 8,000 humans in Park City at any given time – especially during the peak winter season.
These humans require water and the Great Basin is a desert. Snowpack is the area’s water source and serves as a natural reservoir collecting snow in winter and slowly releasing it to streams, soil, and plants as temperatures warm in spring and summer.
Snow doesn’t just provide life-giving water, it gives tourists a reason to visit – and to spend money. While there are more humans in the area than the land can support the necessities of life must be imported. Importing these necessities costs money and the resort industry provides this money.
The snow that falls every winter on Park City is critically endangered by climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that Utah has warmed by two degrees (F) over the last century causing snowpack in Utah to be steadily decreasing since the 1950s. A 2009 report commissioned by Park City Municipal Corporation and The Park City Foundation predicts another two degrees average temperature rise in Park City by 2030, four degrees by 2050, and almost seven degrees by 2075. Porter Fox, author of Deep: The Story of Skiing and The Future of Snow cites studies that show this seven degrees (F) warming will leave Park City with no snow by 2100.
Physically speaking, climate change is caused by global greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat on the Earth’s surface causing the planet to warm. These greenhouse gasses include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor.
Greenhouse gas emissions are integral to the basic functioning of civilized life. Carbon dioxide is released through deforestation, biomass burning, conversion of land to agriculture, and the burning of fossil fuels. Methane is produced by waste decomposition, agriculture (especially rice production), and by the digestive systems of domestic livestock.
Nitrous oxide is produced through soil cultivation practices including the use of both organic and commercial fertilizers, nitric acid production, fossil fuel combustion, and biomass burning. Chlorofluorocarbons are inorganic, synthetic compounds entirely produced by industrial activities. Chlorofluorocarbons not only act as greenhouse gasses, they weaken the Earth’s ozone layer.
The EPA regularly publishes reports on total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector. Their latest report, based on emissions in 2014, attributes 30% of American greenhouse gas emissions to electricity generation, 26% to transportation which includes burning fossil fuel for trucks, ships, planes, trains, and personal automobiles, 21% to industry burning fossil fuel for energy and from chemical reactions involved in manufacturing, 12% to commercial and residential processes like burning fossil fuels for heat and the handling of waste, and, finally, 9% from agriculture including soil maintenance, fertilizer use, and livestock production. The EPA does not account for the other 2%.
If we look at the EPA’s numbers critically, we see that the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions result from the same economic sectors supporting humans in Park City – electricity generation, transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture. If these sectors keep operating, the snow will fail. If the snow fails, Park City fails. For the snow to survive, these sectors must fail. If these sectors fail, Park City is left without the necessities of life. There’s no way out.
Let’s take a closer look: Humans could not survive snowy and cold Park City winters at 7,000 feet above sea level without shelter and warmth.These shelters require wood. Harvesting wood requires deforestation and deforestation emits greenhouse gases. The wood must be brought here. Transporting this wood requires ships, planes, and trucks. Ships, planes, and trucks burn fossil fuels. They also are manufactured. The manufacturing process requires a whole different list of building materials with their own associated extraction and transportation emissions.
Park City’s shelters must be heated, too. Most of these shelters are heated by electricity. In the United States, electricity generation emits the most greenhouse gases. And again, the electricity must be transported. Electrical transportation requires the operation and maintenance of a power grid which, like we saw with ships, planes, and trucks, requires manufacturing processes with their own building materials, extraction and transportation emissions.
The land surrounding Park City does not offer enough food to support 8,000 human residents plus thousands of visitors. Food, like building materials and energy, must be imported. Park City relies on the same greenhouse gas emitting transportation infrastructure that brings building materials to bring food. This food is produced through agriculture and industrial livestock. Agriculture requires deforestation and other land clearances that emit carbon dioxide and methane. It also requires soil cultivation and fertilization which emit nitrous oxide. And, the cows and sheep raised in industrial livestock operations emit significant amounts of methane.
Meanwhile, the general consensus amongst climate scientists is that developed nations must reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid runaway climate change. Based on the EPA’s numbers, even if every small-business and home in America reduced its emissions to zero (12% of total US emissions) and each American drove cars that emitted no greenhouse gas (much less than 26% of total US emissions), the United States wouldn’t even come close to the 80% goal.
It’s at this point that most commentators invoke so-called alternative energies as the solution to climate change. These people insist that we can maintain our lifestyles if we just switch to solar or build enough windfarms. In Park City, these people tell us that we can have a thriving tourist economy with visitors transported from all over the world AND a livable planet. We can do this, they claim, if we just switch city buses to electric and install solar panels on city buildings. Unfortunately, these “green technologies” are neither green, nor solutions.
I’ll start with the most popular: Solar power.
While it is true that the sun offers near-infinite energy, the problem is harnessing that energy. Harnessing this energy requires solar cells and solar cell production emits greenhouse gases that are worse than carbon dioxide. Alternative energy scholar Ozzie Zehner explains that the solar cell manufacturing process is one of the largest emitters of hexafluoroethane, nitrogen trifluoride, and sulfur hexafluoride. Zehner writes, “As a greenhouse gas hexafluoroethane is twelve thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide … nitrogen trifluoride is seventeen thousand times more virulent than carbon dioxide, and sulfur hexafluoride, the most treacherous greenhouse gas…is twenty-five thousand times more threatening (than carbon dioxide).”
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition points out that as the solar industry expands, “The most widely used solar photovoltaic panels have the potential to create a huge new wave of electronic waste at the end of their useful lives, which is estimated to be 20 to 25 years.” And, many new solar photovoltaic technologies “use extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks…”
Right now, the solar power industry is tiny. Zehner notes it supplies less than a hundredth of 1 percent of America’s electricity. As this industry grows, solar cell production will emit more of the most dangerous greenhouse gases and create more toxic waste. Zehner says it best: “Considering the extreme risks and limitations of today’s solar technologies, the notion that they could create any sort of challenge to the fossil-fuel establishment starts to appear not merely optimistic, but delusional.”
Wind power is another alternative energy darling. Like the energy offered by the sun, wind is a renewable, abundant energy. Turbines used to harvest wind energy, however, require the entire fossil fuel infrastructure to manufacture them. When considering the ability of wind turbines to replace greenhouse gas emissions, we must account for mining, manufacturing, transporting, constructing, land-clearances, maintaining, decommissioning, and waste that support wind turbines.
To harvest wind, turbines must be placed where wind blows. The best places for wind turbines are often in remote and fragile natural communities. To build wind farms, land must be cleared. This involves deforestation. To transport energy harnessed by turbines from wind farms requires roads, power lines, and transformers. The greenhouse gases emitted by deforestation, alone, may cancel benefits wind farms provide.
Zehner makes a very interesting case against wind power – and all alternative energies for that matter – while examining the popularly recited possibility that the US could attain 20% wind energy by 2030. He says this achievement might not remove a single fossil-fuel plant from the grid and explains, “There is a common misconception that building additional alternative-energy capacity will displace fossil-fuel use; however…producing more energy simply increases supply, lowers cost, and stimulates additional energy consumption.” To support his claim, Zehner cites analysts who argue that wind turbines in Europe “have not reduced the region’s carbon footprint by a single gram.” The classic example is Spain “which prided itself on being a solar and wind power leader over the last two decades only to see its greenhouse gas emission rise 40% over the same period.”
So, alternative energies aren’t really alternative energies, they’re additional energies.
I could go on with the other alternative energies, but they share the same problems. Namely, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and decommissioning of the means for harvesting a renewable energy emit green house gases and involve their own deadly pollutions. At day’s end, even if these so-called “green” technologies were employed, they would only add to this culture’s capacity to consume.
Local scientist, Dr. Tim Garrett, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah studies the amount of energy required to sustain civilization. Garrett concludes that civilization must collapse if the planet is to have any chance of survival. Garrett states the obvious. Civilizations always collapse. They must, because they are based on hyper-exploitation of the land.
Park City is a microcosm for the problems facing the planet. It is a product of civilization. Like civilization, Park City has no future.
With a human population exceeding the land’s carrying capacity, Park City is wholly dependent on the industrial system to bring the necessities of life. To access this system, Park City relies on a constant flow of money brought by tourists who come for the snow. Sadly, the very process that brings the tourists and their money – the industrial system – is the process emitting greenhouse gases that are warming the world, destroying the snow, and destroying the planet. There are no alternatives within this system. It must be dismantled.
Back on my deck with my coffee, I watch the lifts carrying people up Park City Mountain Resort. I contemplate what I should do today. Should I sit down to write what I know is true? Or, should I head up those lifts to ski? The decision isn’t too different than the decision facing the whole community.
Park City has a choice. We can face the truth that our town has no future and work to remove humans, humanely as possible, from the area. Or, we can try to keep this insane party going for a little longer as we put on our ski goggles to blur reality, shed our jackets with the warming climate, and take one last suicidal run on disappearing snow.