Alex Honnold Could Save the Planet with This One Simple Trick
Alex Honnold is not saving the planet.
No one else is either, but professional climbers deserve a special callout, because the distance between their stated beliefs and the actual nature of their actions is so much greater than it is for most anyone else. These symbols of The Great Outdoors™ have an opportunity — an easy one, really — to change the way people think, but they are instead just reinforcing the limits of human imagination, limits so basic we don’t even perceive them. You want a worthy obstacle to overcome? This is it — we can conquer climate change, if we can first conquer the limits of perception. If these brave men (women in the sport don’t get nearly as much press) can show us how we can push our physical limits, surely they can show us a truer glimpse of ourselves?
To be fair to Honnold, he’s no better or worse than any of the other professional climbers. He’s just more visible. He popped up in my Instagram today. I lump him in with Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell, that Jason guy who also climbed the Dawn Wall, the Tibetan climber that Netflix suddenly can’t stop talking about. They all talk a great game.
Everyone who hikes or climbs tells themselves that they are enjoying, not destroying, the natural world. It’s all about getting back to basics and enjoying the majesty of the mountains. It is what makes the pros’ pursuits marketable. They are elevating the human spirit and getting us back in touch with something intrinsically worthwhile. This image requires that they also show that they care about “sustainability.” In Honnold’s case, he has a foundation that’s promoting solar power. “See,” gestures like this seem to say, “I really do care about this natural world that provides the canvas for my feats. It’s okay to follow me. I’m one of the good guys.”
I have a different interpretation. People climb for the same reason they do most anything: to impose their will on the world around them. Physical height is perceived as being synonymous with superiority and advantage. Military strategists will tell you that you must “seize the high ground.” Survey the ruins of medieval castles, and you will find them — almost invariably — on the tops of mountains and hills and ridges and plateaus. No one ever built a castle in the bottom of a gorge from which their enemies could effortlessly rain stones down upon their heads.
People also want solitude, which is to say: all the space for themselves. They want gorgeous views — we consume with our eyes. We take photos to make friends jealous. We brag about our audacious exploits. It’s a human, all too human, activity.
It threatens most people to admit this. We insist that our motives are pure. We have to imagine the sainted version of ourselves at all times.
It doesn’t threaten me to admit that I consume, I destroy at least a little bit in everything I do. I have no problem admitting my own selfishness. It’s no vice — up to a point. Every creature is fighting for its patch of space. Even the most charming wren is a voracious little consumer, ending the lives of the bugs on which it feeds. I find it useful to acknowledge this central fact of life. We can only manage that which we see.
Climbers consume, too. They wear on the rock. They leave nylon webbings wrapped around trees. They purchase plastic clothes that keep them dry and cool. They pound bolts into routes. They burn gallons upon gallons of fossil fuels traveling to and from the crags.
If enough of them do it, the impact adds up. Local impact can be visible in denuded landscapes around belay stations, and the global impact is everywhere in our crazy weather, even if climbers’ disproportionate per capita impact is small in absolutely terms. The emissions add up, especially when a climber gains a certain notoriety and spawns a million imitators, who also go and buy more plastic gear, drive more miles, and so on and so on ad nauseam.
This, of course, is the business model of climbing. Black Diamond, Petzel, Patagonia — they sponsor expeditions to keep the crowds buying more, more, more.
What none of these climbers ever say is: we need to work together to limit the volume of such climbs. Like everything else in our lives, uncoordinated individual consumption leads to overtaxing natural systems. I don’t care if you “leave no trace.” I don’t care if you try to offset your carbon. As long as you’re consuming at an unsustainable rate, you are contributing to the problem; and I’m sorry, but in the global context of a planet with eight billion people, the rate of consumption from all that’s required to become a climber is not sustainable. It would add up to a planet even more wrecked than the broken one we’ve already got.
People like Honnold should simply point that out. We need to work together to figure out how much of any form of consumption is reasonable and how to manage it equitably amongst ourselves. Climbing does not exist outside of this, just because it happens to happen in nature. It is a sublime hypocrisy —refusing to consider that you are destroying that which you claim to love to the same or even greater extent as a suburban soccer mom or dad whose most adventurous expedition is to a shopping mall.
The first big step Honnold and people like him can take is to come right out and state the plain truth — climbing is a human, all too human, endeavor, not a natural one, and part of the consumption we need to manage if we are to survive. Until they start saying that, they’re coaxing millions into believing that we can consume our way out of climate change — we just have to consume the right way.