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the gods we serve
on obscenity and absurdity and money
There is a massive, multimillion dollar proposal in the works in my hometown of Sandy, UT. East of this middle-class suburb are the spiny, granite peaks that enclose Little Cottonwood Canyon. Deep in the canyon are the world-class ski resorts of Alta and Snowbird with their jutting features and intense terrains. As you drive up the steep roads, these jagged cliffs are a stunning display of these young mountains, splitting through the Earth’s crust approximately 30 million years ago. On the way down, you can see the smoggy Salt Lake Valley slowly come into view as you go around curve after curve, careful not to ride your brakes the whole way down.
I’ve gone up this canyon all my life. I learned how to ski at Alta when I was 2 years old. I’ll never forget being 9 or 10 years old, during a blackout storm, sitting down and sobbing as my brother and father waited for me at the bottom of a double black diamond run. I was furious and terrified, and I eventually scooted myself down the mountain on my butt. I didn’t ski for many years after that, but I still looked up at this range with awe and wonder. Later in life, after I learned to rock climb, I would attempt to conquer these slabbing granite faces with amusing failure. Such beauty in my backyard. It felt like it was all mine.
Salt Lake City (and its surrounding suburbs) as a whole have not aged well. Over my life, I’ve watched this valley become developed to an unrecognizable degree. Everywhere you look, a new subdivision or condo building is being erected. Strip malls litter the streets, and terrible traffic is a daily nuisance. Whether people who live here want to admit it or not, it’s true: the magic of this seemingly untouched mecca has been slowly drying up over the years. This valley has the fasted growing population in the entire country, and it’s mostly because of people migrating here from elsewhere. When I was a child, it felt like humans were in balance here, but not anymore. Whether we want to talk about it or not, there’s just too many people.
With the growing population, we’ve witnessed a growing problem at the ski resorts: access. People sit in hours of traffic just to make it up the ski resorts after a snow nowadays, a process that is commonplace elsewhere in the country, but never here. Perhaps I’m blinded by nostalgia, but this is not how it was when I was young. Every weekend we would be right up there in the grey, slush-filled parking lot and my dad would be squeezing me and my brothers into our ski boots. Over the years, Snowbird became so unpleasant to me that I would refuse to go. It was so icy and crowded that it would scare me. Skiing wasn’t fun anymore. Now, I wouldn’t dream of going to Snowbird. Sit in my car for 3 hours to wait for hours in chairlift lines with thousands of other people? No thanks.
He doesn’t really ski anymore, my father. Whether it’s because of age, or access, I’m not sure. All I know is that it makes me sad. Skiing was, and is, incredibly important to him. In fact, it’s a defining feature of my dad: that and golf. It hurts to think that he can’t partake in one of his passions.
As I alluded to before, there are proposals in the works that will supposedly answer this “access” problem to the ski resorts. There’s a debate between two proposals: a gondola system that would begin at the base of the canyon and extend 8 miles to reach the ski resorts, or improving the bus systems while widening the road. Both of the debates are rife with claims of reducing “carbon emissions” caused by thousands of cars going up the canyon daily. The debate, more or less, is which solution is more “sustainable” and it seems, by their mechanistic metrics, that the gondola will be dubbed the winner.
After the construction of the gondola, its operation would supposedly be “carbon-neutral.” Whatever nonsensical reasoning they are using to come up with that, I don’t know. There’s a video simulation of what the gondola system would look like, including mysteriously few steel towers that would be needed to be installed to hold the thing up. They talk about how it could be powered by solar, and there would be a food shops inside the station at the bottom of the canyon, with lockers available for rent. The cabs would even have phone chargers and heated seats. Such luxury. Such progress.
what gods do you serve?
Yesterday, as I drove up and down Little (as it is colloquially known), I could only think one thing as I imagined a giant industrial machine blocking my view of these pine covered peaks: the whole idea is obscene.
I have to ask, what gods do we serve? Do we serve the gods of industry and capital, or do we serve the gods of the living world? Before you misunderstand me, we must acknowledge these pseudo-religious assumptions that underpin our statements. Let’s take a look at the language being deployed here. This is written on the “Solution” page of the Gondola Works website:
“Our canyons are a valued asset for Utahns’ quality of life, as well as an important contributor to our economy.”
The underlying assumption that is written in this statement is that these canyons, living communities, are capital in the form of “valued assets” for humans. Then, of course, they explicitly state that what is valuable about the canyons is their contributions to the economy via ski resorts. What gods are being served here?
I’ve said before that humans are a religious species. We can’t seem to escape functioning in the world outside of some story we tell ourselves about how things are the way they are, why we are here, and where we are going. All of our actions are predicated on a worldview that is more or less ambient, but religious in nature nonetheless. What I am arguing against is not the gondola necessary, but rather the devotion to a religion called “money” over the living community.
We can define religion by its original etymological meaning, which is “to bind” – to bind meaning to the mundane. In the above statement, they are binding the meaning of “value” as they understand it to the canyon. Rather than the canyon having inherent value as a living being made up of other living beings, it is given a religious value, one that serves the god of their choosing: capital.
If you serve the gods of the living community, you cannot “bind” an external value system to the canyon. Its value is in that it is alive and it is part of creation. By this logic, viewing it as an “asset” or “contributor to the economy” is profane.
So I ask again, which gods do we serve?
The website is littered with language of “sustainability,” and the word “nature” is not used once. The word “natural” is included, but only in the context of “natural resources” – can we see what god is being served here? “Ecosystem” is never mentioned, but “economy” is.
the gods of capital
I said before that the “sustainability” of this gondola system is made through a series of nonsensical reasonings. Oftentimes, to the point of being a trite stereotype, when the argument of lessening CO2 emissions or achieving “carbon-neutrality” is deployed, the deployer is leaving many things out of their accounting: that which cannot be measured. I’m not only talking about the lack of measuring the CO2 required to obtain and install infrastructure, which means strip mining for steel and silica (to name only 2 of hundreds of necessary materials, both of which produce toxic waste into the air, water, and ground), industries and subindustries to create component parts, polluting local rivers as well as watersheds near the mines and industries, and of course using copious diesel fuel every step of the way from extraction to transport to installation to maintenance.
What is also not measured are questions of the heart. How will this construction affect the local ecosystems? Does the mountain want either of these things? Do the trees, deer, and birds? Do we even want there to be more people on the mountains? How will it make people feel to have their view of these canyons obscured?
These questions, among many others, don’t fit into the accounting of these projects because when you serve the gods of capital, you cannot also serve the gods of the living world. These questions become frivolities rather than serious concerns. Herein is the problem with serving the gods of capital: when you serve these gods, you have to denude the world into a set of measurable metrics. And, as I have illustrated, the measurable metrics need not be accurate or include a full accounting of what can be measured to put a bright green “sustainable” brand upon it.
Furthermore, these arguments about CO2 emissions are religious in nature because they are predicated upon the assumption that the world works like a machine. We act as though the world is dead, and we can change one metric and resolve our planetary issues, forgetting that treating the world as a machine is what caused this problem in the first place.
It is a religious belief that the world works like that, not a scientific one.
growth as scripture
Another unspoken religious doctrine from the Church of Capital, is that growth is infinite. That is the nature of a capitalistic economic model after-all: demand must always outstrip supply if profits are to be made. This connotes a circular sort of logic in that there always must be more people wanting a thing, and so the producers create an increase of that thing, and on and on, which is why our world is increasingly filled with more and more utterly useless products and a lack of meaning.
The obvious thing that these dialogues take for granted about improving access to the mountains via transportation solutions is that mountains are a finite feature. No matter how much a person might want to deploy their religion of infinite growth, the mountain will resist because it cannot grow infinitely. They proposals all take for granted that the mountains can support and unlimited amount of people. The roads, of course, cannot, hence the need to build an infrastructure that can support more people more efficiently. Somehow, in their reasoning, they can’t extend that knowledge to the “resource” these projects are meant to serve.
This is how we know that these proposals are not about what is best for people or the canyon: infinite growth for a ski resort is great for money but is like a cancer for everything else. So we create an infrastructure that can accommodate more thousands of people everyday in the canyons: who does that serve other than the god of capital? We make already crowded ski resorts more accessible to more people and that’s good for who, exactly?
Of course, by now we know the answer to that question. It’s good for the economy.
My point here is not that we need to depopulate the Salt Lake Valley, or make ski resorts more elitist and cost-prohibitive so that there are fewer people on the mountains, which is what tolls would invariably do (another proposal to solve the congestion problems). Park City and Deer Valley are already doing a wonderful job of that, and it has been devastating to local ski bums who are being gentrified out of their passion by rich tourists. My point is to question the assumptions that are being made about this entire issue, and to point out how these assumptions are based on religious absurdities.
Another absurdity is the idea that what is good for the economy is what is good for people.
Salt Lake City, and the people who live here, should have the most keen understanding of what I mean here. The economy is thriving! Population growth has been exponential, cost of living has increased, and wages have remained stagnant. It’s nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment in Salt Lake proper anymore, let alone in the surrounding suburbs. I know more people struggling to get by than people who are happy. The landscape has been desacralized, and for what? For who?
My point is to ask: is no one else seeing this? Why is no one else disgusted by the obscenity that has become normal fare in this county? Why are we arguing over the congestion to the fucking ski resorts when the land is screaming out to us a different question entirely?
broader implications of the religion
This story, of course, is a story that takes many faces all around the world that is plagued by the Church of Capital. I use it only as a means to describe a larger phenomenon: one which I do not know how to dismantle other than writing about it and challenging its assumptions.
Beyond the lack of questioning whether we want to make the mountains support a growing number of people, we are not asking whether this is something the mountain wants at all. Asking the land what it wants is never included in “sustainability” accounting, because it is not possible to measure what the land wants. And as “sustainability” is more of a marketing scheme than an actual attempt to solve problems in the world, asking the mountain what it wants is a no-no.
I’m far from alone in pleading the world to abandon the false gods of capital. These gods do not serve us, and they do not serve the planet we call home. Often, when I make my pleas, they only get lost in the void.
A friend posted on Facebook, asking the question of which proposal Utahns liked best, gondola or a larger road. I thought about it for a long time, and I responded with this:
I think my issue is that all of this is predicated on capital over Nature — regardless of the plan. The resorts are already extremely crowded, but on an infinite growth capitalistic model, they’ll terraform the landscape to accommodate even more consumers of recreation rather than proposing that growth be limited and fair. I think these proposals both operate from the narrative that more capital is better, regardless of the cost, whether that be the cost to locals not having equal access to the mountains they grew up with, the cost of an industrial eyesore in the canyon, or the cost of the landscape itself (and those who call it home) being altered and scarred for human purposes. Instead of having a conversation about placing a limit on growth so that there can be some semblance of equity for all of the beings in the canyon, it's about profit above all else.
The arguments about lessening CO2 emissions are nonsense because these arguments are always predicated on more growth, development, and human capital and are never about asking what the land wants or needs. I don't know when we're going to give up this fundamentalism around CO2 emissions. Ecocide is being committing all around the world with "sustainable" and "carbon neutral" branding. The amount of fossil fuels that will be required to build this infrastructure – either one – will be incredible. The cost to the ecosystems in the canyon will be incredible.
And at the end of the day, it won't matter because with or without the gondola, people will still drive up there and congest the roads because we never asked the right question to begin with.
We proposed two things that are basically the same thing to the land and the beings that belong to it – a desecration, a desacralization, an objectification and reduction down to which choice ticks the metrics of our carbon obsession better, ignoring all of the immeasurable and unquantifiable externalities associated with both proposals.
We never asked why we take infinite growth for granted. We never asked why we're okay that the resorts keep upping the price on tickets and keep making it incredibly cost prohibitive to enjoy the small amount of snow we still have left. We never asked why the resorts allow the mountains to be so crowded in the first place. We never asked why making money is the only thing that matters to any of these people.
Does this response not reek of desperation? Of course it does, as I am desperate. I’m desperate, not for me to be heard or my values to be adopted, but for us to listen to those voices who we drown out in our ridiculous bickering and asking of the wrong questions. I am desperate for us to measure the unmeasurable, not giving it a “value” or “metric” to weigh other measures against, but to simply ask the question: what is this canyon worth inherently, and how can we best serve what it needs? When you serve the gods of the living community, it’s worth more than any monetary value.
If we ask the river what the river needs, it will never answer with “a cement dam.” If we ask the trees what it needs, it will never answer with “a clear cut.” It we ask what the moose needs, it will never answer with “a larger road or a gondola.” This complicates our choices.
This does not mean that we don’t alter the landscape. It doesn’t mean that we don’t take from it. It means we make our decisions with the assumption that the world is alive rather than dead. It means we make our decisions with the assumption that valuing something via capital is a sacrilegious abstraction. When we serve the gods of the living community, we really just serve the living community – which also includes us. The gods of capital serve no one but itself and its cancerous growth model.
So if we must be religious, and it seems we must, whether we acknowledge it or not, I vote for the living community over dead commodities. I vote to serve the gods that maintain the complexity of life. The gods of capital are on a planet-devouring war-path, and we all know it. Many of us abhor it. Many of us also don’t realize that we abide by its tenets, whether subconsciously or unconsciously.
When we ask first what the CO2 emissions of a given thing are, or how much economic value is placed upon a given thing, we are serving false gods. The notion of capital is a human invention. The notion of life?
I’m sure you know the answer to that.
I am among the opinion that atheism is predicated upon as much of a religious framework as Pentecostal Christianity – which likely no atheist wants to hear. Religion is about belief, and we can’t “prove” that there is no higher power any more than we can prove there is one. Furthermore, the “religions” that I speak of above are not necessarily conscious ones, rather they are culturally imbibed. But as a person might grow up as a Hare Krishna, their very ontological worldview is informed by the religion. As so with these “metanarratives” as Charles Eisenstein describes it. They are simply stories that we believe about how the world operates. What is that other than religion?