The Olympicon is here. No surprise there: thousands of tourists going mad with giant cowbells, predominantly naked, painted all manner of colours, engaging in giant snowball fights & screaming orgies of well-meant nationalism as they cheer on their sporting heros… it’s a massive gongshow, and despite the hiccups, the debt, and the security presence, I’m often moved to tears by the athletic accomplishments.
But in other news, the Olympicon has brought together the first TedX conference in Whistler. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a nonprofit organisation devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. TED has created a distributed model for its talks (otherwise held in Oxford and Long Beach), disseminating localized and independent TED talks worldwide – hence TedX. With this in mind, the Whistler organisers have created a conference devoted to the question of “Tourism’s Place in a Sustainable World.” It’s a swank yet seriously devoted affair, held at the Whistler Media House (aka Whistler Public Library), with the Squamish Lil’Wat First Nations Cultural Centre Ambassadors and Mayor Ken Melamed opening the talks. I’m sitting here on blogger island, attempting to tweet, blog and keep track of the multiple screens of information, projections, and videos that make up this fast-paced set of presentations. (If you’re on twitter, you can read the archived event tweets with the hashtag #tedX .)
Of course the question of sustainable tourism is imperative to a destination resort such as Whistler. From rumours that the Peak 2 Peak gondola was built to ferry passengers above the lower slopes of Whistler Blackcomb, when climate change will bring warmer and wetter winters – leaving the lower mountains green and snowless – to the ongoing questions of backcountry management when ski touring (and sledding) has grown massively over the past few years, questions of sustainability dominate Whistler’s economic future. I was hoping that Whistler Watch would be present at TedX, for this ad hoc collective of Whistlerites was instrumental in successfully opposing the privatization of Whistler’s waste treatment plant in 2006. And it’s worth noting that Whistler still doesn’t have sewage treatment for its oldest residencies on the West side of Alta Lake. As G Cluer wrote in the Pique recently, “It appears that neither the government nor municipality have any money – or interest – to provide such an unexciting item [sewage line to Alta Lake]. The cost of a couple of fuel cell buses might have covered it” (Feb 3rd 2010).
Bruce Poon Tip, who runs Gap Adventures, described the differences between ecotourism, responsible tourism and sustainable tourism – kind of a mixed message lineage of the development of more environmentally-friendly travel. That said, while I applaud the many initiatives his company has taken (which are honourable – winning several awards for their charitable acts & sustainable tourism initiatives), the difficult truth to swallow is that tourism means oil consumption. There is currently no tourism imaginable without oil, and the future of tourism is also the future of a planet reaching and surpassing peak oil (as a few audience members have noted in today’s discussions). In response, several audience members have suggested that a focus upon regional travel and local adventure tourism – turning away from costly international travel – might be the way forward to environmental and economic sustainability.
Valerie Langer, founder of Friends of Clayoquot Sound, made the point that only 20% of the world’s forests remain, and that Clayoquot Sound itself is only 40% (or so) protected – and that such protection cannot be considered permanent until alternative employment is found for the members of the logging (and fishing) industries. In short, sustainability means not only conservation, but developing labour and economic alternatives. Such work means working with logging industries and the First Nations in redesigning policy and regulation of ecosystem-based management, such as in the case of the Great Bear Rainforest, which Langer says is a “beacon of hope” for such initiatives – and which needs to succeed as successful models are desperately needed for the world, a “model for sustainability.”
Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, ethnographer and author of the thought-provoking study of alternatives to Western civilization The Wayfinders (collected from the 2009 Massey lectures), reminds us that Whistler needs to assess where the wealth of its visitors came from. In short, tourism attracts a wealthy class, and though the method of tourism in Whistler or even getting to Whistler might be sustainable or eco-friendly, the source of tourist wealth is probably not. From this point, Davis let loose the associations & narratives of alternative eco-societies. He led the audience on a whirlwind tour of sustainable indigenous communities, from Australian Dreamtime to rituals in the Andes, where various ceremonies of the sacred connect the collective to the unity of the Earth. As Davis notes, in Australia, there is only the moment of the dreaming, with no signifiers for time, past, present or future in the language; while such a culture won’t “put a man on the moon,” it also wouldn’t result in the ecological catastrophe we are in today. In short, “Sustainability is not an anomaly. In most civilizations, it is the norm.” So, in summary, while sustainability in Whistler might be the topic of TedX, it will go nowhere without (a) extending sustainability to the BC hinterlands, and beyond, pursuing a sustainable planet and (b) without investigating who is coming to Whistler, and what corporations are behind them, we can do little to affect sustainable change until we change the practices of tourists traveling to Whistler, as well as what they do outside of Whistler.
This was not all .. Mark Angelo, Chair of the Rivers Institute at BCIT, gave an inspiring talk on global travel which opened the event and set the tone for this fast-paced, thoughtful yet invigorating afternoon. Now it is time to refresh the brain with beer. See TedXWhistler for archives of the talks and conversations.
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