Watch the start of ‘Accidental Climber,’ a new documentary about a Sacramentan’s Everest attempt
It’s easy to shake our heads at the situation on Mount Everest, where mountain climbers lined up for hours to make that last little leg to the summit. It was like a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour, the photos showed, a barely budging line of bumper-to-bumper humans. The delays were so bad that they appear to have played a role in the deaths of several climbers within a few days of each other, because of the risks inherent in standing and waiting in freezing weather and thin atmosphere.
“Mount Everest is becoming like Disneyland,” one commenter wrote on Yahoo. With an important difference: The amusement park’s trash is cleaned up far more regularly.
The government of Nepal recently teamed with volunteer mountaineers to clean up tons of trash that had collected on the mountain. During their first two weeks on the job, they collected three tons of garbage and four dead bodies. By the end of May, they expected to pick up 11 tons, with the trash ferried out by helicopter.
This is humans at work on the planet, turning a natural marvel into a garbage dump in their quest to “conquer” nature.
What’s less obvious to us, though, is that Everest is just a very visible version of what we do here on safer ground all the time. In fact, the worst thing that’s happening on the jagged peaks isn’t the climbers, whose numbers could be reduced with stiffer permit rules, or even trash, which can be picked up, as hard a task as that is. It’s this: What enables the volunteers to find long-buried bodies is the melting ice from climate change. That warming comes from the billions of us who would never dream of donning crampons.
It’s not just Everest that’s overcrowded and treated with contempt. Remember the trashing of Joshua Tree National Park during the government shutdown? Lower in elevation, human population growth and activity threatens a million species (yes, you read that right) with extinction within a few decades, according to a May report by the United Nations.
Biodiversity – the number and variety of plant and animal species – is being reduced at a rate never seen before, driven by the human drive to raze and develop natural landscapes. It’s also driven by climate change, overfishing, hunting, poaching and the spread of invasive species.
We in California are treated to the sight of that last item as rolling hills throughout the state transform from the rain-watered, early-spring green to the browns of summer and autumn. We think of these grassy hills as one of California’s landmark sights. In truth, those are annual invasive grasses, introduced to provide fodder for cattle in the state’s earlier years. After fires, those are the first to pop up, covering the land, choking out native perennials and creating a yearly fire threat. The native sage scrub in the hills above my house is still green right now. The invasive black mustard that took hold at the lower elevations is brown and dry, perfect tinder.
In Brazil, the rainforest is being cleared for cattle grazing. It’s a double whammy for climate change, with the loss of trees and in order to raise more beef, the most climate-unfriendly food we can eat. Both California sage scrub and Brazilian rainforest are among the most biodiverse environments in the world, but they submit to the needs and wants of a growing population of humans.
You would think, then, people would cheer to see that in May the U.S. government announced that the birthrate in this country had fallen for the fourth year straight, to 1.7 births per woman. At this rate, the nation is not replacing itself, though migration from other countries keeps numbers robust.
The drop appears to be a combination of fewer teen pregnancies and more young adults who can barely afford shared housing, let alone kids. Some of it also is environmental concerns. Unlike older generations, millennials are more fully committed to public transit, plant-based eating and other ways of life that have a chance at keeping the planet together.
Yet stories about declining birth rates are invariably reported as though they’re a problem. Instead, we should be taking cautious hope from the change. The world does not have the space for trash at the rate we’re putting it out, much less for added amounts. It lacks the natural resources for the demands of a growing world population.
A couple of years ago, a Swedish study found that the most important step people could take to combat climate change would be to have one less child per family. The fears about that kind of scenario are short-term but real: Having fewer young people in the workforce means a heavier burden on them to keep the older population in pensions and Medicare.
Short-term pain vs. long-term catastrophe: The planet cannot produce ever-larger young populations for the sake of supporting larger old populations. At some point, the “growth is good” model collapses under its own weight.
Instead of bemoaning reduced birth rates, governments should be passing policies, such as tax benefits, to encourage the change. More foreign aid should go into education for girls in developing nations, which has been found to result in delayed childbearing and smaller families. And maybe one day enough people will gain the wisdom to leave Everest alone for a while to recoup, realizing that restoring the health of the planet and its wild areas is the best summit we can imagine.