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Alpine Fragility, Sacredness and Communities

Naess’ Ecology of Wisdom, a collection of his reflections on nature

The smaller we come to feel ourselves compared with the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness, says Arne Naess.

This concept is not just a spiritual one, but one that leads us onto a quest to understand  mountains in a much deeper way.

In the Tseringma region of Nepal, some say that when climbing a mountain, the mountain may witness our behaviour with a somewhat remote or mild benevolence. Accordingly, the mountain never fights against us; it will hold back avalanches as long as it can, but sometimes human stupidity, hubris and a lack of intimate feeling for the environment result in human catastrophes – catastrophes for mothers, fathers, wives, children and friends.

A sense of both greatness and fragility envelopes us when we reflect upon the mountains.

Can this sensibility from the purely local mountain cultures be compatible with cosmopolitan and urban ones that bring mountain climbers eager to “conquer” mountains, test their physical prowess, and claim victory by achieving a great height? Is the intrusion of new values and lifestyles rapidly undermining mountain culture?

To “participate in its greatness,” what do we need to know about the sustainability of mountain cultures and their ecosystems? It is a multi-faceted study of mountain economics and its limitations, invasive and natural use of water resources, modern usage and sacred exchange of responsibilities, and yes, reverence.

In Europe, worship of the mountains faded in The Dark Ages, but Arne Naess, the great philosopher, reminds us of certain cultures that still revere the mountains. Tseringma (Gauri Sankar), a glorious mountain in Nepal, is still worshiped.

When we suggested to the Sherpas of Beding, beneath Tseringma, that they might have their fabulous peaks protected from ‘conquests’ and big expeditions, they responded with enthusiasm. A special meeting was announced, and the families voted unanimously to ask the central authorities in Kathmandu to refuse permission for climbing expeditions to Tseringma. {The Ecology of Wisdom. Writings by Arne Naess, edited by Allan Drengson and Bill Devall, Counterpoint, Berkeley, USA, 2008, page 65.}

Goenden, the leader of Beding, walked all the way to the Nepalese capital to contact the administration. Alpine clubs and the government largely ignored this initiative even if Sherpas themselves didn’t mind losing the money they could earn from expeditions. The cosmopolitan – those who usually consider themselves more civilized and advanced than the mountain people – believed that “enlightened” Sherpas would tolerate organizers of expeditions going anywhere whilst high mountains need no “protection” as they are just great stone heaps and large glaciers.

Possibly these beliefs are mutually exclusive, one coming from a spiritual, ancestral connection with the mountain, and the other coming from the economic point of view. However, what Naess gets out of the dilemma is a certain idea of modesty in human relations with mountains and mountain people. “As I see it,” says the philosopher, “modesty is of little value if it is not a natural consequence of much deeper feelings and, even more important in our special context, a consequence of a way of understanding ourselves as part of nature in a wide sense of the term.”

Modesty means humility for some, and brings an urgency for long-term thinking as today’s development seems to be upside down: alpine communities are disentangled, but ski slopes prevail; ecosystem services are denied, while big energy projects carve mercilessly into the body of the mountain. To some, the sacred value of the mountains is a remnant of the past, better replaced by commercial value.

From Sacred to Tourism

Sarmizegetusa Regia, the sacred capital of the Dacians until 106 AD, year of the Roman conquest. Transylvanian Alps, the Carpathians, Romania. Photo: 2C

Many ancient cultures have sacred mountains. Some of the most notable are Mount Olympus and Mount Ida for the ancient Greeks. It was accepted knowledge that the gods of Greek antiquity had lived on Mount Olympus. Yet, sacred mountains were not an anomaly, but a preferred location for many activities. Consider Hephaestus’ workshop at the heart of Etna, or the mysterious Kogayon, the holy mountain of the Dacians somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains.

Lesser known sacred mountains dot Europe – such as the Alpine peaks of Celtic gods and Akkha, the mystic Sami mountain in the Scandinavian North. They are all subdued to an assimilated divine greatness of the Mountains of Europe and of the mountainous peoples of Europe. Most peaks of Europe were then baptized with saints’ names in the centuries of Christianity, continuing their sacred legacies.

A syncretic combination of various elements also characterised the “sacred mountains” that were erected all over France in the squares and in churches of the new Republic at the height of the Revolution in 1793 and 1794. These were constructed from piles of earth and other suitable materials as embodiments of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. The artificial mountains were used for the cultic representation of nature.

During the philosophical discussions of the 18th century, nature had interestingly gained an almost mystical character as the essence of perfection. Society was called to reconcile with it. In nature, it was believed, a Supreme Being revealed to humans the laws of Nature and Reason, just as the biblical God had once given Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. During celebrations of the Revolution, the artificial mountains were often climbed by a woman dressed in white. Standing at the summit, she was hailed as the new goddess of freedom and reason (Jon Mathieu, The Sacralization of Mountains in Europe During the Modern Age).

The Sacri Monti, Latin words for “artificially constructed holy mountains”, at the southern foothills of the Alps, especially Golgothaby, are also clearly related to topography. They developed in some regions near the border with Protestant countries during the decades around 1600. The idea of bringing “Jerusalem” to Europe and imitating it architecturally had already appeared before 1500 and gained greater significance after the Council of Trent (1545–1563). The thematic centre of the Sacri Monti is formed to symbolise the life and the Passion of Christ by remarkable scenes from the life of Mary, or the life of particular saints. Here, as in other regions, it was often conspicuous, but seldom, that very high mountains received pilgrimage churches (Luigi Zanzi, Sacri Monti, 2002).

Ascensio ad Infernos

Some years ago, in a mountain chalet on Monte Rite in the Italian Dolomites, Luigi Zanzi, a Mountain History professor of Pavia University, was screaming out a lecture about the crisis of mountain culture, the greatest provider of ecosystem services. His words and anger spoke to the fragility of mountain communities and their continuing demise.

Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. Photo: 2C

According to Zanzi, people of the mountain communities were free until less than a century ago; the areas that these people were occupying had been escaping any fiscal policies of the state, they were literal tax-free zones. Probably the last examples of such relative liberty were the shepherd communities in the Transylvanian Alps scattered on the hills around Sibiu/Hermannstadt in Romania or the ones in the Balkan Mountains during the iron fist ruling of the communists.

For inhabitants of the alpine communities there should be no income taxes, says Zanzi: “ A capitalist economy cannot function over 2,000 m altitude.” Whereas agriculture, production and services in the lowlands of Europe enter the global economic competition, the economic life in the mountain is essentially local and based on an “integral ecology”.

Mountain economy is important psychologically in Europe, maintaining a sense of production and consumption that is always self-sufficient. However, they cannot readily defend themselves against invasion of the big capital from those usually interested in grand tourism projects, hydroelectric projects or mining. Local production in the mountains inherently presupposes local consumption; in case of extra production, people’s work should not be “exported” or distributed at long distance, says Zanzi, for the simple reason that they cannot compete with the bigger businesses in the lower lands. Instead the community has a surplus and can, if temporarily, have higher standard of living.

Mountain economy is subsistence, however there is nothing demeaning in it. This traditional and ecological economy maintains environmental equilibrium on which the world depends. It surrounds glaciers, fights climate change and maintains a biodiversity that was lost elsewhere. These provided services cannot be taxed as simple as function of income in money because they are much more complex; they should be not taxed at all, concludes Zanzi. In some countries such as Costa Rica, landowners are paid by the government not to develop their biodiverse land, but instead leave it in its natural state.

Morteratsch Glacier in Switzerland, the fastest melting in Europe. Photo: 2C

To a certain extent, Marco Onida, Secretary General of the Alpine Convention told 2C in an interview, the general situation of the Alps has worsened. This degradation, thinks Onida, is happening on two dimensions: climate change and tourism. “We are heading in a quite dangerous direction with mass tourism in the mountains and not realising that this is not going to be sustainable.”

Alpine Economics

“First of all, there is too much focus on winter tourism, on skiing,” Onida says. “Ski resorts are investing to get more slopes and ski lifts, but there is less snow and less people mainly due to a greater competition. Today people also want to have quieter holidays even off-season, so there should be a diversification of tourism offers that take place only in some resorts, such as in alpinism villages in Austria. This is an interesting development, but there are still places where mass winter tourism is considered to be a must and this is harming the environment. But I should say that this is also harming the economy because it makes no sense to have for two months people coming from all over Europe, locals to work there and then, for the rest of the year – mere unemployment.”

Reinhold Messner in a 2C interview at his retreat in Monte Rite, Italy. Photo: 2C

Lack of structures which can promote sustainable tourism made mountain people enter in competition with the global tourism, alpinist Reinhold Messner told 2C in an interview a couple of years ago. “Today we compete with Africa, China, South America, with the whole globe. Nowadays, a three week trip to Nepal costs less than a little holiday trip from Frankfurt to Cortina d’Ampezzo for the same duration.” He suggested that investments in alpine areas are essential as long as they aim at sustainable mountain tourism or mountain agriculture, if they are made in the spirit of cleanliness and respect for those places. Moreover, they should not be depending on any government.

“For the case here [in the Dolomites], the regional Government in Venice or the Italian Government in Rome are way too remote, they have no clue about what the mountain is. Same in Brussels, 90 per cent of the politicians come from the plains and they simply cannot be well informed on what is happening in the mountains,” Messner said.

In fact, unemployment in alpine areas is frightening. Consequently, open cast cyanide mining or mountain top removals are seen as job providers. Alternative power sources are presented as panacea while water shortages are looming for downstream communities. Inequality and massive land use change has increased poverty which is then exacerbated with shipped-in and genetically modified food.

“Tourism must be an incentive for people of the mountain, which, by their own old means of production, maintains sustainability in the area. They must work in order to survive; they must eat and drink to make it through tough winters. The main condition is to be left alone,” concludes climber Messner. “Governments must allow people to live in the mountains as genuinely as they can.”

Risk and Black Snow

Crevasse on Glacier du Geant, Mont Blanc, France. Photo: 2C

Fragility of the mountain translates into the fragility of the global climate, which in turn makes mountain cultures more fragile.
“The risks of the mountain must be studied more closely since climate change became obvious. The risks have always existed. They are partly cyclical,” said Federica Cortese, Deputy Mayor of Courmayeur in charge of risk and the environment, and president of the Fondazione MONTAGNA SICURA.

The risks are increased by natural changes, urbanization, and by the practices of mountain recreation. There are risks to visitors as well as the climate. Glacier such as Jorasses, part of the Mont Blanc and Mer de Glace complex, causes threats by sliding on a slope driven by gravity. On a steep face of the mountain, under the effect of buoyancy, the ice can break off at any time. Falls are unpredictable
 so the risks are real for practitioners of mountain recreation. But the risks are real and big for houses in the valley of Val Ferret from under the glacier. Falling ice in winter could trigger destructive avalanches.

Effects on Agriculture

Global warming may handicap some parts of agriculture. Melting glaciers may temporarily provide water for crops resulting from warming in the higher altitudes. Valley of Adige around Bolzano (Bozen) in South Tyrol is covered with yards of apples that provide 10 per cent of the European market. Growing apple trees developed 30 years ago, enjoying a huge success. The sector is thriving, and to the point that cultures extend aloft to enjoy the warming that reduces the risk of frost. However, with cold, less apples get their rosy glow!

In the glacier of Morteratsch in Switzerland, probably the place where glacier melting can be seen with naked eye, climate change works its way towards vaporising ice and permafrost. High areas such as this experience quite a warming; the increase in average temperatures has long surpassed any thresholds optimistically set by any United Nations branch.

Science and Dynamics

The glacier Des Grandes Jorasses is subject to multiple monitoring: monitoring of the ice mass with surveillance cameras. 
More generally, scientists study the evolution of permafrost, the layer of soil, permanently frozen so far, which would tend to warm as a result of climate change. Sensors are placed in different locations to measure the temperature of the rock and soil in real time. The information is transmitted from the sensors to laboratories or researchers follow the phenomena and try to create models that predict the behavior of the mountain. 
Permafrost in fact depends on phenomena such as the holding of massive rocks often partially stuck by frost. Rising temperatures could cause the collapse of massive rock walls.

Morteratsch glacier retreat; base year – 1990. Photo: 2C

Uberto Piloni, consultant and mountain guide, shared details about the rapid melting and cracking of the Morteratsch: “Warm water infiltrates under the big blocks of ice and forms literal streams under the calotte making it break and slide downstream. Often times one can be amazed by impressive waterfalls that lie as a visual proof of melting at a speed of one cubic meter per second. Every here and there, crevasses create actual lakes, in fact some pits in which deep waters last for days. A pit like this is called a ‘swallower’,” concludes Piloni. The name belies the possibilities.

Climate change has extreme effects on the Alps, Marco Onida told 2C. “The average increase in temperature in all the Alps is higher than the average increase in other areas of the Northern Hemisphere. We had a 2C increase in the Alps [within the last two decades]; the effects are very visible and, most of all, very expensive. One of the most visible effects is the retreat of glaciers.”

Within an annual program consisting of sustainable crossing of the Alps and a lot of knowledge sharing – named SuperAlp! – The Alpine Convention let participants, all journalists, discover the conditions of alpine glaciers, one of the most evident indicators of the effects of climate change. It also intended to communicate the Alpine Convention and its Protocols as tools for the sustainable development of the Alpine region. The Conventions and Protocols are easily transferable to other mountain regions of the world and it is the hope that journalists will spread the knowledge and urgency.

Onida described how they chose five glaciers in the Alps and “crossed them all in order to see with our eyes what the situation is and to talk to knowledgeable people such as glaciologists.” Experts that have been living here for the last 50-60 years are able to explain evolution of the climate risk situation. They understand the speed of the retreat, and the problems associated with this retreat and other significant phenomena.

The glacier of Gran Paradiso (Grand Paradise) has proven an infernal effect. The water that glaciers provide to the lowlands – and here we are talking about long flow rivers of Europe such as the Po or the Danube that are carriers of immense biodiversity and culture that have been halved in the last decade, warns Eduardo Cremonese of the Environmental Agency of the Italian region Val d’Aosta. “People started to see that there is less water for them, less hydropower production. This low amount of snow and precipitations in general, as well as the increase in average temperature in the spring, is the danger for the valleys and also for the alpine areas.”

The research that the Agency in Aosta is carrying out is quite simple. Named “mass balance”, researchers are measuring the amount of snow and ice at the winter peak and then they repeat measurements in late spring. Subtracting, you get the amount of snow and ice melted. Comparative studies carried out each year in the last decade show that the glacier is continuously losing mass. “Just to give you an idea, we measured the ablation of the terminal part of the glacier and in less than eight years we had to change two 10-metre long poles. Gran Paradiso lost a 20-metre thick layer of ice!”

At its turn, Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, the longest in the Alps, has broken in five “tongues” along huge crevasses. Uberto Piloni says that there is an undeniable truth of constant melting and it is written in stone, in nature’s language: in the last 60-70 years, the super-industrial times, there has been a constant melting. Lichens growing on the rock serve as evidence.

Downstream Effects

Global warming will cause problems especially in the drier parts of the Alps, in the valleys without glaciers where precipitation is already low. This is underlined by Marc Zebisch, climate change expert at the European Academy (Eurac), a research centre in the region of Trentino South Tyrol, Italy. Glacier retreat is one of the most overt indicators of climate change, however it is snow that has the biggest impact, says Zebisch.

Glacier in Oetztal, Austria. Photo: 2C

Snow gives the highest degree of fragility; alpine snow is “the water tower of Europe.” Vegetation in the lower lands depends on the additional water that comes from the snow melting, that is all river streams and ecosystems consume the water that flows from the alpine snow, therefore less snow impoverishes biodiversity. A 4-degrees Celsius increase in average temperature in the Alps – very possible by 2050 – will cause more water in winter and much less during spring and summertime. This all means water shortages all over continental Europe similar to the drought of 2003, as well as less vigorous ecosystems.

Old ice and permafrost, due to low amounts of snowfalls, tend to get a darker colour, a phenomenon named “black snow”. Naturally, the melting speed increases as this ice attracts the sun’s rays. Paradoxically, however, in the coming years we will have larger amounts of water in the continent due to massive melting of the alpine glaciers. Nonetheless, Carpathians or Apennine mountains lose their snow already in spring, as Eurac satellite photos show, and water shortages are to be expected in the near future.

Businesses and developers, on the other hand, think in terms of credit and shorter periods of time. They keep doing good business with ski slopes in the Alps or enjoy the large amounts of water for hydropower.

We are living in times of egotistic and narrow approaches to development. For instance, nuclear energy imported from France is used to uplift water basins in the Alps for artificial waterfalls that create hydro energy. These are times when energy supplies and subsequent business are mere speculations, whereas glaciers on the alpine peaks are surely connected with the fantastic biodiversity of the Danube Delta.

As the great climber Reinhold Messner described soulfully, “… It is possible to show respect for the majesty of high zones and not touch that which in the past was not touched simply because it did not offer oil or wood. Up there was the place of those who wanted to get closer to the sun. Walking in the mountains does not only mean roaming around, climbing and enjoying picturesque views. It is literature, art and philosophy. I want to give this culture’s substratum to the wanderer that comes from afar.”

Messner’s words speak to the humility and modesty that Naess encourages us to seek. It’s a reminder that the mountains are not just an adventurer’s challenge, or a country’s energy panacea. They are not the home of backward folks whose numbers are too small to be valuable to a capitalist economy. The science of measurement, prediction and climate change matter, but not nearly as much as the sacredness, the sensational otherness, and the historic amazingness of the mountains and the surviving mountain cultures.

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