Mountains, huh? So what?

3 03 2010

Mountains, huh? So what? Maybe I should expand on the first post and better explain the thought process behind this blog before I start posting some more specific content.

Academic disciplines are certainly useful, but these compartments of academic thought aren’t always well-aligned with the big questions in the world at large. Since human and environmental concerns are often inseparable, organizing research around environmental factors seems like a useful alternative approach. And what, in the natural world, looms larger than mountains?

People’s reactions to mountain landscapes range from fear, to euphoria, but rarely indifference. Mountains are also a lot more widespread than most realize. The diversity of the world’s mountain regions presents some pretty intriguing opportunities for cross-disciplinary and comparative perspectives on a number of big questions:

– Mountainous terrain is notoriously resistant to state control. It is no coincidence that some of the most volatile and intractable military conflicts–Afghanistan, Kashmir, Georgia, East Congo, the Balkans…–have erupted in the mountains.

– Mountains are weathermakers. From New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, to British Columbia’s coastal rainforest, to the Atacama Desert of Chile, most of the world’s windiest, wettest, driest, coldest, even some of its hottest climates are caused by mountains. Needless to say, mountains go a long way in shaping the world’s ecosystems, and thus, people’s livelihoods. Agriculture can be particularly challenging in the mountains, but a wide variety of cultures have managed to thrive on the unique opportunities of highland terrain.

– The Alps have been described as Europe’s “playground” for two hundred years, and mountain communities throughout the world are increasingly turning to recreation and tourism to foster economic development. These sectors offer great potential for generating wealth and community empowerment, but they can also reinforce power structures that exploit and threaten environmental and cultural integrity. Nepali Sherpas risking their lives to drag ego-driven, foreign alpinists up Himalayan trophy summits are only one of the more publicized flashpoints within these far-reaching controversies.

– Another nickname for mountains is “watertowers of the world.” They produce rain, collect snow and seed glaciers. Mountains are upstream from almost everywhere. Environmental degradation and climate change in the mountains threaten the water supply of billions of people. What’s more, the prominence of melting glaciers in climate change debates has attracted anxiety and nostalgia to alpine landscapes.

– Not only are resources in the mountains facing increased demand, but the land itself as well. With an exploding global population, more and more marginal mountain slopes are being developed and settled upon. Mexico City, Osaka, Tehran, Vancouver, Santiago, and Jakarta are just a few of the burgeoning metropolis’ climbing their surrounding flanks. The unique characteristics of mountain terrain pose any number of challenges including erosion, landslides, avalanches, glacial-lake outburst flooding, and proximity to tectonic fault-lines and active volcanoes. The various health implications of air pollution are often exacerbated by altitude, and poor air can become trapped by steep mountain slopes. Many of these challenges are compounded by climate change, which is occurring at especially high rates in most mountainous areas. These various factors are forcing a serious rethink of the way we design our cities.

Despite increasing development pressures, perhaps the most apparent commonality among mountain regions is their peripheral nature. With a few notable exceptions, throughout history they have featured lower human population densities, lower material standards of living, and unequal power relations with adjacent lowlands. Mountain regions have often acted as ecological and cultural refuges from the forces of modernity and globalization. This helps explain why the field of “mountain studies” is dominated by environmental scientists and anthropologists who are mainly concerned with conservation, development, or both (“sustainable development”).

This type of content will certainly appear on this blog, but my academic background is in cultural history, and my research focuses on the cultural meanings surrounding mountain landscapes. For example, in the late nineteenth century certain mountain regions of western North America became powerful symbols of sublime, pristine wilderness, inspiring the creation of national parks systems around the world. While there is much that is praiseworthy about these protected areas, their creation and subsequent administration often alienated indigenous and other rural people from their lands and livelihoods. Only recently has this darker legacy of National Parks administration been acknowledged.

I’m also an avid backcountry snowboarder, so you can expect more content like the link posted to the end of my first entry. It has nothing to do with any of the issues I raised above (or does it?), but it has everything to do with mountains.

A central aim of this blog, then, will be to demonstrate how all of these perspectives of the mountains–from development-oriented NGO work, to “hard” scientific research, mountaineering literature and the latest freeski video–can inform each other. Without abandoning this critical perspective, I hope the collective material posted here will also serve as a celebration of these powerful landscapes and the simple pleasures that can only be found up there.

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