Fewer people make for a great day of skiing

As we transition to spring skiing conditions in Colorado, the crowds thin out and the skiing experience improves despite the stickier snow. A day on the slopes got me wondering – what other benefits might await societies as their populations decrease?

by Philip Cafaro

Yesterday I went downhill skiing in Winter Park, Colorado – a self-bestowed reward for a weekend of grading papers for my environmental ethics classes. I arrived there 20 minutes before the lifts started running, with plenty of time to suit up, gear up, and psych up for some challenging runs. Like most of the western U.S., central Colorado has had a great snow year, so there was still plenty of snow on the slopes despite the calendar saying April. The sky was a deep blue, temperatures were just above freezing, and there was almost no wind. All in all, a beautiful day to go skiing.

Mary Jane run, one of the most popular runs at Winter Park Ski Area. All photos by Phil Cafaro.

As I glided toward the main chairlift running up Mary Jane Mountain, I was thrilled to see only a handful of people in line. I couldn’t help comparing it to past visits, where it had taken 20 minutes or longer just to start the ski day. As I toured and slalomed around the mountain for the next four hours, heading up one lift and down another run, I saw some of the most popular runs on the mountain with only one or two people heading down them, sometimes none at all. And no waits on any of the lifts.

No lines at the Olympia lift!

What a pleasure it was to ski the mountain without the usual crowds! A utilitarian philosopher might have wondered whether it would have been better to have more people on the mountain, even if their average experience was worse, in order to increase total happiness. But since I’m not a utilitarian, I felt no need to attempt that calculation. Indeed, I take such maximizing thinking to be one root of our environmental problems, helping make the world a more crowded and boring place.

Now you might say, “hold on, Bozo. You live a pretty a privileged life, to be able to indulge in that particular hobby.” True enough. I have the money to pay for the gear and the season pass, the work schedule that allows me to take a weekday off to ski, the good fortune to live in Colorado. But as I glided down the slopes, practicing my turns, hitting a few of the easier bumps, I didn’t feel any guilt for my good fortune. Only gratitude for the sun and the snow, the snow groomers and lift attendants, the physical therapists who helped me rehab a separated shoulder after a previous ski outing that didn’t go quite as well. It’s a privilege to be able to ski; for that matter, it’s a privilege to be alive. I hope a thousand years from now, other people can still enjoy these privileges.

Skiing at 12,000 feet is a privilege. At top of Panoramic lift, Winter Park Ski Area.

Different times of year and different days of the week yield varying crowd sizes at Colorado’s ski areas, and too many days with minimal visitation would make them economically unviable. The owners of Winter Park Ski Area would prefer packed crowds from the start of the season to the end of it – that would maximize their profits. Skiers generally would prefer more days like I experienced. After all, we don’t go skiing to stand in lift lines and compare jumpsuits.

Driving home, I started to wonder: what other benefits might be made possible by smaller human numbers? With more nations starting to see the possibility of peak populations followed by population declines, we hear a lot about the problems that might cause. But there also seem to be potential benefits. What about smaller elementary school classes, where teachers can really give each child the attention they need? Lighter traffic on highways, cutting down on daily commuting times?

What benefits do you think would result from a smaller population in your city or town? What changes would you most look forward to if your nation became less populous? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

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24 thoughts on “Fewer people make for a great day of skiing

  1. An interesting look at one aspect of a better world that a reduced population would offer. My thought though is this: It makes more sense to explain and stress that a reduced population, all over, creates a better world for everyone. Not just for the privileged.

    The piece also brings up one insane train of thought that at times is promoted by some religions. It is this: Well yes they say: with a smaller population, people would have a better life. But what about all the potential people who could have been born? Even if these people’s lives on Earth might be unpleasant (after being born into a disastrous world situation), they would still have heaven to look forward to — heaven, where they would be able to forever bask in the glory of god. (This goes beyond the normal ideas of birth control. It includes even talking to humans about having fewer children.) This terrible thinking sits down within the core of the Catholic Church’s reasoning. That is: More people to worship god is better. So mean and harmful, so unworkable. So bad for life on Earth.

    1. The usual ‘god’ people’s idea of numbers being superior. Bigger is not better, better is better and if people’s lives on this planet were miserable what makes one think they will will still be honest, good, upright citizens? Most will not and many will commit suicide and we all know what the church’s teaching says about where these people are headed.

      A bit about philosophy and population numbers: how many people could be born and live if the planet were infinite in size and had unlimited resources? The obvious answer would be unlimited numbers. The planet does have limited resources and we are now living from the principle of the Earth’s bank account instead of the interest. One small example, fossil fuels are not renewable and are getting in very short supply. We all know the true motivations of the religious leaders but perhaps they need a reminder of limited numbers. A famous, short video demonstrates, in a religious and musical way, the affects of crowds. https://youtu.be/c5MgI7zpHKs

    2. Stephen,

      It’s true that smaller populations offer important benefits to poor people, and they offer environmental benefits that further the common good. That’s what we usually talk about here at TOP. But I think it’s also the case that many of us live in societies that have built up certain benefits for their members — privileges — that few people in the past have had. We want to hang onto those privileges, for ourselves and our descendants and future inhabitants of Earth generally.

      I think it is worth talking about those privileges, how people could lose them in a more crowded future, and how preserving them could depend on having smaller populations going forward. But I notice that no one took my advice and shared stories about what they would most appreciate in a world with fewer people, here in the comments.

      1. It’s very hard to articulate just in a comment a vision for a very different world. But I have my own idea: no need for recreation in “nature” because we’d be surrounded by it!
        In the case of the US, Native Americans, as far as I know, didn’t do all the things we do for fun. They did them for a living… and to me, that’s much more fun!
        Skiing*, horse riding**, hunting, foraging, DIY everything, hiking… all those things were not hobbies, they were woven into the fabric of life. Sports and “saunas” had community or religions functions. I think this gives activities more meaning than them just being things we do to escape our everyday reality.
        You might think this is unrelated to a lower population, but there have never been sparse but industrial and high-tech societies, as far as I know. And with fewer people, meaningful natural activities are available all around us, you don’t need to drive to them. They also become more necessary, but I’m fine with that.

        *I think it was show shoes and sledges for North America, skis for Asian and European indigenous people.
        ** Horses were brought back by the Europeans. Before that, people just walked so much, they probably didn’t need to do a lot of sports…

  2. I disagree here!
    I’m doing research for a book I’m writing about tourism, and skiing turns out to be really bad for mountains. Preparing the pistes ruins the rocks and ecosystems underneath in a myriad of ways (and sometimes disfigures the mountains), the lifts use a lot of energy (not to mention driving to them), and human presence on the top of the mountains can scare animals to the point of starvation, since they don’t really have anywhere else to go and are very vulnerable in the winter.
    All these things have been measured and studied.
    Artificial snow is even worse.
    Then, as you mention, the gear and the medical care when there are accidents also require a lot of non-renewable resources (especially when you collect injured people in remote places).
    The way I see it, skiing should go back to being a form of transportation for people living in these particular ecosystems, like it used to. It’s just too environmentally damaging as a sport.

    When it comes to overpopulation, I think that if there were far fewer of us most tourism infrastructure would not be sustainable in economic and labour terms. It’s cheap labour and cheap energy that make tourism possible – if everyone who works in the tourism industry was paid as much as a well-paid professional, no one would be able to do these activities except very rarely.

    1. Gaia,

      I agree with you that downhill skiing disfigures mountains and uses a lot of energy and water that would be better left unused (or in the case of the water, used by natural streams and rivers and their wild inhabitants). I’ve testified against ski area expansion on Forest Service lands, on behalf of the Sierra Club. No matter the mountain, my preference would always be to leave it undeveloped, including for ski areas.

      That said, I get a big charge out of downhill skiing. Once all the infrastructure is in, the damage is basically done, at least as long as the area continues in use. Ski areas are like a lot of luxury activities in wealthy societies, unnecessary. But from simple, cheap recreational activities (jogging) to complicated and expensive ones (like skiing), most of them are better when we can pursue them without being overly crowded.

      1. I’ve partly responded in the comment above…
        The way I see it, the problem is that some people can afford any activity they wish no matter how environmentally damaging, and others barely scrape by. So what happens is not only that our society is unequal, which is the big problem, but also, the other big problem, is that people that *can*, do – even if they’d be just as happy staying at home cooking with friends or whatever, with no impact on delicate ecosystems. A lot of people do stuff not because they really enjoy it or need it, but because others do. We live in a society of conspicuous consumption. Some very damaging activities, such as skiing or rock climbing, or international travel, are now so fashionable that many people engage in them even though you can tell they don’t get that much out of it. Same with the ownership of certain animals, houses with very big lawns, etc.
        If our society was more equal, and nature more widely available to all, the people who by their nature feel that they truly need something would “expend” their bit of extra income or individual energy allowance or whatever doing a certain thing, while others would enjoy a bit of another luxury, like buying more books or clothes or whatever, and leave the ski slopes alone.
        And maybe the fact that only some people do a certain thing would have benefit for all: wilderness would be preserved, and those who have access to certain environments could come back and share what they’ve learnt. Like the first people climbing Everest: if it’s a person a generation, they might be doing something meaningful, but right now it seems like that poor mountain is more crowded than a shopping mall, and everyone wants to be the first “queer person of color who was recently bereaved and older than sixty with a bit of a limp” to climb Everest, or something.
        But right now, some people have access to everything they want regardless of how much they truly appreciate it, and others, nothing. So, to me, most of the things we do are just mindless destruction.

        One final thought: in a society in which, because of greater equality, we are forced to share work also more equally, you could potentially get some of that “charge” by doing physical activity outside that is also useful – I’m not saying it’s exactly the same, but that’s how I try to live and it reduces the need for outdoorsy sport, since life itself become outdoorsy sport.

  3. Well, Phil, as someone whose family first settled in Colorado in 1862 (to sell beef to the Pike’s Peak miners) why worry about it, since in COLORADO and the REST OF THE U.S., we live in one of the 10 fastest growing nations on Earth and the likelihood of FEWER PEOPLE in ANY of the foreseeable future is about as likely as the world solving climate change while it ignores our still-exploding numbers? (Let me remind you, that when I was young, there were about one MILLION people in Colorado, and it now bumps up against 4 MILLION, with no interest by anyone–including former population activists, in stopping that, never mind that the STATE IS OUT OF WATER!)

    That continued growth is especially true if old clueless Joe gets his way and can bring in the 18,000 (REPEAT: EIGHTEEN THOUSAND) a DAY (if Title 42 is revoked) at our southern border that he wants to bring in even as he PRETENDS to care about climate change. (Stat source: HOMELAND SECURITY!)

    Let me hastening to remind one and all that he’s doing that even though OBAMA (apparently, as a lawyer, with more respect for a president’s RESPONSIBILITY TO ENFORCE U.S. law) said that NO PRESIDENT ever has the authority to do what Biden is now doing at the southern border: IGNORE AND GUT ALL IMMIGRATION LAWS WITH WHICH HE DISAGREES, even if they are laws his own party helped put on the books, that as Big 6 Media make d—-d sure not to scrutinize what “their guy” in the White House is doing!

    1. Yes, there’s a glut of pretending going on all over this world,
      and a severe shortage of honesty!

  4. Yikes…
    I notice the schizophrenia between
    the (nominal) attention to “overpopulation” as a meta-issue involved in our existential predicament
    and the priviledged almost elitist sense of personal entitlement and the desire for freedom from competition for specific resources of personal interest.

    I totally get the desire to not be mired in crowds or various venues of instant gratification ADHD culture.
    So I seek out stuff which is less crowded and less exotic resource intensive.

    Linking my own personal preferences to cost/benefit analyses of global fossil-fuel-driven “overpopulation” seems callow to me.

    I totally comprehend the line of thinking that “This infrastructure is already all in place, I already know how to do it and enjoy it, so before the wheels come off the bus, my enjoyment comes at negligible incremental cost …”

    The culling of (over)population, already at the bleeding edge, will be brutish and awful .
    … but hey, the ski hills and resorts won’t be so cluttered with humanoids in my way…
    seems rather Monty Pythonesque
    “Always look on the bright side of life”

    1. Paradoxically, going “off the beaten track” is often worse for the environment than sticking to the paths, which have been damaged already. There’s many studies on this. The crowds are bad, but people wondering off to the one place wildlife had found where they could be left alone – that’s even worse.
      I think there’s a difference between envisioning a world in which there’s more open spaces and nature for everyone to enjoy, and justifying resource-intensive elite activities done *now* by thinking something like: “if only there were fewer of us, this wouldn’t be bad”
      Importantly, people see through that, and the masses become unresponsive to environmental activism.

      1. Kurt,

        You bring up important issues. Do those of us who live comfortable lives in wealthy societies have a right to enjoy those lives? Do we have a right to engage in expensive activities that most of the world can’t engage in? My answer to both questions is “yes.” I don’t see much value in people in the US, Sweden, or Italy leveling down to the standard of living in Bolivia, Bangladesh, or Ghana. What’s the goal, the end-game?

        I’m happy to limit my consumption, in kind or degree, as part of political efforts to preserve a wild and fruitful world, for people and the rest of the species living here. My procreation, too. But the goal isn’t to put on a hair shirt and prove my purity. I would hope the goal would be a pleasant and prosperous society, where people enjoy life and even indulge themselves sometimes.

        So yeah, I think overpopulation is about both humanity’s existential predicament, and preserving the privileges that some societies have managed to secure for some of their more fortunate members.


        I think you are too hard on cross country skiing, which can be done on roads and trails that are used for other purposes during the rest of the year. At least here in the Colorado Rockies, such dispersed recreation seems to have minimal impact on other species.

        Re: downhill skiing as a “resource intensive elite recreational activity,” I think you are right: there is no justifying it. It is part of a larger approach to nature that is unsustainable.

  5. In the Usenet newsgroup sci.econ, on Jan. 3, 2012, I asked:
    “Question: What will the world be like with 10 billion people?”
    and one person answered:
    “Just like it was with 7B, with even more technological advances added, stupid.”

  6. Phil, I wasn’t talking about skiing on roads which are used anyway. I don’t know about Colorado, but here off piste skiing is very popular and that’s what I was talking about. It’s also very dangerous and it can starts avalanches.
    It also applies to walking off paths pretty much anywhere. I’ve had to tell dog walkers here not to walk on my grazing paddocks and to stick to the trails, otherwise the grass in the paddocks won’t grow, and boy are they offended…

    “I don’t see much value in people in the US, Sweden, or Italy leveling down to the standard of living in Bolivia, Bangladesh, or Ghana. What’s the goal, the end-game?”
    It’s not just about end games. We do not live in that 2-billion world already, so I believe we shouldn’t behave like we do. For those of us who live in societies that consume beyond their means, consuming less means not just preserving the natural world, but allowing people who are very poor a fairer share of resources. You know how much we import, so anything we don’t use, is left for those people of Bolivia, Bangladesh or Ghana to take themselves.
    And a lot of consumption, like I was mentioning above, is only made possible by cheap labour, which often means immigration. The middle and upper classes of rich countries could not have rich-people lifestyles unless we either force our countrymen to work for less, which is becoming harder and harder to do, or import cheap labour in the form of immigrants.
    So there IS a direct connection between lifestyle and population.

    Finally, every strategy to reduce overall environmental impact and/or deal with the effects of a population that stops growing, but doesn’t address inequality, is guaranteed to face fierce popular backlash. France is a great example: both the gilet jaunes and the pension protests were exactly that, the people’s response to needed reforms that however only targeted the poor.
    I think this would be a great topic for this blog!

    1. Sounds like what you call off piste skiing we call backcountry skiing here in the US: downhill skiing away from established runs and lifts, where you have to sweat to get to the top of your run. I haven’t heard of its having much environmental impact here, but that is hardly conclusive. But the impacts of mainstream downhill skiing are pervasive and undeniable.

      Whether the global population is 2 billion or 8 billion, consuming less leaves some resources / ecological space for others — although that doesn’t mean we have any control over who those others are. Could be poor people, could be rich people, could be other species. It is the overall economic system which will determine who benefits, and as we know, that system is crowding out other species and shoveling most of its benefits to the already wealthy. Given this, I don’t see any evidence that individual consumer restraint actually translates into a more just distribution of global resources / ecological space.

      It’s the same with exercising reproductive restraint. You can hold off on having children, or only have one or two. Those are potentially useful contributions to creating a more ecologically just world: one where we leave more room for other species. But that doesn’t mean those contributions will actually be used to further that goal. In a world where some religions and religious sects commit their adherents to pumping out as many new believers as possible, your forbearance may just be part of creating a larger proportion of Mormons or Muslims in the future. With a world economy dedicated to increasing per capita consumption and economic growth, your forbearance might just free up a little space or a few resources to be used to bolster that increased per capita consumption and growth.

      Having said all that, however, I still think restraint in consumption and procreation is the more ethical course. They are the right things to do, in a world in dire environmental straits. But they find real value when tied to political programs designed to create sustainable and just societies.

      1. “Given this, I don’t see any evidence that individual consumer restraint actually translates into a more just distribution of global resources / ecological space.”
        That’s why it’s a necessary, not sufficient condition.
        There’s also the issue I keep bringing up of the example you’re setting. Right-wing forums, which I sometimes check out, are full of people saying things like: “I’m not having one less child / eating less meat so that you can live in a castle.”
        We’re literally not getting anywhere by asking the masses to give up something when they see the very people asking not being prepared to do so themselves. Hence mass protests every time the price of fuel goes up, pensions are raised, farmers see their income reduced, etc.

        As for backcountry skiing, I think the evidence is hard to find because you don’t see animals that are afraid to access a certain area leaving it and not coming back. It requires specific studies on the area by people who are hidden and stay there for a long time over a long period, such as scientists, hunters, or wildlife photographers. I’ve done some research and pretty much anywhere the impact of people going to unfrequented places is always marginally greater than using, with everyone else, places that are already crowded and damaged. It might seem counterintuitive, but it actually isn’t. Not to mention you are, again, setting examples and opening paths for others.

      2. Gaia,

        I agree on the need for shared sacrifice in creating sustainable societies. You are right: average people will rightly reject attempts to reduce environmental impacts that rely on their sacrifices while the rich continue to live it up. Setting a good example is important, too.

  7. What started as a pleasant day of skiing has turned into a very interesting debate on global problems, with many good points being made. Phil – I can guess you expected such an outcome.

    My first thought is a simplistic one: moderation. (“Everything in moderation,” but to be cute – not moderation “in moderation” given current planetary conditions.)

    The difficult part is changing the hearts and minds of enough people to bring about a rational vision of a world living in peace and harmony with nature. Perhaps the key word here is balance.

    From there, countless topics arise.

    What is the source of the wealth? An oil executive, banker, or cocaine dealer flying his or her jet into Aspen every winter weekend may have gone unnoticed decades ago.

    What do we study in more depth, and what must we act on immediately? We may or may not have time to study whether environmentally conscious ski areas can be viable in the future. (The optimist in me believes they can.)

    We probably don’t have time for a detailed, decades-long study on how to change global human behavior so that the maximum number of future generations can have a reasonable quality of life. We may have to rely on common sense and careful, virtuous thinking.

    Commenting on the benefits of having less overcrowding is a piece of the puzzle. Changing global human behavior is a puzzle with many pieces, complicated by the fact that the picture for which the pieces fit may be changing as we work on it. Yet, we must work on it, and quickly.

    1. Stephen,

      Agreed! We need to work on changing human behavior — and reducing our numbers, given what we know about the immense impacts that behavior has on Earth. I’m heartened by the rising generation’s apparent willingness to consider limits to growth.

    2. Humans have been skiing for thousands of years… with the exception of motors and other things that didn’t exist, all of the things we do for fun have been done for a very long time. The modern twist is turning survival or social activities into sports.

      1. Downhill skiing areas are quite common in the Scandinavian mountains, however this is a huge region and such skiing is concentrated to a few places. In the last years biologists have found that skiing slopes are rich in herbaceous plants, in summer. That probably also means more insects (and even birds?). I’m sure you can find papers about this (I may help). I’m not a fan of downhill skiing, but note that if all these people instead would only go for cross-country skiing, you would get much more disturbance overall in mountain areas (dispersed disturbance). Management of natural areas and people is always quite complicated, but more rewilding would be great…

  8. Frank, I’ve done some research and in a nutshell skiing damages the underlying vegetation through things like piste preparation, compaction of water and soil, especially with artificial snow which is becoming more common. Yes, ski pistes are meadows in the summer, but they would be healthier meadows if they weren’t skied on in the winter. There’s also the problem that animals that live there in the winter (in the Alps at least) are very vulnerable in that period of time and they could potentially starve to death, or be unable to breed in the spring, if they keep being disturbed and having to run away.
    And of course energy consumption which is very high since you’re taking people uphill.
    It’s true that dispersed disturbance is worse than concentrated disturbance, all else being equal, although of course if there were no skiing infrastructure, less people would probably ski since it’d be too tiring to climb uphill yourself.

    I have a very fringe personal philosophy, which I’m trying to articulate in my writing, which is that I try to fit into my active, working life things that are now considered leisure. This reduces your overall impact on nature, leads to less exploitation of others, and still makes for a fun life (even more so because when you do things because you have to you learn so much more about them).
    It’s hard to explain in just a comment and I know it’s a very unpopular view given how we live now.

  9. We would have less people ruining our state through social media posts. Less people talking about how light the crowds are on a spring weekday of skiing. What is this obsession to share your great experience with the world? You know the end result is the FOMO in today’s society, right? More articles like this mean more people on spring skiing weekdays.
    Sometimes a wonderful experience is meant just for you, and not for you to share.

    1. I think it’s the news coverage of the mass shootings, mainly,
      that is inflaming the mentally ill to take action. The media
      are in the business of delivering an audience to an advertiser;
      they must have sensational stories or nobody will buy their product!

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