Stone: Part of the solution? You’re still part of the problem
A Stone’s Throw
“Carrying capacity.” Now there’s an ugly term. It sounds like you ought to be talking about a rented mule, not a treasured little mountain town.
But I’ve been hearing discussions about “Aspen’s carrying capacity” — and, now that I think about it, there are plenty of people who do seem to regard this town very much like a rented mule: load it up until it goes knock-kneed, beat it until it staggers on a little farther, wring every last penny of profit out of it and then leave it to die by the side of the trail.
And with that delightful image firmly stuck in our minds, let’s move on. (Unlike that poor mule.)
The real heart of the matter is much simpler: limits.
As Americans, we seem dedicated to blasting right past any limit that anyone might consider: speed limits, debt limits, weight limits. We are determined to be faster, broker and heavier than anyone would consider possible.
But, un-American as it may be, we need to face the fact that there are actual real-life limits in this world.
In our case, it comes down to this: There is not an unlimited supply of Aspen for us to sell.
We worry endlessly — and understandably — about how to solve the problem of the massive traffic jams that clobber everyone coming and going all through the summer and winter seasons.
But the truth of the matter is there is no solution to the traffic-jam problem.
There is no solution because the traffic jam is not really the problem. It is a symptom.
Blowing your nose doesn’t cure a cold. You breathe easier but you’re still sick.
Aspen’s real problem is the endless insistence that we must grow — not bigger and better, just bigger and bigger.
Sooner or later, we are going to have to slam the door shut or Aspen will no longer be Aspen.
First, it will no longer be the Aspen that so many of us have long known and loved.
Eventually, it will no longer be an Aspen that anyone will love.
There are many who will argue we’ve already passed that first mile post. But we have not — praise the mountain gods — yet come to the second.
Can we slam that door shut (or even shut it gently and politely)? I just don’t know.
There will certainly be people who will scream (understandably) that they are being deprived of their property — the value of their property, in any case.
That’s a nasty legal fight waiting to happen for sure. But it’s a fight we have to have.
And however we wrestle with those issues, this much ought to be clear: Unless we put some limits on this town, it is going to end very, very badly.
As I said, “solving” the traffic jam problem doesn’t really solve anything. It only makes things worse.
Whether you ram a straight-shot, six-lane highway right into the heart of town, or build a light rail system. Or a gondola. Or a monorail. Or a fleet of damn helicopters. If we make it easier to get into Aspen, then more people will do exactly that.
More people and then even more people until we’re back where we started. Except it’ll be worse. Because we’ll have even more people.
In our weird little mountain world, if you’re part of the solution, you’re still part of the problem.
I can hear the screams of outrage and I can understand them.
But the community of Aspen is not obligated to destroy itself in order to provide jobs for construction workers living in Rifle or Silt.
And we are not obligated to provide a guaranteed profit for real estate developers and speculators.
OK. I’m taking cheap shots. It’s easy to slag out-of-town construction workers and land speculators. But it’s not really their fault. We’re putting out the cheese so naturally the mice will come. (Could have said “rats.” Didn’t.)
Aspen’s economy has moved pretty far away from the ski-town/summer-resort model that was the heart and soul of the town. These days, Aspen’s major economy is buying, selling and building real estate.
That’s what puts the “B” in our billions and the bug up our butt.
And we can’t solve the problem until we actually solve the problem.
We need to decide, somehow, how much this old rented mule can carry before it collapses and dies of a broken heart.
There are more than a few people who are ready to declare that on peak days Aspen already has passed the bearable limit.
And there are probably just as many people who really think we can squeeze a few more (or a lot more) people in here.
There are people who want to put up more hotels. People who want to buy and sell the land for those hotels. People who want to swing the hammers and pour the concrete to build those hotels. And there are the people who want to drive the taxis and cook the meals and make the beds for the new guests in those new hotels.
And there are people who want to build the big new airport to handle the big new planes to fly those guests here. And build the big City Hall to house the big government to run the big town that will continue to grow.
Cranky old Edward Abbey famously wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Curing cancer isn’t easy.
But first and foremost, we need to figure out whether we really care.
Did I really just say that? Yes, I did.
It’s easy to declare our undying deep love for Aspen, but as anyone who’s been around the bars at last call knows, late-night declarations of undying love don’t count for much.
What really matters is what you do in the light of day.
So, do we really love Aspen?
Or are we just looking to hook up for the night?
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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