dude, where are my ethics?

17 11 2008


i’m coming clean.

while i retain a healthy dose of respect for the non-human (despite my decidely human-centric ontology epistemology), i am an unabashed nature-manipulating animal when engaged in the cleaning of new areas.  my practices typically include 1) clearing the ground of deadliness, 2) comfortizing spikes in areas of high dynamic contact, 3) and putting in mantle-bars to make the off-the-deck experience less frightening.  heh.  mantle-bars.

all three seem problematic in the exact same way (despite the third being fictional): i am imposing my will on nature.  but it strikes me this human/nature question simply masks the real problem most people have with nature manipulation: i (or somebody who is not ‘them’; the Other) am imposing an experience on them.

it seems pretty easy for me to sidestep both.  first, there is no tabula rasa.  the world is not a blank slate waiting for the creative hands of enlightened humanity to mold it into something.  it is always-already a constellation of relations, processes, and events prior to any human mediation.  add to this complex web a few thousand years of human interaction and what you have is a ‘natural’ experience that is nothing more than a palimpsest of impositions.

“uh, wtf does this have to do with ruining boulders?”

easy.  let’s list out the impositions on nature which create the possibility for climbing.

1) economic surplus: climbing requires a surplus of capital, time, and calories.  since the production of surplus value relies on extraction from nature (and labour :)), then it seems climbing is predicated on extraction.  in other words, primary commodities form the foundation of the industrial economies which have created sufficent surplus for laborious recreation to emerge.

2) roads: how many boulders and trees have been reduced to dust to create a road?  lots.  how do we get to the boulders?  roads.  are we complicit?  eh, not really i guess, but roads are nonetheless an integral part of the nature/society rockclimbings web.

3) cars: see roads.  see oil.  see geopolitics.  see global warming.  unless you’re living at the rock ranch in hueco (if you do – i like totally hate you), you’re gonna have to use the car to go craggin’.  energy crisis, what?

this list could go on and on.  dead pads in landfills, trail impacts on vegetations, etc. etc. etc.

my point, however, is not to bring down the hammer on the environment-friendly climbing community (WHOMP!), but to point out 1) how silly it is organize climbing ethics as if they are somehow disconnected from practice and ethics more broadly writ and 2) how nature is always-already changed prior to our arrival in the woods.

of course, this logic tends towards a precarious edge; some sort of post-structural nihlistic hedonism.  in other words, “everything is f**ked, so f**k everything.”

dangerous, indeed.  so the question becomes: how do we keep this monster at bay?  how do we formulate a myopic climbing ethic sans myopia?  how do we avoid slipping into self-indulgent narcissism? what might we construct as key nodes in our ethos?

i’m curious.  i’ve got a follow-up article in the wings, but i’m curious about your thoughts on the subject.


-tissue tendons




5 responses

17 11 2008
peter b

The tabula rasa proposition is a straw-man argument, as I think you recognize with your self-diagnosis of potential “post-structural nihilistic hedonism.” I’m not sure about the hedonism part though. 🙂 I think that anyone with a glimmer of awareness, self or otherwise, recognizes that the natural world, however defined, is not free for the taking, or writing upon, as it were. The question as you rightly propose, is what is the appropriate way to inscribe climbing on the landscape?

A couple of thoughts spring immediately to mind. Think about the categorical imperative. Can I will my actions to be universal? A few that might pass the test.

1. Do not hurt, modify, or destroy living non-human beings. Trees, lichen, moss etc., not to mention other forms of wildlife would count.
2. Do not modify the rock.
3. Do not climb in a way that harms the experience of other climbers. This can be manifested in all kinds of ways, too many to list here.

There are many ways that these principles can be followed or at least be honored in the breach by recognizing their existence. Many climbers seem not even to be aware that the world outside their experience of it even exists. Moving from relativism to solipsism is pretty easy, especially for male adolescents.

The broader argument of the economic exploitation that supports the practice of climbing is a troubling one . For example, the tacit assumption is that to climb at a high level of proficiency you must have an independent income of some kind. However, it’s never stated out loud. It is my belief is that the proliferation of young climbers somehow having the leisure to travel for months on end in very expensive places such as Europe depends to a great extent on the income inequality that has grown rampant in the U.S. The low participation rates of low-income and minority populations certainly speaks to this. Climbing is a lot like other “white” sports such as yachting.

17 11 2008

i threw in hedonism as a nod to jim morrison. surely the ‘lizard king’ would have linked nihilism with hedonism, no?

i’m not sure the world lacks tabula rasa people. reading development plans and legal decisions regarding mountaintop removal in appalachia suggests quite the opposite. in fact, development itself is organized around an infinitely fungible nature.

universality is the standard for ethical inscription? while i certainly agree with your three baseline tenets, i can’t help but see the infinite slippage when applying them to specific practices. they work well as transcendent (but alas, unobtainable) forms i guess, but i’m hard-pressed to imagine climbing without altering the rock or running a bit roughshod over nature. like i pointed out – the entire game exists only by virtue of colonial exploitation of/in/over nature.

yeah. the move to solipsism is pretty easy given its almost perfect partnership with rampant consumerism. (i mean, aren’t people encouraged to be oblivious?)

yes. climbing is most definitely NOT an equal opportunity sport.

17 11 2008

btw. the grid is hilarious. makes me laugh everytime i see it.

6 01 2009

“but i’m hard-pressed to imagine climbing without altering the rock or running a bit roughshod over nature.”

That’s fair, I guess. The act of climbing on rocks alters them. Maybe a better standard there is to not alter the rock in any way except by climbing on it. That allows you to climb but doesn’t admit chipping and other intentional rock-altering.

My ethic kinda boils down to trying not to fuck anything up too bad. You know, generally be nice and stuff. Sure, it’s not intellectually rigorous, but it worked for Jesus (he came up with the golden rule, right?).

7 01 2009

agreed. i’m all for being nice and stuff. i think what i was trying to wrap my head around at the time was mostly the problem of comfortizing gougers (sharp finger rippers on crimps or edges) whilst cleaning FA’s.

this was the issue:

1) the intent is certainly nice, 2) the gouger doesn’t add anything to the problem (or make it technically easier, but 3) it’s still rock manipulation.

what i really wanted this post to do initially was look at the connection between aesthetics, intentionality, and our desire to live in the context of ethics.

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