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April 17, 2010
'We interrupt your vacation fun for this important announcement...'
Recently I had the pleasure of spring skiing for three days in the scenic Lake Tahoe area. In almost all ways it was a completely enjoyable and positive experience. The snow was good, the lift lines non-existent, and the sun was shining (most of the time).
I gained useful and valuable tips in the lesson I took on the first day we spent at Squaw Valley. The best payoff from a lesson is practicing and seeing if you can apply what you've learned. Our second day was spent at nearby Alpine Meadows, another large and excellent facility. My time at Alpine Meadows, however, was slightly diminished by what you might call a gratuitous and incongruous distraction.
If you've ever been skiing you're familiar with riding on the chair lifts. Moving cables take the attached chairs up the slopes at about five miles an hour. The cables are held aloft by lift towers roughly 200-300 feet apart.
On the lift towers at Alpine Meadows are attached signs conveying the following fascinating bits of information: "Milk cartons take five years to decompose," "Plastic six-pack beverage holders take fifty years to decompose," "Aluminum cans take fifty years to decompose, "Leather takes five years to decompose," and "Styrofoam never decomposes." There were about a dozen other messages along the same theme, but you get the idea.
These informational gems raised a number of questions in my mind: Why are they telling me this? What am I supposed to do with this information? What led them to believe that a ski resort is an appropriate venue to educate people about relative durations of decomposition? Is the fact that it takes five years for a milk carton to decompose a good thing or a bad thing? Is that too fast or too slow? Since Styrofoam never decomposes, should I avoid it like the plague? If I need to be educated (or re-educated) why do they assume it's about waste management?
You and I could both at least guess about some possible answers. One purpose of the signs is to take advantage of a captive audience to enlist them in the great recycling crusade, whether or not they actually want to be enlistees. What kind of reaction are they hoping to generate? Remorse, despair, indignation, resolve, I'm not sure.
Skiing could be considered a somewhat decadent activity. It's not cheap. Lift tickets typically cost $60-$80. Renting skis, boots, and poles is another $50, about the same for a snow board and boots. A group lesson is $50, a private one is $120. Lodging adds another $100-$300 a night. For a family, it can be a very expensive weekend.
The patrons might be feeling guilty about how much fun they're having. They're probably a good "target of opportunity" for making them feel guilty about their selfish and profligate use of resources. The implicit message is "Don't go enjoying yourself too much, your lifestyle is generating residue that takes too long to decompose."
I've seen information posted on ski towers many times before, but it's always been relevant to skiing safety or courtesy, "Stay within designated boundaries," for example.
The primary purpose of a ski resort, I assume, is to make a profit by making it possible for people to have fun. Why compromise that experience? Why spoil the fun? I doubt that it's in the best interests of the resort owners. When I go someplace for recreation or entertainment it would be nice if that were the exclusive focus of the proprietors.
I imagine most readers of these signs don't react as I have. They're just the kinds of statements you commonly see these days. They're not exceptional or unexpected. For all I know other skiers might be fascinated by decomposition trivia.
My frustration, of course, is not really with the owners and management of a particular ski resort, but rather with the cultural climate that spawns such intrusive and annoying nonsense. It's a climate that gives far too many people a license to nag.
Ron Ross Ph.D. is a former economics professor and author of The Unbeatable Market.