Skiing into Modernity

By Andrew Denning

This guest post is published in advance of the American Society for Environmental History conference in Washington, DC. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference them, Turning Protest into Policy. Come back for new posts every weekday until March 19th.

Andrew Denning

When it comes to the sport—and business—of Alpine skiing, translating protest into policy has proven exceedingly difficult. From the earliest appearance of the sport, a cohort of skiers protested the deleterious effects of hundreds and thousands of skiers making their way down the mountainside. The sport presented a Faustian bargain: it connected skiers with nature, yet by virtue of its immense popularity, befouled the environment. Complaints about the alienation of the sport from nature only became more vociferous in the post-World War II era, when lift networks, landscape modifications, and mechanical snow production recast the sport as a consumable product for millions of middle-class tourists.

In the context of Alpine Europe, French communities proved particularly adept at catering to the needs of modern skiers, constructing purpose-built resorts such as Courchevel and Les Arcs to serve winter tourists. Traditionalist skiers, the directors of more established resorts in Switzerland and Austria, and environmental advocates alike lamented the alienation of the sport from nature, but the immense profitability of these French resorts muted such claims.

Protest only became policy when the market became saturated in the 1970s. As profits slowed, many began to question the refashioning of the French Alps to suit the needs of winter tourists. The French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing voiced these concerns in 1977 in a speech at the Alpine commune of Vallouise, stating, “If the human wasteland expands, the touristic attraction [of the mountains] will lessen considerably. The urbanite looks to the mountain for contact with untamed nature… Enough with technocratic visions for development in the mountains. Think of people, think of mankind.”

In the context of the more austere economic climate of the 1970s and growing questions about the impact of Alpine skiing on nature, the construction of new resorts has slowed from the industry’s halcyon days of France’s postwar trente glorieuses. Only after the economic incentives of unchecked development collapsed did environmental protest influence development policy.

 

Andrew Denning is a postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of British Columbia and the author of Skiing into Modernity. His work has been published at The Atlantic.