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Aspen wants to change the world

AUDEN SCHENDLER AND ED MARSTONwriters on the range

The 1892 World’s Fair in Chicago had two co-stars: the electric dynamo and the first Ferris wheel, which met the showboating challenge posed by the Eiffel Tower, hit of the French world’s fair.The Chicago fair changed how Americans thought about architecture, about what they could expect from cities (the Chicago fair was clean, safe, beautiful), and what technology could do.The beleaguered environmental movement needs something like a world’s fair today. We need a new way of thinking, and then living. The Chicago World’s Fair didn’t create clean and safe cities or more exciting architecture, or even a sense of what technology could do by itself. It brought together what had already spread throughout the nation in bits and pieces. But it didn’t lecture and rant at the audiences. It showed them.It lit 200,000 incandescent alternating-current light bulbs at a time when even big cities were dimly lit. It hoisted people 264 feet into the sky to show them how easily metallurgy and modern engines could transform their view and way of life.What we need today is a World’s Fair that can help us see how we can confront global climate change, a decimated natural world and some of our other challenges. And these new approaches have to make our lives better rather than more deprived. Happily, such a fair is already under way.Recently, the city of Aspen began the “Canary Initiative” to make Aspen the leader on research, discussion and on-the-ground emissions reduction to address climate change (www.aspenglobalwarming.com). And that’s in a city which boasts of 57 percent of its electricity coming from renewable sources; a free transit service using some of the quietest, cleanest hybrid diesel buses on the market; an extensive recycling initiative, and a tax on energy-hogging homes that funds energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.Nobody around Aspen thinks compact fluorescent bulbs are going to hold back global climate change. That’s not the point. But taking a lesson from Kierkegaard, who, like Aspenites, thought each existence the center of the universe, city residents realized that the rarefied nature of their hometown gives them the power to influence the world. Aspen gets press coverage in China, hosts presidents and senators, and, of course, entertains the most influential people on the planet – the people with the most money.In other words, the Aspens of the world could be seen as a world’s fair in progress. Modern Aspen was started by people who wanted to do more than just let tourists slide downhill on snow. They founded the Aspen Institute, an intellectual center, in 1950, not long after Bretton Woods changed the global economy. In the ’70s, Aspen pioneered growth restrictions. That created a beautiful town as well as immensely high housing prices and long commutes for ordinary-income mortals. But that’s the nature of an experiment: Sometimes it bites you, even if it works.Now, town council members from all over the country come to Aspen to see the next round in the experiment: a huge number of employee housing units and a good mass transit system; model child care; an exemplary local foundation that protects community health by looking after its citizens in a multitude of ways; a city that will soon be 80 percent powered by wind; and an engaged citizenry that writes so many letters to the five local papers it drives some residents crazy.Of course, Aspen has no Ferris wheel. But until recently, it hasn’t had the impetus to build one. Now Aspen does. The world has big problems, and it needs a vision of what is possible.Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the earth.” Aspen is both a lever and a place to stand. It’s small enough to nimbly change, smart enough to know it’s on stage, and brashly self-confident enough to try to inspire the world.The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Ed Marston lives in Paonia, Colorado, and is the former publisher of High Country News; Auden Schendler lives in Basalt, and is director of environmental affairs at the Aspen Skiing Co.


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