Thinking Like A Mountain | Ecology-based Thinking

Thinking Like A Mountain | Ecology-based Thinking

Vital Café: Thinking Like a Mountain was held on January 22nd at the Whistler Museum & Archives. Reserve your seat for February's Vital Café: "Yes, there IS poverty in Whistler"

Story by Carol Coffey

Leslie Anthony’s “Conservation conversations” in the Dec 13, 2018 edition of Pique Newsmagazine struck me, as it goes deep to the root of so many of the world’s problems.

Can the economy and the environment be balanced?

Why do we struggle so much with this question? It’s likely because, as Anthony suggests, the “economy” is an artificial construct and the “environment” is real. We like to think of our economy as something separate from the environment. But, in reality, the economy is not separate from the environment at all. Nor are humans separate from the ecosystems in which we live.

An ecosystem is a community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

I use the word community very deliberately because we are, after all, a Community Foundation. Everything in an ecosystem is linked together through energy flows, food cycles, nutrient cycles and so on.

We can all understand what a community is, so I thought it really shouldn’t be too much of a leap to understand ecology-based thinking. When I sat down with Leslie Anthony and Kristina Swerhun from the Whistler Naturalists to talk about this, I asked “Do you really think that people don’t already think this way?” The answer was “actually, they really don’t.”

What a great topic for our first Vital Café conversation.


At the Foundation, our Vital Signs team made a deliberate choice to use the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals as our inspiration for this 2019 conversation series.

Is the idea of ecological thinking not a good place to start towards creating a truly sustainable way of life for humanity and for our little mountain community?

Okay, so the word sustainable has been bounced around so much now that we all groan and glaze over when we hear it. But, we wanted to go back and take a good look at the true meaning of sustainability so we invited Leslie Anthony and Kristina Swerhun of the Whistler Naturalists to kick off our Vital Café series.

In 1949 Aldo Leopold, an American Conservationist, wrote a piece in his book A Sand County Almanac called “thinking like a mountain”. This beautiful writing describes what happens to a mountain ecosystem when it’s top predator, the wolf, is eliminated by humans. Without the wolves, the deer overbrowse the vegetation and cause their own destruction based on their own “too much”.

Seventy years ago, human kind understood this interconnectedness.

Then, Kristina recounted the ecological transformation that occurred when wolves were reintroduced back into to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. With the wolves having been absent for 70 years, the deer had reduced the vegetation to almost nothing. When the wolves were brought back, the deer changed their behaviour and started avoiding places where they could be trapped, such as valleys and gorges. The trees were able to  grow quickly, the birds returned, beavers increased in number and engineered habitat for otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The wolves killed coyotes which increased the numbers of rabbits and mice. This in turn lead to more hawks, weasels, foxes and badgers. Even the rivers and streams changed since more vegetation meant less erosion and more pools for habitat for other species. This is a trophic cascade. So, yes wolves kill many animals, but they actually give life to many others. They also changed the physical geography.

Leslie Anthony explained to the keen group of Vital Café participants that our economic system is like a giant Jenga game. You can keep taking pieces out of the structure and it will still stay standing. For a while. But then, eventually, it will crash. Have we reached that last piece that is the tipping point?

We asked the group to talk about the local economy.

Is it based on endless growth? Are we loving our nature to death? What do we gain if or when we instead think ecologically about our community?


People were enthusiastic and embraced the concept of ecological thinking for sure. The conversation was broad sweeping and also deeply personal for many of the participants as it touches on people’s core values and their frustrations with the current economic and political systems/priorities.

But, people struggled a bit when we asked them to think about what personal actions they can do to advance the concept of ecological thinking in Whistler. It’s very tempting to jump to larger-scale solutions (like what the government should do) instead of identifying possible things we can each do, as individuals. Is it because we feel rather powerless as individuals in the face of such a massive beast -- our economic system? Perhaps, yes.


As the evening progressed, people began to make the important connection that they can make changes to their own actions and lifestyle, and lead by example. They can talk to others and then start to invite others on board. And soon you will have a movement, or a “cultural shift” if you will. As an individual, you can also join in with others who share your values.

Remember the YouTube Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy  by Derek Siver?

“The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader” and then comes the second follower and “three is a crowd and a crowd is news.”

Call in more of your friends. And, soon you have a movement.

Will you join us at the next Vital Café?

Visit our Vital Signs page for more information or go directly to Eventbrite to reserve your ticket.

Posted on Friday, January 25, 2019