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The Aspen Idea meets Whistler. It’s Our Future

Timing is everything, as a Swiss philosopher/watchmaker once said. At the first Whistler.

Timing is everything, as a Swiss philosopher/watchmaker once said.

At the first Whistler. It’s Our Future workshop, on success, one of the consultants hired to help lead us to our future pointed to Aspen and Vail as mountain communities that had peaked and were now heading downhill. Whistler, with its eye on the three legs of the sustainability stool – environmental, economic and social – has an opportunity to take a different path, we were told.

Interestingly, last week the Aspen Times had a 4,000-word feature on the Aspen Idea , a half-century old concept based on three other legs: mind, body and spirit.

Aspen was a defunct mining town when it was "discovered" in 1945 by Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke. The world was just recovering from the Second World War and digging in for the Cold War. Paepcke, a liberal idealist of German decent, wanted to make the world a better place. The first step toward that goal was the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial Convocation in Aspen, celebrating the 200th anniversary of German philosopher, poet and dramatist Johan Wolfgang van Goethe.

As Paul Andersen wrote in last week’s Aspen Times, "In Aspen, Goethe was honored as a secular messiah whose innate goodness could inspire a worldwide humanistic revolution. The men who brought the Goethe Convocation to Aspen were intellectual giants and bold visionaries. They saw in Aspen fertile ground that could nurture the ‘whole man’ and further the advance of humanism."

Among the people invited to Aspen to help further the advance of humanism was philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer.

Mortimer Adler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago was one of the architects of the Aspen Idea, which he said "uniquely demonstrates that in the scale of values the Platonic triad of the true, the good and the beautiful takes precedence over the Machiavellian triad of money, fame and power."

Most visitors to and observers of Aspen today would suggest the Machiavellian triad has won out, but some residents believe the Aspen Idea is still alive.

"The Aspen Idea contains the notion of the complete person living in a community that nourishes the mind, body and spirit," John Bennett, a former mayor of Aspen and former vice president of the Aspen Institute said.

Make a person a good citizen, the philosophy was, and that person would be a good doctor, lawyer, carpenter or school teacher, and would help make the world a better place.

Paepcke was trying to change the post-World War II world by creating better citizens through ideals espoused in Aspen. More than half a century later Whistler is trying to create a sustainable community in the post-Sept. 11 world, and following 50 years of unprecedented growth and consumption. The path to sustainability, according to a definition provided at last week’s Whistler. It’s Our Future workshop, is to make citizens understand the consequences of their actions.

Fifty-six sustainability criteria were presented at last week’s workshop. The very first one was: "People have a shared vision of the community and take responsibility to help achieve that vision." That may also be the most difficult of the criteria to achieve – almost as difficult as Aspen nurturing the "whole man" and furthering the advance of humanism.

Some of the written comments at the workshop indicated scepticism about that shared vision and the whole process of achieving it. They included: "need signs that input is valued," "transparent, accountable government," and "how to get young people to define the vision?"

One of the impediments to a shared vision of the community and the goal of sustainability, I would suggest, is the sense among many (most?) residents that at some point they may have to leave Whistler. It might be because of affordability, opportunity, or lack of services, each of which may change with a person’s age and where they are in their career. But in the back of a lot of Whistlerites’ minds is the thought that someday they will have to leave and live elsewhere. That has an impact on how we view the future of Whistler.

Where the Aspen Idea was the community nourishing the mind, body and spirit to create a complete person and then sending that person out into the world, Whistler’s sustainability plan must be to build a complete community by making sure a variety of people have the opportunity to continue to live here.