What's so heroic about climbing Everest?: The cult of heroism and celebrity undermines moral values, says David Nicholson-Lord

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The Independent Online
THE MORNING after Rebecca Stephens' record- breaking ascent of Everest is a good time to celebrate heroism. The hero - or heroine - I have in mind lives in a quiet way, doing a job he or she may find physically taxing or mentally exhausting. It might be paid employment in the health services or voluntary sector; or unpaid work looking after a difficult relative. Spare-time commitments would also qualify.

Think of those who, instead of settling down to the television for the average four hours' nightly viewing, join the St John Ambulance Brigade or the Samaritans, act as wildlife wardens, stand on street corners with collecting boxes. Without them our social and community life, already much withered, would atrophy completely. However, these people share one distinguishing characteristic: they are not famous.

I do not know Rebecca Stephens and I am sure she is a perfectly nice person but I wish she would leave Mount Everest alone. Come to that, I wish everybody would leave Everest alone. This may seem a mean- spirited response to that rare phenomenon, the Great British Triumph, but there are a number of reasons why we should view Ms Stephens' entry into the Guinness Book of Records with regret.

First, it promotes that most pervasive and distorting of social afflictions, the cult of celebrity. Getting your face on television has become an end in itself. Sometimes it involves copycat rioting or singular acts of assassination, more commonly the hyping of mediocrity into mystique. Either way it weakens moral values by confusing means with ends.

The important thing in Ms Stephens' case was not the process - the climbing - but the fame that lay at the end of it. Her career prospects and earning capacity are no doubt much safer; sadly, she has reinforced the view that the only good person is a famous one.

More damagingly, however, Ms Stephens' achievement reaffirms competitive individualism. Once again, Man - or in this case Woman - has beaten Mountain. Fortified by the

theories of Bacon and Descartes, the human race - the European bit of it, at least - has mapped, explored, conquered and colonised, exterminating wildlife, destroying wilderness, treating nature as a form of subject entity.

Whether the roots of this behaviour lie in Christianity (the urging of Genesis for man to have 'dominion over every living thing'), in scientific rationality or in sheer greed and ignorance is ultimately irrelevant: the result is devastation. Everest stands as a poignant symbol of this era of human development: a once-sacred mountain transformed into the world's highest rubbish-dump.

Climbing Everest made Sir Edmund Hillary famous. The tourism and trekking that followed, and which Ms Stephens' ascent will further encourage, are ruining Nepal. Each hot shower taken by a trekker involves the felling of three trees. Kathmandu, two decades ago a reasonably green and pleasant place, is now choked by pollution, a city marred by huckstering, whose chaotic growth has outrun attempts at planning.

Advocates of tourism talk of foreign currency earnings and the 'trickle down' effect. They do not talk of deforestation, soil erosion, water shortages, cultural degradation. How do you cost these into the gross national product? And what of the mounting evidence that the poor are getting poorer - not least because the foreign currency ends up in a remarkably small number of pockets?

Perhaps the most troubling feature about the conquest of mountains and the exploration of the physical world is the psychological drive behind it. It is hard for Westerners to appreciate the materialistic nature of their culture - the preoccupation with the visible, tangible world of things that so easily translates into consumerism. It is a trait that emphasises the importance of frontiers, of heights, distances and geographical features.

Its effects were exemplified a century ago in the United States, the most positivist society in the world. In the 1890s the West was finally won - and the nation mourned. The frontier, wrote Frederick Jackson Turner, its historian, 'appealed to men as a fair blank page in which to write a new chapter in the story of man's struggle for a higher type of society'.

In a century or so there will probably be 11 or 12 billion people on the planet - roughly double the present number. There will be no blank spots on the map and the natural world will be banished to ticket-only reserves. Things will be pretty bad, but they will almost certainly be a good deal worse if we cannot tone down our desire to compete, conquer and be famous, and learn to co-exist a little more - dare one say, spiritually - with ourselves and nature. For this to happen we need a new breed of hero(ine) - unsung, unsponsored, uncompetitive and probably anonymous.

The author's book, 'The Greening of the Cities' (Routledge, pounds 12.99), deals with the history of attitudes to landscape and wilderness.