From Adventurer to Global Thinker: Interview with SHIFT founder Christian Beckwith

SHIFT interview

“You may assume that you are fulfilling your significance if you apply yourself to converting all your experience to the highest advantage of others. You and all [humans] are here for the sake of other [humans].” –Buckminster Fuller

SHIFT Festival founder Christian Beckwith grew up on a farm in Maine, attended the University of Vermont, and was introduced to rock climbing during a college year abroad in England. It might have been the first big life changer that would inspire his life’s work, but wouldn’t be the last.

No, that would likely be the avalanche that completely and utterly rearranged his life. Witnessing that spectacle of death, the crushing wall of snow that pulverized the life out of his friend, without a doubt dinged his armor. But Beckwith neither buckled nor collapsed. Instead, he steeled himself against the pain and made something good come from it.

The Origin of SHIFT
Just how he got from there to SHIFT requires a bit of a rewind. In 1993, after college, Beckwith headed to Jackson, Wyoming. His plan: work part-time and spend the rest of the time climbing. About a year and a half later, he found himself publishing a ‘zine called The Mountain Yodel, dedicated to rock climbers, skiers, and mountaineers. Three years later, he took the next exit and headed off to work for The American Alpine Journal, a highly respected annual compendium of the world’s most significant climbs. Three years after that he left to start Alpinist, a glossy quarterly that primarily focused on alpine climbing—a demanding sport predicated upon the notion of following more difficult routes and employing minimal gear and support. “You take the biggest problems,” Beckwith once said, “and resolve them in the simplest most aesthetic way possible.”

That idea was more than just uncanny prescience. It would be the foundation of Beckwith’s provocative approach to climbing, the environment, and to SHIFT, the annual four-day event he created to address the environmental challenges he has witnessed unfolding around him in Wyoming’s Teton Valley.

SHIFT underscores the notion that successful acts of conservation and sustainability aren’t just about minimizing environmental impacts, but also about paying tribute to individuals who work for and create positive change. Change, after all, typically comes when people feel passionate and hopeful about something, and find ways to channel that energy outward.

What Exactly is SHIFT?
Held in October each year in Jackson Hole, and funded by the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, the annual festival coalesces around food, film, speakers and music. Last year, the festival focused on nature (the natural environment), culture (the built environment) and adventure (outdoor recreation). This year, it hones in on the relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation, and features some major industry influencers like Chris Johns, the National Geographic Society’s Chief Content Office, and Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Black Diamond Inc. Mark Bittman, food advocate and the author of more than a dozen groundbreaking books is also a presenter.

The 2015 SHIFT Festival runs from October 7-10 and includes the SHIFT Summit, a showcase for the most effective and innovative sustainability initiatives currently underway in communities around North America where outdoor recreation plays a leading role in uniting the community. For more information, visit talked to Beckwith about this year’s festival.

Gearographer: What’s this event all about? What does SHIFT mean?

Christian Beckwith: Shifting How we Invest For Tomorrow. It’s the only gathering of its kind that unites outdoor recreationist, land managers, and conservation advocates around the common goal of protecting North America’s public lands and waters. This year, we’re focusing on the intersection of adventure (outdoor rec) and conservation. Obviously, if we [everyone invested in the outdoors] don’t address climate change, we’ll not only see continued pressure on our natural resources, but diminished outdoor opportunities and even mass extinction. Who better to unite then the people with a stake in this this—people who love the outdoors, the advocates, the athletes, recreationists, resource managers, communities. SHIFT amplifies those relationships; it leverages outdoor recreation for conservation gains.

Gearographer: Why should people attend?

CB: A gathering like this produces value through the cross-pollination of ideas. Beyond getting people to Jackson Hole during the shoulder season when hotel rates are cheaper, the leaves are turning, the elk are bugling, and there are fewer tourists here, SHIFT offers some real tangible returns. One component is the SHIFT Summit, which showcases leading sustainability and conservation initiatives from communities whose economic and cultural vitality rely on the health of their environment. As part of the summit, we have the SHIFT sustainability awards that honor the most effective, innovative conservation and sustainability initiatives being carried out in communities like Jackson Hole around North America. It honors the people and the work they are doing, and gives them an opportunity to share their accomplishments with a wider audience.

SHIFT offers roundtables, breakout sessions and an interactive format to enhance the natural alliance of the three major groups—users, land managers, advocates—to influence policy outcomes. Collaborative efforts have the greatest effect at the national level and politics. When the populist decides that climate change is a critical issue, it’s only a matter of time before politicians in Washington pay attention. SHIFT unites participants in a unified framework that will eventually influence policy. So it’s a chance to make a difference.

Gearographer: How long has SHIFT been happening?

CB: This will be the third year. We created the Sustainability Awards during the second SHIFT.

Gearographer: How will this year be different from last year’s event?

CB: One of things SHIFT focuses on is creating value propositions, so this year we’ll be collaborating with Blogs For Brands to offer an Outdoor Bloggers Summit. It’s extremely important that content generators understand the nuances. The fact is outdoors bloggers are writing some of the most compelling content in the outdoor space and this will be a good opportunity for them to get a more thorough understanding of the issues.

We’re also introducing an articulation of seven key points to advance policy around protection and preservation. We plan to roll this out at SHIFT to use as a catalyst for change.

Gearographer: Who should be there?

CB: Anyone who is interested in making a difference or is already an outdoors advocate, conservationist, land manager, recreationist, tourism manager, political activists, or outdoors writer—people will find away to get here if they feel passionate about the environment and the outdoors. A lot of us typically work in isolation. So really it’s an unparalleled opportunity to engage with the outdoors community as a whole, as well as the local community of Jackson Hole—which has already been at the forefront of these issues. We designed SHIFT as a way to educate, inspire, and engage this natural alliance of people in a productive conversation. After all, the greatest opportunity for change occurs when we address issues of common concern with a unified voice.

Gearographer: Why Jackson Hole?

CB: First, it’s a recreation paradise and world-renowned destination for outdoor adventurers. But the fact is the area’s economic and cultural vitality are directly related to its environmental quality. We’ve all seen the changes. And other outdoor rec based communities like Moab, Aspen, Nantucket, Key West, Sayulita, Banff and Hanalei are too. During the 2014 Summit, we developed an initiative to research these communities. So we call them GEMS: Gateways to Environments of Major Significance. In the long haul, these places face many of the same concerns—they all have to balance similar economics and environmental challenges the same we do around Jackson Hole. And like Jackson, they attract visitors from around the world. It’s not enough to simply preserve natural resource—we also need to attain and maintain a balance between resources and economics. The goal is to work with GEMS to create networks and best practices that help sustain these communities. We see them as laboratories for communities striving to live in balance with nature. Of course, the outcomes also influence the behavior of the people who visit those communities as well.

Gearographer: Where did this all began for you?

CB: When I was working on the Alpinist Film Festival or OuterLocal [a network of adventure-sports websites] or the OuterLocal Summer Games, I always advocated a responsibility to the world that recognizes that our resources are finite. It’s our duty to sustain those resources for our sakes, and that of our children. I want to make sure my daughter has an opportunity to experience the outdoors in the ways I have.

Gearographer: Was there a seminal moment for you in informing your view and vision?

CB: Learning to climb, traveling—I’ve had these experiences where I saw what I had gained but also what I stood to lose. Then a friend of mine who I had spent time picking off first ski ascents with was killed in an avalanche during a ski ascent [of the Apocalypse Couloir near the mouth of the ironically named Death Canyon. His name was Jarad Spackman, a Jackson Hole resident and an experienced mountaineer who had spent more than a decade tackling difficult descents throughout the Teton Range. Just two weeks before he was killed, Spackman, his brother and Beckwith had explored a new route in the same area of Death Canyon were he died.] After something like this happens, you look for some way to make sense of the loss. I was also looking for a way to make a difference.

Gearographer: What do you envision long-term?

CB: My daughter will inherit this world. I want to do this for her. As far as SHIFT goes, as I said earlier, the three major groups—outdoor recreationalists, land managers and conservation advocates—will have the greatest opportunities for effectiveness, to change policy, to effect change, when they address issues of common concern with a unified voice. That’s both the short-term and long-term goal.

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Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she's an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She's also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.

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