California Literary Review

Brave New West: Something Entirely Different

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June 13th, 2007 at 2:00 pm

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Colorado River near Moab, Utah [Photo by: Phil Armitage]

[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Jim Stiles' new book Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.]

Rural Americans live in small towns, and the core of their economies has always been extractive—ranching, mining, and timber. To deny that the extractive industries have wreaked stunning and long-term destruction upon the Western landscape and its ecology is absurd.

Urban Americans want to eliminate these industries or at least curtail them to a large extent. They believe that the amenities economy is a clean and viable alternative to ranching, mining, and timber. Urban environmentalists are convinced it can allow the rural West to prosper and prevail, without further degradation to the resource. To deny that this kind of transformation of the rural West has bleak and destructive consequences of its own is equally absurd. The amenities economy is just another extractive industry, and it should be regarded by environmentalists with the same concern.

What is the unvarnished truth about both sides of this debate? From where I’m standing, it’s this. Think of this list as a primer, the barely scratched contentious surface.

Most Old Westerners oppose wilderness because they believe it will limit their access to public lands. Sometimes their physical abuse of the land itself is dramatic and the damage is long term. But Old Westerners understand one key component of wilderness far better than their adversaries. They understand solitude, quiet, serenity, the emptiness of the rural West. They like the emptiness.

New Westerners are individually more sensitive to the resource but are terrified of solitude. They’ll walk around cryptobiotic crust, but leave them alone in the canyons without a cell phone and a group of companions and they’d be lost, both physically and metaphysically. Because New Westerners need to travel in packs, the collective resource damage is far more than they might realize.

Old Westerners like their jeeps and their ATVs. Among these thousands of motorized recreationists are a minority of reckless and thoughtless idiots who cause a disproportionate share of the resource damage. Many of their peers know this and don’t like it, but they don’t apply peer pressure because the one thing they’d rather not do is be seen agreeing with an environmentalist.

New Westerners drive hundreds or thousands of miles in gas-consuming vehicles so they can pedal their bicycles for ten, and then they claim they’re nonmotorized recreationists. Bicyclists gather for rallies and races just like their motorized cousins and cause extraordinary damage when their numbers are high enough. Yet, environmentalists refuse to acknowledge that many, many bicycles can sometimes cause as much damage as ATVs.

Old Westerners like cows. Millions of cattle still graze on public lands, and some ranchers who hold federal grazing allotments are terrible stewards of that land. They allow overgrazing, destroy valuable and rare riparian habitat, and turn some public lands into barren wastelands.

New Westerners hate cows. They think all ranchers are bad stewards. They want to eliminate all grazing on public lands. But when they buy a condo in a New West town, they love the view of the adjacent alfalfa field from their picture window and complain bitterly when yet another development wipes out the pastoral scene. Cows eat alfalfa.

Some Old Westerners like to hunt, mostly deer and elk. Each year a few hundred hunters in Utah get a permit to kill a cougar. They chase the big cat with their dogs, run it up a tree, and shoot it. Sounds pretty barbaric to me.

Most New Westerners don’t hunt, and they would never kill a cougar. But when thousands of cougar-loving recreationists invade once empty public lands that are habitat for wild animals, it’s a hunt of sorts already, a hunt to eliminate the habitat that wild and reclusive animals like cougars need. Conflict is inevitable. New Westerners build their homes farther into wildlands, so they can “live amid nature,” but when a cougar has a favorite shih tzu for lunch, retribution suddenly becomes acceptable.

Most Old Westerners actually live the more modest and simple lifestyle that their New West adversaries claim to admire. Their homes are smaller, and their cars are older. They recycle their junk—or at least don’t throw it away—and generally do without a lot of luxuries that a New Westerner could never endure. They despise the smug arrogance and urban ways of their New West neighbors. But if Old Westerners had more money, they would probably live just as extravagantly.

Most New Westerners long for the simple life and want to move to a small town. But they hold the Old Westerners in low esteem and abhor their politics. When they move to a small town, New Westerners build oversized homes, complain about the lack of amenities, and try to change everything.

Old Westerners long for the “good old days” of ranching and mining and detest the tourists and the New West image of their towns. But they never hesitate to make a buck from the amenities economy themselves when the opportunity presents itself. Many Old Westerners are millionaires today because land they bought for next to nothing in the 1960s or 1970s is now worth a fortune.

New Westerners claim that the uncontrolled growth of the amenities economy is out of their hands, that market forces and the whims of American culture are driving the New West, not them. As one Utah environmentalist said defensively, “It would have happened anyway.” In effect New Westerners now refuse to take credit for the extraordinary success of the very economy they claimed would save the West. They actually distance themselves from the solution they continue to promote. Every ATV rally, every new convenience store, every condo development, every golf course, every four-star restaurant in a town with a population of 5000 is an extension of the amenities economy.

Old Westerners love seismic exploration work because it brings money to the rural economy. But it also leaves a swath of destruction in its path. While restrictions have reduced the amount of damage that seismic work once caused, its effects can still be seen years later. Once the work is done, though, the land returns to normal as far as the habitat goes. Wildlife is most adversely affected by constant human intrusions. The one good aspect of a seismic crew is that when they complete their work, they leave.

New Westerners hate seismic exploration so much that they often hold on-site protests. But to some animals, their long-term presence is more offensive than the thumper trucks. The fact that desert bighorns have vanished from the Gemini Bridges area near Moab is not because of the seismic work that environmentalists fought in the early 1990s. It’s recreationists, both motorized and nonmotorized, that have driven them into hiding. Also, many seismic trail habitats never get a chance to recover because bicyclists and ATVers keep using them.

Old Westerners are unlikely to go backpacking or exploring for the sheer pleasure of it. Many of them would think such an effort to be pure folly. Sometimes they seem oblivious to the beauty that surrounds them. But if they broke down or got stranded in the backcountry, they would probably be able to take care of themselves because most of them have lived close to the land all their lives.

New Westerners love to go backpacking and exploring, but many of them simply don’t have the skills necessary to survive if something goes wrong. As a result, the search-and-rescue budgets of many rural Western communities have increased astronomically in recent years. Most members of search-and-rescue teams are Old Westerners.

Old Westerners support the federal government’s unprecedented efforts to increase oil and gas development on public lands, and they insist increased production is absolutely necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Many of those same people mock efforts to reduce U.S. dependence through conservation efforts, which is really stupid. Why would conservatives oppose conservation? Because they’re afraid to be linked with anything remotely supporting an environmentalist perspective.

New Westerners oppose increased oil and gas exploration and advocate conservation efforts. Yet, most of them are bigger consumers of natural resources than the people who defend drilling in the public domain. While New Westerners decry the loss of wildlife habitat, the fact is, most wildlife adapts quite well to inanimate objects, including oil wells. It’s constant human intrusions that can critically disrupt wildlife habitat.

Most Old Westerners love the owners, major stockholders, and corporate heads of oil and gas companies, who are mostly rich, arrogant bastards with friends like Vice President Dick Cheney. Most field employees of oil and gas companies are hard-working middle-class Old Westerners, trying to keep food on the table.

Most New Westerners despise the owners, stockholders, and corporate heads, not to mention the vice president. But they also detest the field employees, which is about as wrong-headed as the Old Westerners’ admiration of Dick Cheney.

Most Old Westerners hate Ed Abbey, who once said, “If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream.” Despite such sentiments, Old Westerners still despise him, and they stubbornly refuse to read his books.

Most New Westerners love Ed Abbey, even though they despise half of the people Ed honored in the preceding quote. They’ve read all his books and own cherished signed copies, but New Westerners understand far less about Abbey’s ideas than they realize.

As long as Westerners, both Old and New, refuse to acknowledge the fruitlessness of their own entrenched and inflexible positions, the West will suffer for our stubbornness. This is not about compromise, it’s about dialogue, discussion, and just maybe enlightenment. There have been times when the battle lines weren’t nearly as clear as I thought.

About fifteen years ago, for example, I participated in a protest against a chaining project by the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] on a high wooded mesa called Amasas Back south of Moab. Chaining is a process developed by the U.S. Forest Service to easily although brutally remove thousands of pinyon and juniper trees from public lands, usually for the purpose of converting that land to an agricultural use. They call it “range improvement,” an odorous euphemism if I ever heard one. Two D9 bulldozers, connected by 100 yards of heavy anchor chain, drive along parallel lines into the pinyon-juniper forest, ripping up everything in their path.

As I walked through the trees targeted for destruction, as I examined for the last time gnarled and venerable old junipers that must have taken root about the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the whole project seemed impossible. For a moment I deluded myself with the silly notion that the trees simply would not stand for it—that they would reach down deep into the rocky earth and deny the destructors their bitter victory. The trees would win in the end, I thought. No bulldozer, no chain is strong enough to uproot a life so long and well deserved. When I saw the dozers and their chain up close, reality came back quickly and stayed there like a tumor.

Some of the government officials overseeing the project agonized personally over the decision to proceed. But reporters from Salt Lake City had come to film the chaining and, hopefully, a good confrontation between the protestors, who had arrived from both sides to either decry or defend the massive tree removal project. When a television camera blinked on or a microphone was shoved under a government nose, the company line flowed mellifluously through the whispering pines—the language of bureaucratese, the ambiguity dialect, “In so much as we have considered all the options and examined the concerns, and we certainly and always appreciate the concerns and input of the public, because without your participation, these kinds of projects cannot succeed. And so we will begin this project and look forward to the successful completion of the project.”

A cloud of dust and the whine of diesel engines under stress shattered the morning silence. All around us the two D9s and the anchor chain did their work. Every tree on one side of the road was down. But not just down, the pinyons and junipers were ripped and torn completely from the earth, shattered to splinters the way a tornado shreds everything in its path. I’d never seen such utter devastation performed so quickly or so clinically. The whole thing took about an hour.

The television crews captured a few minutes of “good video” when a heated argument broke out between the environmentalists and some miners from Moab who had arrived to defend the project. Early on, I was puzzled by the miners’ presence. After a few minutes, the press had all the video it needed and began packing up its gear, heading back to Moab and a beer at the brewpub, no doubt. But I lingered for a while with the miners, curious about their motivation for coming. After all, range improvement offered no benefit to a hard rock miner.

It was a blistering hot day, even at 7000 feet up on Amasas Back. Maybe out of exhaustion from the heat, we hunkered down in the shade of one of the few remaining junipers and talked, just talked. As the afternoon wore on, we began to look human to each other.

“Look,” I said slowly. “None of us seems nearly as bad as we thought of each other an hour ago. I can even see your point of view in some of the ways things are changing around here. I might even say that sometimes I feel more comfortable on your side than mine. But on that,” I said, pointing to the chaining, “on that I could never agree with you. You’ll never get me to agree this is a good thing.”

One of the miners, a tall skinny man named Johnny with a weathered but understanding face, glanced about, as if to assure himself there were no eavesdroppers hiding in the brush. “Shit,” he said, “I don’t much care for it either.”

The other miners nodded solemnly.

“What?” I said. “What do you mean? We’ve been arguing all morning. I don’t get it.”

“Well,” explained Johnny, “you environmentalists are coming in here and taking over land that we’ve been using, working on, hunting on, and even just plain enjoying for a hundred years. Now you all come in here and start telling us we can do this, but we can’t do that. And we can stay here for so long but over there we can never go there again. But I got no use for this chaining business. I think it’s bullshit, if you ask me. And it does a lot more damage than me out here with a pick and shovel, too. Hell, I used to like coming into these trees. I’m gonna miss them. But, I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to be seen siding with you environmentalists! And that’s final!”

It was final, and that was more than a decade ago. The polarization between the Old West and New West has never been more intense. The system is not working for any of us any more. I can’t tell the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” It’s become a standoff between well-paid lobbyists, with each side trying to outspend the other in the quest for influence and power. Both sides have a phony commitment that’s usually motivated more by issues of personal comfort and the right to play and display their toys than a genuine dedication to a cause. It’s like that old saying, “Their commitment is like a big puddle—a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Ed Abbey once said, “What our perishing republic needs is something different . . . something entirely different.” He was absolutely right. What could be more unique than an honest conversation?

As for MAHBU, I’d hoped it might be the beginning of a new global force akin to woman’s suffrage, civil rights, or maybe even the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement, but I knew that more likely it was a wad of spit in a scum-filled pond that never makes a ripple. The truth generally survives only as a last resort. Certainly, isn’t that where we are now? But the truth doesn’t make anybody feel good in these times, and feeling good seems to be what counts the most. Marketing and packaging have relegated a serious and substantive discussion to the back seat, to the rumble seat, out in the cold.

Instead, we even give honesty the soft sell. We hide it in a subliminal message. In the twenty-first century, even the truth is a bait-and-switch ploy. I have my frustrated moments when I wish I was king. Then I could just slap this cursed American culture until it’s silly and do what’s good for it, give it what it deserves. The United States is so severely damaged by rampant greed and materialism, so twisted beyond recognition by this shallow, vapid pop culture we’re wallowing in that it’s nearly impossible to imagine the democratic process incrementally turning our weird culture around and leading it back to a place where we might actually be proud of it and ourselves.

Is it too late? Maybe not. In my search for solutions, I’ve considered taking a nihilistic approach. One definition of nihilism is the idea that something can be so badly damaged that the only way to fix it is to first completely destroy it. It just might work.

I momentarily considered a run for the President of the United States myself. I wanted to be the Nihilist Candidate, albeit a fun-loving nihilist: a doomsday optimist, a mellow misanthrope, a clear alternative to the inevitable. If elected, I knew I would need loftier, broader goals, objectives to challenge not just my local community but this nation and the world beyond it. After all, the stories told here about Moab, Grand County, and Utah are just snippets of the larger drama unfolding around us. What’s happening in my backyard is happening in yours as well. Indeed, if elected I would start with my new home. I would bring a sense of humor to Washington, D.C., because God knows they need one. I’d plant dandelions on the White House lawn, rent the White House to the homeless and live in a yurt, and sell the presidential limousine and buy a moped.

Beyond that, I would pledge my support for universal free birth control, require all Christians to actually read the four gospels of the New Testament (there will be a quiz), and declare “Lonesome Dove” the official American Western. I’d promise to never obfuscate. I would restrict the size of all homes in America to 2000 square feet and require owners of existing homes larger than that to rent the additional space as low-income housing. I’d tax the hell out of rich weasels. I’d give tax credits for vegetable gardens and for miles driven on bicycles (the government will subsidize the cost of odometers for all bikes). I would make it a felony to use any public lands for profit and ban the use of eminent domain. I’d require compulsory nonmilitary, public service for all high school graduates. Duties would range from helping the poor in our cities to disaster victims around the world. Mandatory compassion is our last hope. I’d ban all reality shows, because real life is grim enough. I’d drain what’s left of Lake Powell, and I’d subsidize western ranchers’ alfalfa fields to prevent further condo development and to provide a guaranteed income for all family farms.

For my global environmental agenda, I would immediately order the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces around the world and terminate oil contracts with all nations, including those in the Middle East. I would mandate that all vehicles sold in this country have a fuel efficiency rating of at least fifty miles per gallon. So long, Hummers. I would subsidize the cost of these improvements with the $500 billion we’d save by terminating those military obligations.

But these measures would still not be enough to stave off a worldwide economic depression of catastrophic proportions caused by my oil imports ban. The global economy as we know it, thanks to President James Ogden Stiles Jr., would grind to a halt. The teeming masses would no longer be able to afford the plethora of crap that we all think is essential to our lives. Factories would shut down. Jobs would disappear. Service industries would dwindle and die because no one would have money for personal trainers and nose-lifts. Tourism worldwide would be devastated. Around the globe, people would have to survive by helping each other. We’d take our altered noses out of the PlayStations, the CNBC market report, or the Jerry Springer show and start having conversations again. We would have potluck picnics and play horseshoes. We’d actually start listening to the stories that our parents and grandparents have wanted to tell us for years, but nobody had time to listen. We’d have more sex (albeit safe sex). We’d quit taking most of these damn medications, and we’d die when we’re supposed to and not a minute later. We would cherish our real time together because we’d suddenly realize we have more of it, now that we’re not worrying about buying a Lexus as a third car or fretting about our blood pressures. By not fretting, our blood pressures would most likely go down anyway. We’d quit being depressed because we’d all be blissfully poor. We’d eat lots of fat and carbs and become fat and happy. Finally, the world population would start to decline.

Much of the world, or at least its most conspicuous consumers, is locked in a death grip with this insane free market global economy. This system requires that we continue to produce more stuff and invent new services that the exploding population will want to buy in order to provide employment for the exploding population that needs the work to buy more stuff. The new global economy also requires the consumption of the Earth’s natural resources and open space at a rate that most of us cannot even begin to grasp.

I can’t help but believe, though, that most environmentalists and most liberals feel that the population issue is beyond our reach. When it comes to dealing with future environmental crises, an expanding population is a given, at least for the foreseeable future, and we must operate within that framework when shaping our future battles. Many in the environmental community seem to be saying, “Okay, we can’t do a thing about population growth, so what can we do to make things better, given the fact that we’re going to become a nation of 400 million people by the middle of this century?” If we can find a way to more efficiently produce and use electricity, so that a United States with double today’s population used no more energy than now, would that be a great environmental victory?

I often hear liberals say that conservation technologies will actually stimulate economic growth, create more jobs, and expand the gross domestic product. Is that a good thing? Are environmentalists really prepared to embrace a simpler, less materialistic life? Or do they still want all the stuff but in a more efficient way? A respected environmentalist in Utah recently wrote,

Yes, population increase is the problem that undoes all efforts to build a sustainable, ecologically compatible life-support system for homo sap. Given what I see . . . I think we are already past the point of no return for massive population reduction by “natural” forces. All you have to do is look at the declining per capita production of grains, fish, and all other forms of food to read the writing on Malthus’s wall. We are very close to the point where there will be no “surplus” grain or food to send to third-world nations suffering famine from drought, pestilence, and/or war. We haven’t taken care of the population and carrying capacity overshoot problem intelligently, so Momma Gaia will do so in her usual fashion.

If that’s true, why do we waste our time praising the Pitkin County commissioners for requiring more energy-efficient 12,000-square-foot homes for the billionaires in Aspen? If a worldwide economic collapse is coming, does it really matter if we replace all gas-powered SUVs with more efficient hybrids? Isn’t this just a Band-aid on an avulsed wound? Why aren’t we demanding that we all pursue a simpler, less consumptive lifestyle? Why not encourage us to prepare for the inevitable? Those of us who are living that simple life when the hammer falls would be much better prepared to deal with Momma Gaia. So, why do we continue to promote (or at least remain conspicuously silent on) an environmental strategy like the amenities economy, which encourages unlimited growth and development and the ever-increasing consumption of natural resources instead of demanding sacrifice and true economic reform?

Liberal Democrats aren’t much different from conservative Republicans in one regard: neither group wants to see Americans live with less. Republicans think we should continue to live extravagantly and are convinced our energy resources will last forever. Democrats want to be able to live as extravagantly, but think we can live extravagantly in a more energy-efficient manner. When critics asked 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry how he hoped to pay for his massive health care bill, his answer was simple, “We’ll grow the economy to pay for it.” That means more big homes, expensive cars, massive shopping malls, and extravagant lifestyles and a materialistic society that sees more value in things than anything else. No one is out there on the political landscape willing to ask U.S. citizens to live with less.

I recently came upon some population projections by the U.S. Census Bureau that were prepared in the early 1990s. In predicting future U.S. growth, they offered three models. The worst-case scenario envisioned that the U.S. population would reach 295,911,000 by 2005 and would exceed 1 billion by 2100. In 2005 we passed 298 million, more than 2 million ahead of the worst-case scenario.

If Armageddon is the only viable answer to the population problem, we at least have a responsibility to prepare for it. And that includes being painfully honest. Instead, most environmentalists seem to embrace feel-good causes that allow them to think they’re contributing to the cause, while continuing to ignore the actual problem. The fact is that in this global economy an expanding population is absolutely necessary—it requires that we constantly think of new products and services for that burgeoning population to buy. That’s where the cycle has to be broken. It would be painful in the short term but no more so than waiting for Momma Gaia. Environmentalists at least have the responsibility to say all this out loud. If that kind of plain speaking causes “hopeless despair,” as one of my enviro pals suggested, then so be it. That is how we save our country and save the world.

But we must start at home. Other small rural communities in the West, who already tremble with fear at the notion of “becoming another Moab,” need to reassess their future in a way that never occurred to their economic development directors. This should become their mantra, “Support a simple life. Embrace poverty.”

They should recognize the intrinsic values that make their small communities so special. Elected leaders spend too much time trying to quantify the value of these towns. It’s always tax bases, public infrastructure, and how many jobs this proposed development will bring to the public coffers. They never give enough consideration of other intangibles that are so critical to a life with value.

Less than three months before his death, Robert Kennedy noted that if we judged our country’s worth by its gross national product, it would include the cost of the locks on our jails, the “television programs that glorify violence,” our air pollution and health care costs, the price of nuclear warheads, and “the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.”

What it would not reflect, he said, is “the health of our children . . . or the joy of their play . . . or the beauty of our poetry. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. It can tell us everything about America except why we are proud we are Americans.”

My nihilistic approach as president could, in the end, cause the collapse I’d hoped for. By trying to destroy the American way of life, we might just save it after all.

***

[From Brave New West by Jim Stiles. ©2007 Jim Stiles. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press. This material is protected from unauthorized downloading and distribution.]

  • Mark Newby

    I would like to correspond with Jim Stiles on programs that we have developed to study Lands with Wilderness Characteristics and how to achieve his lifestyle and community goals in the West. If this is possible, please forward him my email address. His writing convinces me he might enjoy seeing how it is done in the field and that there is hope of realizing his vision of conservation.

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