What’s viable and bearable

Column by George Sibley

Economic Development – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

WE ALL TALK A LOT about “economic development” over here in the Upper Gunnison, but we can’t seem to agree on what we’re talking about.

Some pretty substantial economic developments have been proposed: a big real estate development for former ranchland just east of Gunnison is seeking annexation to the city; the ski resort owners up the valley near Crested Butte want to do a major ski-slope and real estate expansion onto a new hill; and a mining company wants to put an underground molybdenum mine in the mountain just west of Crested Butte.

But there is a notable absence of enthusiasm for any of these economic developments. That’s not to say that everyone is opposed to them — although there are significant pockets of fervent “not now not ever” antipathy for each of them — but even those who are not opposed are not very enthusiastic.

I count myself among those neither opposed nor enthusiastic at this point. I think we have some pretty good planning processes in place in the valley, and I do want to see these proposed developments filtered pretty rigorously through those processes: If the developments can survive such vetting, and the developers feel they can handle the long list of mitigations to protect the local environment and existing culture, and still make their nickel, then have at it.

But there is nothing about the proposed enterprises that feels like real development -in that dictionary sense of “bringing to a more advanced or effective state.” They are all just extensions of what we’re doing or have been doing — merely straight-line projections from the 20th century. You remember: back when gasoline was under two bucks a gallon, and housing was still somewhat affordable for ordinary people, and a little “global warming” sounded like a good deal in a place like Gunnison.

But now I get nervous, and a little frustrated, when I read the predictions — for one example, about global climate change and its local implications: overall drier conditions in the Southwest, with more extreme and erratic weather. And I get even more nervous when I see it actually happening. In the course of a chronic drought, and the eight hottest years in over a century — all in the last decade — we got a December and January that were 200 percent of normal for snowfall (nestled in the middle of a string of 75-percent months). That sounds like extreme and erratic to me, and it’s not good news for a resort economy that needs dependable snow and flowing rivers.

I’m nervous, too, when I hear predictions about “peak oil” that forecast the relatively imminent peak and decline of the resource on which our whole civilization, as well as our local economy, is grounded. The oil companies that deny this is happening could scotch those “rumors” by just pumping up the production. (See, no problem.) But they don’t seem to be able to do that, even though they could obviously afford the gamble with the profits from $130/barrel oil and $4 gasoline. As with climate change, we are watching this unfolding melodrama from a local economy totally dependent on gasoline and diesel to bring us our tourists and all of the goods and services we need to live here.

SO THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENTS I might get excited about would be anything that diversified us from this total dependence on petroleum and snow and the other attributes that are suddenly becoming evanescent in our world. But all we are doing — all we seem capable of doing — is more straight-line projections from the same old same old. It reminds me of something the American philosopher George Santayana said: “Civilization might be taken as a purely descriptive term, like Kultur, rather than a eulogistic one; it might simply indicate the possession of instruments, material and social, for accomplishing all sorts of things, whether those things were worth accomplishing or not.”

And weird old Oswald Spengler was even more skeptical in his masterwork, The Going-under of the Evening Lands. He believed that a civilization was just the “crystallized” form of a Kultur gone rampant. He saw a culture as a set of successful adaptations to a “mother region” — adaptations so successful that they eventually depleted the “mother region,” forcing the culture to expand out into any and all adjacent regions, “civilizing” them by showing them (forcefully if they were so pig-headed as to resist) The Way Things Are Done, even though that way of doing things was (literally, in our civilized case) running out of gas. I think we are there; we are beginning to see that what we do no longer fits the world we have inadvertently created. But … well, it’s what we do, and that’s all there is to it…. Like it or lump us.

I’VE BEGUN TO THINK MORE and more often about the human communities that preceded us civilized folk here in the Upper Gunnison — the archaic and paleo-Indians who lived out across the airport runway and Tomichi Creek, on the slopes of Tenderfoot Mountain (the one with the big “W” on it). Mark Stiger and his colleagues at Western have reconstructed a lot of their history. We know that they were first here around 8,000-10,000 years ago as big game hunters: Folsom people, basically carnivores. We also know that they were here long after the big game was mostly gone — for thousands of years — and had become serious omnivores, scrounging for anything edible the environment afforded. Piñon nuts became a staple, but their middens showed evidence of eating plant roots, snakes, frogs, birds of all sizes and large bugs as well as the occasional deer, buffalo or other relic from the good old hunter days.

The thinking people at UNESCO have developed a definition of “sustainable development” that involves the interrelationships among three human “preoccupations”: the social, economic and environmental spheres of activity. Sustainability, as they describe it, is not some ideal, balanced steady-state. It is more the constant creative activity of adapting to whatever is available in a constantly changing and (to the extent that the culture is successful and therefore environmentally stressful) chronically diminishing environment. The interrelationship between the economy and the environment is whatever is “viable”: If your environment includes a lot of big bison, musk ox and woolly mammoths, then the mighty hunter society is viable. But if all the mega-mammals in your environment disappear — perhaps at least partially as a consequence of successful hunting — then the clever and inventive scrounger establishes what is viable.

But the interrelationship between the environmental and social spheres of activity is described by UNESCO as whatever is “bearable.” And I’ve wondered what, in that archaic society with an environment from which all those lovely meaty mammals had disappeared, made life bearable enough to keep on living in the valley under what had to be considered as a diminished situation?

Eventually — about 3,000 years ago — it seems to have ceased to be bearable. The people just disappeared from the valley, and no one lived here year-round again until Sylvester Richardson and Company arrived in 1876. And within five years, they brought in the railroad and launched our valley on this economy totally dependent on outside resources.

What changed 3,000 years ago that made life here unbearable? And what will keep it bearable for us today, or make it unbearable, to the extent that we too might vanish from the valley, as humans have before?

I think most of us will probably be able to bear the consequences of $130/barrel oil, even though it is already impacting tourism nationally, and is going to seriously increase the cost not just of transportation but of food and everything else we need to live here, since everything we need to live here except for water, air, and scenery arrives in large pipes, transmission lines and diesel trucks.

BUT NO ONE IMAGINES that the price of oil will stop escalating. At what point will it become unbearable? At $150, $200, or $300 a barrel? So let’s all switch to all-electric everything — except even without a massive new demand like that, electricity here in Tri-Stateland is going up 13 percent this year. And God help us, don’t even think about what’s happening with natural gas.

Pile the predicted increase of undependable and extreme weather events on top of that. We’ve joked about wanting a “cleansing winter” to get rid of a lot of the newcomers, but after last December and January, when we set records for both snow and cold, I heard longtime residents say that, if last winter had been their first winter here, they would have been gone by March (even though since February we’ve essentially edged back into sub-normal precipitation).

At what point do escalating changes in the natural environment, coupled with escalating changes in the cultural environment, become unbearable?

But meanwhile, we’ve got other things to think about. Fortunately we have some good old familiar economic developments to argue about over here, to distract us from having to think about these difficult new developments.

George Sibley obviously writes from Gunnison, where he is somewhat retired from Western State College.