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Life in Paradox Valley: Values, Environment and Development in the American West

by William E. Riebsame

The American relationship to nature is full of contradictions. We value naturalness, but place faith in technology. We tear up land for energy, minerals and food, but also create great national parks. We revere property rights, but desire the collective goods of open space and public lands. We respect entrepreneurial success and consumption, but bemoan the exploitation of natural resources. Only by recognizing the cultural roots of these paradoxes, and working to overcome differences among people, can we begin to create a more sustainable society.

Paradox Valley

Paradox Valley, in southwestern Colorado, is so named because the river runs across the valley's long axis, rather than along it. Geologists tell us, though, that this is no paradox, but rather the inexorable work of mountain building, erosion, and landscape evolution. The social landscape of Paradox Valley, and the American West it typifies, also has its apparent contradictions, but these too can be seen as the inevitable playing out of American values on the landscape. Individualism, entrepreneurialism, reverence for private property rights, and utilitarian notions of natural resources reside incongruously in the West with love of the land, wildlife, and respect -- if sometimes neglectful -- for human cultures close to the land -- ranchers, farmers, Indians, and others.

The apparent contradictions have occurred to us all. We plow fragile soils, tear up the land for coal and oil, and cut more trees than we should, despoiling both local and global environment. Yet, we also create National Parks -- an act that historian Al Runte felt reflected "a higher culture;" we hold in public trust millions of acres of land, and even define ourselves by natural landscapes -- the people of Great Plains, Hill Country ranchers, "Rocky Mountain High."

We respect the hard working rancher and the long-suffering Indian of Paradox Valley, and yearn for the wolf and grizzly bear that once roamed it. Yet, we imperiled all of these in our quest for property, wealth, safety, and even for sense of place and home in the West. In recent times, we yearn for naturalism, but still place our faith in technology. We value the wide open spaces, but want to own a piece of the landscape. We are intrigued by traditional knowledge about environment, but insist on replacing it with science and managerialism.

The Western U.S. is, of course, just one place where there is evidence of the paradox between utilitarianism -- which I define as seeing the environment as home to human society to be used to meet human needs and desires -- and environmentalism -- seeing the natural world as having intrinsic value to be protected without concern for human needs. Here the contradictions seem more visible on the landscape and starkly outlined against the background of arid grasslands and rugged mountains. Really, though, the whole world looks like Paradox Valley. Indigenous peoples' rights movements; debt-for-nature swaps; international environmentalism; and emerging transnational environmental laws; all flow against the grain of multinational entrepreneurialism, free trade, national sovereignty, frontier land grabs, and the predation by first world countries on third world resources.

Can we meet the challenge of sustaining society and nature despite these contradictory patterns of values and behavior? By examining notions of what ought to be the relationship between nature and society, and by exploring some of the key values and ideals in American culture, the many paradoxes in our relationship with the environment can be illuminated in a way that might help us change -- in everyday life as well as in the lives of nations -- the behaviors that threaten ecosystems and imperil social well-being. To focus this illumination I draw on stories from the West; stories about farmers carving livelihoods from the Great Plains; about communities under development pressure trying to retain some of their rural traditions; and about ranchers and environmentalists finding common ground.

The Nature of the Moment

We stand at a historical watershed; at a unique historical moment when human society has developed to the point that our actions now have global consequences; where our patterns of industrial production and consumption are responsible for changing the global atmospheric chemistry, the climate, and the basic structure of life on earth. We appear to be in a desperate race to achieve some ultimate level of social development -- where we not only have sufficient food and shelter to live, but live in a way that maximizes our consumption of resources, our demand on the biosphere and atmosphere, and our generation of energy and materials wastes. We not only need food, but we want unblemished vegetables anytime of the year; we not only need shelter, but we want large homes with four baths, wooden shingles and central heating and air conditioning; we not only want transportation, but we want fast sports cars and Suburbans. To continue this pattern of development is to take more steps toward what Bill Kribben called, "the death of nature," in his book by that title.

We hear regularly now that the very essences of human society -- our culture, our technology, our innovativeness, our quest to meet human needs and desires in material goods -- are terribly flawed. Our tendencies to multiply, consume, invent, and especially, to transform the world around us, engender the hopes for a better life, but also the seeds of ecological destruction.

The Rise of Environmental Values

When did we first come to see humanness as somehow distinct from naturalness? How long have we valued human progress and technology? How long have we been "apart from nature?" Although environmental scholars have made something of a cottage industry out of discovering "environmentalism" in early times, I find this less than convincing. For most of our 10,000+ year effort to make it good with agriculture, trade, and industrialism, we have looked at our own work -- at human civilization -- and felt pretty good about it. When Herodotus decried overgrazing in the Mediterranean, or Martin Luther wrote that "Man" had not only invented "original sin" but was responsible for the decay of nature, I think there is no parallel in early history to our current awareness of environment and environmental degradation. During most of written history, we have congratulated ourselves for technical, exploratory, commercial, and industrial prowess. Yi Fu Tuan, in his excellent book, Topophilia (literally, love of the land), even debunks the environmental awareness of Eastern cultures, whose religious and philosophical histories -- going back many thousand years -- evince a special reverence for nature and for human-nature unity, but whose actual behaviors wrecked the environment as badly as burgeoning Western culture.

In Western thought it was only about the mid-1800s that many observers overcame the "cult of confidence" in human progress and began to question seriously the elaboration of technology and our impact on the natural sphere. Among these was the American polymath, George Perkins Marsh, who described the development and destruction of New England in his under-appreciated book, Man and Nature, in 1864. Marsh pointed out the effects of deforestation and over-grazing on landscape, river regime, and wildlife. Pragmatically, he did not attribute environmental destruction to some innate quality of human civilization, but to greed and ignorance. In keeping with Enlightenment activism, he prescribed reforms that would put a quarter of the land back into forest, reduce over-grazing, and stop the over-hunting of wildlife. Imagine how this guy sounded in the mid-1800s, while most people were preoccupied with carving out a nation from a "wilderness." Nevertheless, this is where I date the start of American environmentalism.

Marsh's concerns were echoed -- though not always with the same admonition -- by others like John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, first head of the U.S. Forest Service. Indeed, these two Americans, more so than the romantics like Thoreau and Emerson, established the contemporary duality in American environmental thought -- preservationism vs. utilitarianism.

Part or Apart?

It has really only been since, say 1980, that a broad cross section of thinking people have come to the realization that we are fundamentally transforming the whole planet; that almost no single aspect of the earth system has not been altered through our technology; and that these changes threaten not only the natural world, but the very civilization that brought them about.

Armed with this awareness, the question we must ask ourselves today, standing perhaps at the messy end of a ten thousand-year experiment in social development and environmental transformation, is the same question that humans have asked since neolithic times -- since the first cave paintings were rendered, and the first religious idols fashioned. Who are we and why are we here? As Wendell Berry asked, "What are people for?"

These questions, standard fare in late-night dorm room rap sessions, take on an environmental tinge when phrased as: who are we and how are we different from everything else? A friend of mine, Bob Kates, wrote an essay ten years ago capturing this question, which is one of the great questions of human existence, in a simple duality -- are we Part or Apart from the natural world?

Our conceptions (descriptive or prescriptive) of the environment and society relationship range from determinist arguments that we are separate from, but governed by nature, to romantic notions of our oneness or embeddedness in nature. In his essay, Kates explored the roots of our currently awkward relationship to the non-human world. He felt, with many other scholars, that humans have conceptually separated themselves from nature. Indeed, the question about how we are different from everything else speaks volumes about our values and self-image by virtue of the fact that it makes sense to us to raise it. Because we can ask, because we can even define a non-human realm, we are, ipso facto, setting ourselves apart from that realm. At the same time, our actions, our very existence as the earth's single "technological species," are changing the natural world and, in turn, threatening to change drastically the path of human development. We are intricately linked to the systems of air, water, minerals and biota; we depend on them for life, and of course, for the materials and energy which go into our hamburgers and Volvos. This is the essential message of earth system science.

What values, attitudes, and perceptions play into this awkward relationship? When I thought about global atmospheric and biospheric changes, I naturally gravitated toward an exploration of values and attitudes associated with population growth, global industrial production, urbanization, and growing calls for truly international environmental policies. Frankly, I soon got lost in the scale of these relationships, and I have too little experience with them. After all, we've really only had to face up to the global environmental effects of our behavior for a few decades. I settled on a discussion closer to home -- the West.

Western Development, Values, and Environment

Let me draw some lessons from the development of the Western United States. Here was played out the dispossession of indigenous Americans, and simultaneously, extirpation of many large animals -- bison, wolves, grizzly bears. Here too was the ebb and flow of a vast cattle industry on the Great Plains grassland; the breaking of this grass cover in favor of wheat; pumping of huge quantities of ground water for more valuable crops like corn, cotton and sorghum; mining, forest cutting, grazing and water diversion throughout the mountain West; and more recently, the development of an urban system of great cities, suburbs, towns, and recreational resorts linked by rail, air and road. Despite our sense that the great Western landscapes are somehow different from the East, our technological society has loosened the bounds of distance, climate, topography and natural resource as readily here in the arid West as it had in the East. We've conducted our commerce, settlement, commercialization, and recreation all over the Western half of this continent, pretty much as we please.

Yet, originally, our industrial civilization came to face in the West both a humanity and a nature for which it was ill-prepared. Europeans, once establishing a toe-hold, quickly proceeded to wipe out the indigenous people and to battle and transform nature. Once the Indian had been subjugated, the bison extirpated, and the distances conquered by rail, farmers and ranchers, loggers and miners, created an extractive economy in the West. They are here still, along with a now larger tertiary economy of investment bankers, computer programmers, trades-people, skiers, service workers, and university professors.

So, let's try to make some sense of American values by using the West as stage. Values are typically examined in one of two ways -- either personally as we reach down to discover what matters to us, or dispassionately in an academic way. Either is valid. The personal approach offers authenticity, and the academic offers some distancing.

Academic analysts of values -- anthropologists, sociologists, and others -- are hesitant to ascribe a set of values to a nation or society, especially one as complex as the United States. How do we deal, for example, here in the West, with the similar, but occasionally different, values of both Anglo and Latino cultures? Yet, our personal experience, our political leaders and teachers do often tell us that there is a melting-pot of American values -- the primacy of the family, our Judeo-Christian roots, freedom, and the rest.

Fortunately, where other social scientists fear to thread a few cultural geographers and refugees who have fled into the field of "American Studies," are willing to rush in. Perhaps the best observer of American cultural geography has been Wilbur Zelinsky, who simply listed several recurring ideals he thought had fueled the development of the American landscape; ideals with which many of us will identify. The first was agrarianism -- the sense that a country must be founded on its own resources with its own people creating wealth by working the land. This traditionally meant family farmers, and we still revere this thread-bare institution. In my own recent interviews of western farmers and ranchers, I've found a recurring fear that America will lose its independence and power if we stop growing and eating our own food, cutting our own forests to build our houses, digging our own coal, or drilling our own oil. This view is often evoked in response to the development of the service economy in the West, especially when the services are provided to "recreationists."

Another dominant American trait is our reverence for entrepreneurialism -- for a capitalist system of markets and marketing, and for private gain through mercantile transaction among people. This bundle of values is usually the first decried by environmentalists.

The next important American trait is an almost messianic faith in the power of technology, especially an abiding belief that technology can overcome environmental constraint. Despite the historical evidence that most new technologies create many problems, as they solve others, many people -- some in national leadership roles -- still expect technology to overcome our problems of ozone depletion, climate change, forest die-back, soil erosion, and the like.

Perhaps the most important ideal in the American manifold of values is private property and our respect for the rights of individuals, especially individual land owners. Obviously this harkens back to the values of those who fled Europe in the 1700s; people made landless by enclosure laws; people fleeing the equivalent of slavery to the landed gentry. Our inability to institute anything resembling land use planning is a further expression of the value we place in private property rights -- much to the dismay of academics, city managers, and environmentalists who often want to prescribe land use.

A slightly more difficult ideal to pin down is the often quite self-conscious American sense of destiny and mission which propelled western settlement by Anglo's with an imprimatur of patriotism and social reproduction. While the government gave away land, it did not renounce entrepreneurialism. Capitalist instrumentalities like railroad and flour milling conglomerates emerged to shore up the economic and political ideal of empire based on a large and secure agrarian base.

Finally, Zelinsky also found an "almost anarchistic individualism" in the American character which, linked to our value of private property, has left us continually trying to balance the "public good" against "private rights." Thus, we are loathed to infringe anyone's ability, say, to make it good in business by inventing and marketing a new consumer product -- even if it has serious environmental side-effects. This too is linked to our attachment to the single-family home, the automobile, the well-watered lawn. No matter how often we're told how well the European mass-transit systems work, or how European households use less space, water, building materials, and energy per family member, we simply do not wish to emulate this -- indeed, we see it as a quaint European trait linked to their history, their socialism, and their lack of land and resources.

Values Written into Environmentalism

If you will assume that I have reasonably well captured some key and abiding elements of American culture, recognizing that I left some out as well, then perhaps some connections to American environmentalism can be made. I have already mentioned the link between progressivism and conservation, but can we extend this? The link between American values and environmentalism is most visible in the mechanisms or tactics chosen by contemporary environmental groups to achieve their goals. For example, bowing to the enduring role of consumerism in U.S. culture, many groups are turning to "green consumerism." I'm somewhat excited by this movement, but some of it, maybe much of it, is old style marketing. Aware of the role of technology in American progress, others are putting that technology to the task of environmental cleanup -- with states and corporations positioning to make hay from environmental technologies. Others, like Amory Lovins of the Snowmass Institute, are applying high-tech to relatively simple problems, like lighting. Lovins estimates that every one of his new lightbulbs will save, over its life, one metric ton of carbon dioxide -- the trick, of course, is to switch many or all of the world's lighting to new, hi-tech bulbs that burn less electricity. Finally, recognizing the edifice of private property, many groups, tired of haggling over public laws to manage private property, simply started to acquire the land and manage it for environmental goals.

Will these accommodations to peoples' values work, in cumulative effect, to reduce loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, or climate warming? Modern environmentalism from the 1960s sought a revolution in our relationship to nature, but the contemporary environmentalism of The Nature Conservancy, of Lovins, even of the Sierra Club, is now much more pragmatic.

Values Written on the Land: Back to Paradox Valley

Beside showing up in the tactics of environmental groups, American values and ideals are manifest in the landscape. In the Great Plains, for example, homesteading legislation in the mid-1800s was an explicit attempt to create the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian nation of independent family farmers working the land that they owned free and clear. The family farm or ranch, a well-entrenched American ideal, continues to draw support in the face of an expansionary agricultural development in the West, even if it means large government subsidy -- in everything from subsidized applied research to cheap water for irrigation. A salient symbolic power attaches to farming and ranching evoking social pressure for their physical and economic protection, even in risky environments. The farming and ranching life fetches a high social valuation, expressed through the policy goal, regularly and explicitly stated by Congress, of preserving small "family" operations. Nowhere is the family farm so compelling of political support than in the Plains, where corporate farming has made few inroads. When two Rutgers University researchers, Frank and Debbra Popper, jousted with this icon in suggesting that much of the Great Plains ought to be returned to an unplowed, unfenced grassland occupied by free-ranging buffalo herds, they were poorly received at many speaking engagements on the Plains -- as you can imagine.

These same values operate in the Mountain West. I have been studying areas of Colorado that are developing rapidly -- mountain valleys filling with second homes, golf courses, ski resorts, and vacation cabins. People in these rural communities face a dilemma. They want some development in order to maintain an economy that gives them good quality of life and allows their kids to stay there with good jobs. Yet, they know from experience that development is not easily contained, and feeds on itself until it changes a community so much that most original residents simply leave, or are obscured. We can't seem to deliver, by planning ordinance, referendum, or even new legislation, something between a "down and out" busted community, and the Aspen's, Vail's, and Sun Valley's of the West. Ranchers in these areas hate to see development raise their property values and change the character of rural towns. Some say they simply don't enjoy being a rancher anymore surrounded by fancy homes, and having to fight the ski traffic to get their work done. At the same time, they respect, and will defend, the right of every property owner -- including their neighboring rancher and themselves -- to sell out for development because they've always supported private property.

Beside the question of land use, the contradictions in our values about environment and our relationship to nature show up in natural resource management. In this area, we express deeply-held notions that nature must be improved by the works of people. This value shows up in my interviews of Colorado ranchers when we talk about the controversial notion of "range quality." Critics argue that livestock grazing has degraded the western rangelands, but ranchers counter that rather than degrading the land, they have actually improved it with managed grazing systems, vegetation manipulation, and fertilization. They say they are actually maintaining the land in a state of higher productivity, defined by how much commercial product can be gleaned from it. They simply cannot abide the proposition that the land should be allowed to revert to its so-called "natural state," which, along with predators and noxious plants and prairie dogs, simply cannot produce many cattle, and seems to them to be "wasteland."

Foresters, loggers, farmers, often express the same notions, and thus establish an apparent contradiction between their ties to the land, and the natural systems from which they produce food and fiber. As they see it, our duty to the environment is to improve upon it -- we are all reformists at heart, it seems.

Utilitarianism vs. Environmentalism

Returning now to the question, what is our "correct" relationship to the environment, I've found that there is a spectrum of views ranging from a strict environmentalism to a pure utilitarianism. Eco-centric environmentalism -- which advocates such things as wolf reintroduction in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains among other things -- has really only emerged in the last few decades, and it exemplifies one pole in the spectrum. In opposition is the anthropocentric or utilitarian environmentalism of farmers, ranchers, loggers, industrialists and land developers. In between these are a variety of views encapsulating many catch-phrases and types of environmentalism in the American scene. The "deep ecologists" argue that only with a naturalistic environmentalism and a social revolution can we save ourselves and the world from destruction. More pragmatic environmentalists feel that we have some time, and probably don't really have to fully change the structure of society. I would argue that utilitarianism has generally won out in issues concerning the environment. This is evident, I think, in the evolution of "environmental protection laws" for example. However, is this is our "correct" relationship to the environment?

Ultimately, I do not know the answer to this immense question, but my sense is that we have only a couple of decades to figure out our "correct" relationship to nature, to eco-systems, to other species. Indeed, the problem is one of timing. The human transformation of the globe, while under way for centuries, has just now reached a pitch of intensity and grandness of scale that it threatens the very life-support systems on which society rests. Unfortunately, the many contradictions in our values, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors in the environment seem to me to be very large stumbling blocks, very strong forces for "business as usual," and we need probably at least a half-century of environmentalism to make significant progress in reconciling culture and environment. What follows are what I think are some beginning points.

First, an extreme eco-centric view -- one holding that society, its institutions and structures, should be reorganized along ecological lines -- is probably just not in the cards, and my guess is that it could be just as harmful, though in different ways, as any purely utilitarian approach to the environment. Still, there is one key principle of eco-centric views that we should try to adopt. We must at least create a more adaptive approach to our interactions with nature. I am convinced, from my studies of Great Plains farming during periods of drought and recovery, that the agricultural system there is quite resilient -- that is, able to "bounce back" from disturbance. It is not, however, very adaptive -- that is, able to change with environmental change. Indeed, many social support systems like crop subsidies, insurance, and disaster payments are meant to help the system endure periods of "extreme" conditions so that it can function during periods of "normality." I would argue that much of human technology and society is designed the same way -- to help us weather the bad times and function best in the good times. The great menace of global environmental change -- climate, ozone, species, land cover -- is that it occurs, not in a pattern of random departures from some "normal" to which society is adjusted, but rather as a unidirectional and cumulative trend. If we continue to respond with tactics of resilience, rather than strategies of adaptation, then global trends will eventually bring about a catastrophic adjustment in social function. We must reconsider our responses to future climate fluctuations, for example, in light of the new information on global change. Do we really want to help farmers get back to growing the same crops once the drought has ended, if droughts are becoming more frequent? How do we want to respond to future famines, floods, dust bowls?

Secondly, problems of environment also demand attention to the other great question facing humanity at the turn of the century: what should be our relationship to each other? Shall it continue to be one of dominance among social and economic classes? Colonization? Power struggles? Or is it to be one of cooperation and collaboration? Many researchers, for example, feel that the grave disproportion of wealth distribution is also at the root of many environmental problems in the developing countries.

The combination of these two beginning points suggest a third -- a need to create a better "social ecology" to solve our social problems while working to develop greater affinity with nature. This is the new relationship that recognizes the need to change our relationship to one another if we are to change our relationship to nature. We cannot solve pure environmental problems. We must also solve people problems.

How might a more socially aware ecology deal with the paradoxes in American values and the environmental challenge of the next few decades? Primarily by drawing on some other values. In my earlier discussion of American values, I admittedly neglected several that are just as staunchly "American" values, though perhaps not as strongly in the forefront of our current ways of thinking about environment. Consider, for example, values like fairness, voluntarism, and diversity. Put simply, a "social ecology," or more socially aware ecology, might strive to move beyond lobbying Congress and courtroom litigation to solve environmental problems and value paradoxes. It might strive to build bridges between environmental utilitarians, like Western farmers and ranchers, and other diverse ways of life. Certainly, it would try consciously to avoid demonizing individuals for their lifestyles, backgrounds, philosophies, and livelihoods as part of any strategy toward solving environmental challenges.