Tuesday, February 08, 2005

JARED DIAMOND begins Collapse, his new book about how societies' choices affect their survival, with a chapter about Montana -- not because Montana or the United States are on the brink of collapse, but rather to give the reader a familiar, recognizable example of the kinds of environmental issues that can affect a society's long-term failure or success.

Diamond focuses his lens further, on one particular corner of Montana -- the Bitterroot Valley. This is the part of Montana where you can see soaring mountains, go fly-fishing in unpolluted rivers, and gaze at meadows and spacious vistas of land under an enormous bowl of sky. Montana is not called Big Sky Country for nothing. But, ironically, the natural beauty to be found in Montana -- and especially in the Bitterroot Valley -- is becoming its biggest liability as well as its greatest asset. Montana today is going through a crisis of conflicting values. The same natural beauty and millions of square acres of open spaces that born and raised Montanans so love also draws wealthy individuals, many from Los Angeles and other large cities, who want a second, or even third or fourth home in the gorgeous Bitterroot Valley. They come a few weeks in the year to golf and fish and maybe do some hiking, but they do not support local schools and public services with their taxes. Their ability and willingness to pay enormous sums of money for land on which to build luxury homes has sparked a growing market for high-end real estate sellers and developers and also boosts the local economy by creating jobs; but at the same time local ranchers are harmed, because outside demand is driving up the cost of land beyond the ability of farming or ranching to pay for it.

Obviously, this kind of scenario creates negative feelings on both sides; but Diamond does not approach it as an issue of right and wrong, bad and good. Rather than presenting the local residents as the good guys and the wealthy outsiders as the bad guys, Diamond asks the reader to take a third approach. The quality of life issues that Montanans are facing now are about values that are different. Not good values versus bad values, but simply values that are very different, and that cannot coexist simultaneously -- at least not easily. Indeed, often the conflicting values are within the local community itself. Do Montanans want clean air, low population density, clean rivers filled with fish, beautiful scenery, and the ability to make a living from the land in the way their parents and grandparents did? Or do they want more jobs, a wider array of choices about shopping, entertainment, and so on (which wealthy urban types tend to bring with them), and so on? They want both, of course, but they can't have both. They have to choose. Ultimately, Diamond says, the responsibility is theirs -- and ours, all of us. We can't ask developers to forego the huge profits that come from people who are willing to pay millions of dollars for a home they will live in for two or three weeks in the summer. We have to take the responsibility of deciding what our personal priorities and values are, and then work to make the legal infrastructure (i.e., government, state and federal law) reflect those priorities and values.

No comments: