by Laura Paskus
It’s that time of year again, when we set aside our traditional cover story and serve up a spread of summer reading. If there’s a theme that runs through the essays in this issue, it’s that of "crossings." Tim Westby takes a marathon trip around the West by Greyhound bus, crossing deep economic and cultural divides. Laura Pritchett writes about her hometown, where old-timers and newcomers love to fight each other — until it comes time to guard against strip-mall sprawl, when most cross their local battle lines and stand together. And Jesse Wolf Hardin tells of life on a remote New Mexico river that, for those who dare to cross it, offers redemption.
This idea of crossing between cultures and worlds hit home recently at HCN, when eight complete strangers dropped in from Central Asia. Five journalists and one engineer from Kazakhstan came to learn about natural resource issues. Their guides were two representatives from a nonprofit called ISAR: Resources for Environmental Activists, which encourages "citizen diplomacy" within former Soviet republics.
We were surprised by the remarkable similarities between the American West and the former Soviet republic, both of which spread across just over a million square miles. Like the West, Kazakhstan has rich reserves of oil and natural gas. And as in the West, government officials are welcoming companies that want to extract these resources, while environmental regulations are given short shrift.
The Kazakhstanis also face problems we have long wrestled with, and, we hope, improved: Coal miners there, who work in extremely dangerous conditions, earn about $3,000 a year. Industrial pollution is widespread, and government officials charged with regulating it are susceptible to bribes. After a visit to one of our local coal mines, engineer Zhanay Sagintayev was buoyed by the fact that local environmentalists and the mines have tried to work together. "It is quite complicated in Kazakhstan to work on a local level," he said, because high government officials make all the decisions.
And when asked about Kazakhstan’s free press, one journalist said simply, "There isn’t one." It’s a policy in the media not to criticize the president, for example, and stories critical of industry — particularly of foreign companies — do not make it into the news.
But we have plenty to learn, too: When Zhanay asked what Westerners are doing about water conservation, HCN staffers squirmed in their seats. We in the West are usually more focused on looking for more water than on finding ways to use less of it. We live in the land of plenty: the land of subdivisions in the desert, water pouring from each tap, and an SUV in every driveway.
Here’s hoping that programs like ISAR’s can help activists, engineers and journalists in the former Soviet republics learn to affect positive local change — and that here in the West, we’ll remember both how good we’ve got it, and how far we still have to go.