The infinite West reaches its limits

Undaunted optimism runs up against a finite landscape

  • Cartoon: Pirate ship looms on horizon of a Western town

    Malcolm Wells
  • Richard D. Lamm

    Photo courtesy Richard D. Lamm

Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.

What is the take-home lesson of the West? Some will say truthfully that we have learned a myriad of lessons from exploring and settling the West, but I wonder if there are any great wisdoms that the West has to teach us equivalent to the triumph of democracy and the market that characterizes the American experience. Is there a core message from approximately 200 years of Western experience?

I suggest two conflicting candidates: the triumph of the infinite and living with the finite.

Civilization has triumphed in the West because it has refused to accept limits and has overcome a myriad of obstacles. Our ancestors found a desert and made it into a garden. The culture of the infinite teaches that ingenuity and imagination can prevail over any obstacles and that there are no limits - only lack of creativity.

This is the West of irrigation canals, transmountain diversions, pivot sprinklers and other adaptations that allow us not only to live in a semi-desert, but also to enjoy green lawns and prosperity. The culture of the infinite suggests the future is a logical extension of the past, that all problems have achievable solutions: "Go forth and multiply and subdue the earth" and "Go West, young man."

It is the optimism of "Not to worry: God gave man two hands and only one stomach." It reflects a devout belief in limitless economic development, progress and the perfectibility of the human condition. It is the world of green revolution that has given us the potential to eliminate hunger, and of technology that some say has repealed the law of supply and demand and discovered endless and unlimited wealth. This is the world built around unlimited people - unsatiated consumers.

The supporters of the infinite are either the modern prophets or the modern alchemists - but to date they say they have been stunningly successful in solving the problem of population and poverty. And in their minds their approach will continue to be successful. Aridity can be solved by desalinating oceans, and wealth (computer chips) can be created out of sand.

The second culture is the culture of the finite. The West also teaches that we must adapt to nature, and be acutely aware of nature's fickleness and limitations. It teaches us that there is such a thing as "carrying capacity" and we must respect the fragility of the land and environment. It argues that nature teaches us that we never can or should rely on the status quo, that climate is harsh and variable, and that the price of survival is to anticipate and prepare. It questions the proposition that growth, population or economic, can go on forever. This is the world of conservation, national parks, wilderness legislation, crop rotation, Planned Parenthood, Malthus, Exxon Valdez. It is the vision of Thomas Berry: "The earth and the human community are bound in a single journey" and it listens to Isaiah: "Woe unto them that lay field upon field and house upon house that there be no place to be left alone in the world."

Only one of these cultures can prevail. They could co-exist when the West was young. We could mourn Glen Canyon while we kayaked the Green and the Yampa. We could endlessly brag "Watch us grow" and still maintain our quality of life and fragile landscape. But even though the West is no longer young, we are still acting as if it were.

Our industrial civilization is built upon the assumptions that there are no limits, and that we will not reach any sort of carrying capacity. It assumes infinite resources, where scarcity is caused by want of imagination. Civilization in most of the world supports this assumption of the infinite.

The finite culture, with fewer adherents, but equally passionate, contends that the first culture is making "empty earth" assumptions that cannot be sustained. They want to move now to stabilize U.S. population and help the rest of the world do likewise.

Ultimately, finite-culture adherents feel that we cannot and should not have a Colorado of 8 million people, or an America of 500 million living our consumptive lifestyles. They contend that we live in a hinge of history where society must rewrite the entire script. If they are correct, then our basic assumptions about life, our great religious traditions, our economy are conceptually obsolete. So far, those who sing this song are failed prophets.

But what if - just what if - the culture of the infinite were only a temporary victor? What if nature bats last? What if the real lesson we should have learned in a place with 13 inches of rain was the need to appreciate that limits could be pushed and extended but never eliminated? What if the rain forests, the dying coral, the rising temperatures are trying to tell us something?

The lessons I have learned from my love affair with the West support this second culture. I believe we need to transform society from an earth-consuming technological civilization to a sustainable and more benign civilization. I'm impressed with Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" which teaches that human fate depends on our ability to change the basic values, beliefs and aspirations of the total society.

My life's experience confirms Charles Darwin's belief that "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

The Incas of South America saw the sails of the Spanish ships on the horizon, but not comprehending them, took no preparatory action. Ships and sails were inconceivable and thus not real. To modern thinkers, so is a world that must achieve sustainability. But like the Spanish sails, the increasingly burdened environment might be signaling massive, unprecedented change.

I believe that the fate of the world depends on our ability to know when to abandon the infinite culture, and shift to the finite culture. Wait too long and we are doomed. Some will say if we shift too soon, we'll give up a lot of fun and exhilaration. I'd rather we shift too soon. Like the Incas, we won't get a chance to shift too late.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Richard D. Lamm

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