Post-cowboy economy not a Barbie Doll world

  Dear HCN,

We offer the following comments in response to Ed Marston's cultural critique of our recent book, Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New West (HCN, 12/17/01: Economics with a heart, but no soul).

Healthy natural landscapes do not merely provide "playgrounds" and "pretty" amenities for "soulless" in-migrants. They provide a broad range of environmental services that are crucial to our physical, cultural and spiritual health. Water quality, wildlife, open space, biological diversity, wildlands, ecological stability, clean air, stable climates, etc., are not mere "Barbie Doll" accessories.

Actively developing natural landscapes for commercial purposes is not the only way in which to productively and safely relate to those natural landscapes. For instance, a miner engaged in tearing off the top of a mountain, soaking the crushed rock with cyanide, and then dumping the toxic remains into a valley does not necessarily have a superior cultural or spiritual relationship with the mountain than a hunter, poet, hiker, mountaineer or environmental geologist. Similarly, a farmer who plows up natural prairie and drains wetlands in order to plant a monoculture crop does not necessarily have a deeper respect for the prairie than a birdwatcher, an artist, a waterfowl or upland bird hunter, or an urban resident struggling to protect our remaining natural prairies. To assume that the past economic relationships to the land are the only appropriate relationships is to surrender to nostalgia.

Play, recreation, the appreciation and celebration of beauty, and the contemplation of the mysteries of the natural world and our intimate relationship with it are not spiritually inferior to work, commercial enterprise and the utilitarian development of the natural world. We have broadened our spiritual horizons beyond those of our fundamentalist Puritan past and the Protestant work ethic that evolved from it.

Ed Marston admits that only a tiny and shrinking fraction of the West's population can engage in his culturally blessed activities of ranching, mining, logging and farming. This, he assures us, does not condemn the rest of us to a soulless existence. He uses the analogy of 100,000 fans in a stadium taking inspiration from 22 football players on the field. But a society in which the vast majority passively cheers a tiny minority of cultural heroes is unlikely to be very rich culturally or spiritually. Individually and socially we need to be far more engaged in our world than the mobs screaming at gladiatorial combats or the Super Bowl. We cannot count on an ever-shrinking number of ranchers, miners, loggers and farmers to give meaning to our lives, the larger society and our culture. We have to do that ourselves in our daily lives, in how we relate to each other, how we work, how we play, and how we contemplate and seek to understand the mysteries of our world and of our lives.

Substituting a cultural argument for the more familiar economic argument for why we must continue to uncritically extend special privileges to a particular powerful set of economic actors is unlikely to fulfill Stegner's vision of a society whose quality matches the spectacular natural landscapes we call home here in the West.

Thomas Michael Power and Richard N. Barrett
Economics Department, University of Montana
Missoula, Montana
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