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
High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY OUTREACH MANAGER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.