On the ground with economies built on snow

 

It has been snowing in Crested Butte, Colo., where people pray and dance for snow; the whole winter economy is predicated on snow. Crested Butte’s old miners used to call snow “the only crop that never failed.” They also used to say, “You can’t eat the scenery.” But Crested Butte and most mountain communities have been surviving economically on a diet of commodified scenery for the past several decades. Let the snow come.

But winter looks different from where I live in Gunnison, just 30 miles downvalley; it brings more cold than snow. The town is located in a basin at the confluence of several big valleys, and since cold air, like water, flows downhill, these valleys all drain cold air down to Gunnison. A classic inversion -- a layered lake of cold dense air trapped under the high-pressure areas that often settle over the Colorado Plateau and Southern Rockies for weeks at a time in winter. A cold lake into which we fart bubbles of carbon gases from furnaces working overtime and cars idling to warm up every morning, until the cold lake is befouled enough to be almost visible. Looking up at the low weak winter sun is like looking up from underwater. A high ratio of cold to snow makes for a mean time.

My general enthusiasm for life tends to follow the mercury.  But today, there is a lot in the cultural as well as the natural environment that makes winter feel like a metaphor for life in general.

Nationally, most of us are in the sixth year of what is settling out to be a chronic near-recession -- call it an “economic winter.” It’s not for everyone, of course: This morning, one of my liberal pinko commie websites talked about the “Superzip” created by half a dozen contiguous zipcodes in the Washington, D.C., area that together create one of the wealthiest enclaves in the nation. Think of “the Beltway” as America’s biggest gated community, and wonder why anyone would expect those on the inside to give a fig about those of us on the outside.

I confess that not long ago, when someone started railing against the government, I used to reply almost automatically: “But the government is us.” Here in the mean time I no longer believe that. From where I live, down on the ground, the three branches of government all appear to be mostly in service to the denizens of that Beltway gated community. They are not us or ours.

Whatever happens in Washington, the West always seems slightly depressed. Wages are chronically low in the amenities economies; costs are always high. Big economic opportunities are limited by low populations and large distances. Most of us accept this as part of the tradeoff for living where we do.

In the Upper Gunnison, we periodically decide to do something about this eternal economic winter and form a new “economic development” organization. The discussion always begins with how to diversify the economy, but eventually it comes down to how to get more people to the ski area, or more students for the college, or both. Yet little changes, and just staying flat seems like an achievement.

Another way of looking at this is to acknowledge that we are beginning a forced experiment with a no-growth economy. I wonder how soon the same thing will happen in the mainstream economy, where unemployment remains a serious problem. Earnings outside the gated communities remain nearly flat, and the corporations that now run our society are sitting on their cash rather than investing in growth.

I tend to agree with economists like Paul Krugman, who argue that the nation will not “recover” from this economic winter, which is not a full-blown recession but more like an ongoing mean time, until the government injects some serious public spending into the equation. Heaven knows we need some serious public spending on everything from bridges to water systems -- not to mention climate change.

Launching into all of that could put a lot of people back to work. But even the humane economists like Krugman -- the ones who don’t worship an abstract market -- display a certain vagueness about what recovery would actually look like. That may be the question to be contemplating. In the mean time: Let it snow; keep shoveling; it’s winter.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in the upper Gunnison River Basin at the bottom of a lake of cold air.

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