Scorched Earth

Driving down to Idaho Springs recently with my 15-year-old son, we got to talking about climate change, pollution and the effects of humankind on the landscape. “I mean, look at all this stuff!” Max said, pointing at the all the roads, buildings, signs, wires and other obvious marks of man all around us. There we were, of course, in an automobile – the very thing that drove much of the development we were observing.

While every jersey barricade or utility pole doesn’t necessarily represent a terrible thing in and of itself, what Max and I were pondering was the cumulative effect of it all – and also how long it would take for the Earth to reclaim it all were we to disappear. (Read “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman for more on this.) If nothing else, it’s illuminating to compare how we live to, say, the Utes who once inhabited these hills and left no discernible marks in their wake.

Summit County, although recognized as one of the more beautiful places in the world, has been altered tremendously in its 150 years or so of “civilization.” Even as we still celebrate the “hearty miner” in our museums and marketing material, we’re still trying to clean up after them a century-and-a-half later. It’s tempting to say they knew not what they did, but is that really true? Maybe they had little idea the disturbances they were creating would unleash a toxic cocktail of bad stuff into the rivers, but the overall mindset seemed to be that acquisition of the shiny metal trumped all other concerns.

The mountains we love so much are crisscrossed with ski trails, logging trails, utility line cuts, recpaths and other, buried, things we can’t even see. We have, of course, convinced ourselves of the need for all these things and see them now as part of the almost-natural landscape. It’s also true that laws such as NEPA and its required environmental impact statements have done much to soften the blow since the time of the miners and even the early ski areas developments. We put up “sed fences” now to prevent stuff from getting into the streams during construction, but is that just so much window dressing as the surrounding flora and fauna find they must adapt, once again, to some hulking man-made thing in their midst?

There’s a fascinating article in the Oct. 5 New Yorker by John Cassidy in which he attempts to explain the behavior behind the recent economic collapse. The gist of it is that “rational irrationality” was the culprit: Individual investors working for what they saw as their own good conspired unwittingly to an overall dumbing down of the market. Like a game of musical chairs, investment bankers and the like were all dancing as fast as they could to keep up with the other guy, all well aware that the music would stop and only hoping they (and their stockholders) would have a seat when it did. Nicely done, Goldman Sachs! So sorry, Lehman Bros.!

This behavior is a variant of the military strategy of scorched earth, where you’re OK burning down all the other guy’s crops and homes so long as you can still emerge victorious. On the global stage, we see the mighty industrial nations engaged in another round of rational irrationality – this one surrounding who will “blink” first on climate change and make real, concrete commitments to reducing greenhouse gases. When this music stops, we really will have a scorched earth, and it won’t just be rock-pile eyesores left behind.

Back in our car rolling down the hill toward Georgetown, Max and I concluded that slowing or even reversing population growth is probably the best answer to many of the world’s problems. If humans are a blight upon the Earth, perhaps it’s ultimately better off without us – or at least a good deal less of us. We shrugged over that one and moved onto the next, perhaps more solvable question: When we’re gone, how long will it take for those bridges over the Interstate to fall down and deteriorate completely into the earth …?

Summit Daily News, Oct. 8, 2009

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