North and east of Billings stretches the prairie landscape that once broke homesteaders’ hearts. Perhaps it still does. In early November, the grass is golden, the hills spare, the clouds sweeping — alternately white and black — and the wind severe.
Highway 3 runs mostly straight from the airport north of Billings to Acton, Comanche, Broadview and Lavina, brave settlements hugging a road, a grain elevator, a railroad track. The scattered lakes are choppy ultramarine and, if they’re big enough, claim their share of coots, wigeons, Canada geese and grebes. By late fall, just before the real cold descends, some of the water has dried into alkaline playas, teasingly pale on the horizon, dry and crystalline when you get close.
On one such prairie pond a couple of months ago, in the southeastern corner of Golden Valley County — aptly named, it seemed, right then, as all was golden and dipping — my husband and I spotted nine white birds dwarfing the Canada geese they floated among. From the roadside, we looked down at the pond but were just too far away to decide if we were seeing tundra or trumpeter swans. It hardly mattered.
Since then I’ve been thinking about the idea of beauty and the arguments we conservationists make to try to convince people that air, water, open spaces, wildlife, and all those “things” our culture terms (erroneously, I think) “nature” and “other” are worth saving. There are practical reasons, economic reasons, we say, to save these “resources.” We talk about the value of “services” nature provides and the importance to the economy of promoting eco-tourism, hunting and fishing.
I don’t think this approach works.
According to a poll conducted last spring by Montana Conservation Voters (disclosure: I’m on the local chapter board), the majority of Montanans interviewed have a favorable opinion of coal companies while they do not think very highly of environmentalists (conservationists, however, are more popular than the latter).
Now, in most research I know of, environmentalists turn out to be no more socially elitist than, say, guitarists, and I’m pretty sure that Montanans would not, on principle, dislike guitarists. I’d also be willing to bet that coal company executives are, indeed, among the elite. So I am forced to the conclusion that the coal industry is popular simply because, though not “one of us,” it represents jobs, while environmentalists are often portrayed as people who will take jobs away.
Coal jobs are certainly an important facet of Montana’s economy, employing as many as 5,000 people directly and probably many more indirectly. However, green energy jobs currently number more than 2,000 and, with development, could actually far eclipse those represented by coal (and all those represented by the Keystone XL pipeline). Sources from Forbes to the University of California Berkeley agree that investing in green energy and conservation rather than fossil fuels is better for the economy.
Yet that endorsement doesn’t resonate with many people. Perhaps because it seems counterintuitive. The “real” jobs are in mining and in oil and gas and coal. They are what the economy demands. So if science, social research, and the facts about jobs do not move Montanans to embrace conservationism, what will?
The MCV poll also showed that the overwhelming majority of Montanans believe in clean water. Wildlands are popular. And more than half of the respondents believe that green energy is worth pursuing, even if it means utility rates will go up (a premise that is itself untrue). Moreover, hiking is, surprisingly enough, Montanans’ most popular outdoor activity — not hunting, fishing or skiing.
The MCV poll results point, then, to a divide in our way of thinking about ourselves and the earth. On the one hand, we value fossil fuels jobs and the prosperity we believe serving the economy will produce. On the other hand, we love impractical “luxuries” like swans on a prairie pond.
But, despite what the economy wants of us, beauty is not a luxury and not ours to give away. And that is what conservationists should offer. Do we really want our lives defined by smart phones, gadgets, expensive clothes, cable TV and the chimerical prospect of making more and more and more money from coal and other extractive industries?
Once our basic needs for food, companionship and shelter are secured, beauty is what keeps us alive, aware and compassionate.
Yes, when I saw those swans in Golden Valley County I was burning gasoline to do so (I try not to drive much around town, and I can’t afford a Prius or a Volt). But imagine a beautiful world accessible without the use of fossil fuels.
Like me, up to 70 percent of Montanans want to hike, camp and in other ways surround themselves and their children with beauty. In fact, anyone who has called a child to the window to watch the first snowfall knows that access to beauty accompanies healthy psychological development. Biologist E.O. Wilson called that natural love of life and beauty “biophilia.” To deny it is to deny ourselves.
So here’s the challenge. We shouldn’t see a healthy economy and a beautiful world as mutually exclusive. We must have both. And we must start by making the economy serve our needs rather than the other way around.
Last Updated on Thursday, 22 January 2015 15:23