The Microcosm of Montana: Is ignoring a problem the same as being a part of it?
I’m sure you’ve heard or read a saying similar to that of “there comes a time when silence is betrayal...”; in fact, I’ve heard several renditions of it in respect to the upcoming elections. If you stay silent and don’t vote, you’re essentially part of the problem in this country.
And so with that, after reading Jared Diamonds’ Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which he cites modern-day Montana as a microcosm for societal breakdowns, the related question intrigued me: is it OK to criticize people or societies for doing something that’s better, but not doing the most best that they are capable of doing? This can of course deal with whatever topic may jog your interest. For the sake of time, however, I’ll keep the focus on the environment.
To ridiculously paraphrase, Diamond describes the collapse and events leading up to the now-booming, wealthy Bitterroot Valley of Montana: they over-mined, over farmed, and over-burned the forests (often on purpose for anti-forestry fires, but done incorrectly nonetheless). For an area that’s already paid for than 2 billion dollars in environmental damage done by its thousands of abandoned mills & mines, which will continue to seep hazardous chemicals into the earth long after we are gone, the Bitterroot Valley doesn’t have the means to pay for better environmental stabilization. In the words of Diamond,
“ The Bitterroot Valley presents a microcosm of the environmental problems plaguing the rest of the United States: increasing population, immigration, increasing scarcity and decreasing quality of water, locally and seasonally poor air quality, toxic wastes, heightened risks from wildfire, forest deterioration, losses of soil or its nutrients, losses of biodiversity, damage from introduced pest species, and effect of climate change”.
Aside from the fact that the environmental costs would be outrageous for any municipality to keep up with, more help could be done than just the government tossing money around. After all, who ultimately has more impact on the environment than those who are actually living off of it and using it?
Today, most who reside in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley are vacationing millionaires or multi-millionaires, many of who are careful to stay in Montana a certain number of days each year, so as to avoid paying resident state taxes. Those state taxes, as you might have guessed, are what would help fund environmental repair, bio-cleanup from abandoned mines, and endless other endeavors. They’ve build many “members only” resorts, such as the Yellowstone Club, for which annual membership was last quoted at $250,000.
Because the original residents of the valley are mostly long-gone and many of those who remain can’t afford to pay taxes, there’s a stalemate with any significant environmental aid. Most natives had ties to old mills and over-grazed farms which soon went under as the cost of farming rose while the profit margin remained the same; a common ending was that many couldn’t afford to keep the land when businesses failed, and they had the added pressure of selling it cheaply to the only ones who would buy it: developers, or vacationers with little or no use for the land.
So while the land has reached a point where it’s no longer being ravaged—but it’s original keepers are being pushed out by politics and economics—should we expect those wealthy enough to put an extra hand toward caring for the environment? Whether or not they legally pay taxes, should they be morally obligated to “pay it forward” back to the beautiful mountains and ecosystems of the valley, all of which are diminishing and fading in actuality? Granted, not all of the newcomers to Bitterroot Valley are remaining neutral about the environmental issues, but for the bigger picture, they definitely aren’t doing all that they can. At minimum, just paying taxes may help exponentially, but that's a flimsy "may", depending on how politics would decide to spread it. But until larger change comes about, those vacationing continue to fly-fish the rivers, hunt and ski the mountains, and constantly build more residential and luxury developments while putting the environmental woes of today on the backburner, and also avoiding those which are now inevitable in the future.