Samuel Western’s keynote address to the Wyoming Outdoor Council


Samuel Western, celebrated Wyoming author and poet.

 

How do conservation groups find the slower and deeper movements that really matter?

The following is the text of the keynote address given by Samuel Western at the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s 45th anniversary celebration, June 23rd, Lander, Wyoming.

 

IT IS A PROFOUND HONOR TO BE ASKED to speak at the WOC 45th anniversary dinner.  Thank you.

About a month ago I stared out a bus window at a landscape of juniper, pine, and snowcapped granitic mountains that could have been part of southcentral Colorado.

Yet a few hours later I swore I was in eastern Montana, circa 1970: rolling fields of wheat complete with short-stemmed sprinkler heads trying valiantly to shoot irrigation water of the top of the budding green heads; limestone outcrops poked out of ridges.

Venerable Ford 8N tractors chugged around fields towing faded New Holland bailers, gathering and binding the year’s first cutting.  Semis carrying big square bales roared past the bus. Then, shortly after, I could have been someplace south of Rawlins, again circa 1970.  Flocks of sheep tended by dogs and herders, some horseback, even, grazed the grass.

But I was not anywhere in the Rocky Mountains, I was on a 12-hour bus ride through central Turkey.

This is an ancient land, plowed, planted, and fought over by the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans. It’s been used pretty hard.

There were no deer or antelope grazing the edge of the alfalfa field. No covey of sharptail or their central Asian equivalent rose from the edge of the wheat. I kept looking for a squashed clump of white rabbit fur, so ubiquitous on Wyoming highways, but could see none. The animals are there, alright, especially wild boar, which is considered an agricultural scourge and a bit of a culinary problem for a Muslim nation that frowns on eating pig. Incidentally, I found out that the only firearm most locals are legally permitted to own is a shotgun. Imagine closing in on a highly irritated 300-pound boar at night equipped with a just a 12-guage. That’s an excellent reason to pray five times a day.

Although Turkey does enjoy a number of wild animals, including brown bear, most game has been driven up into the highlands or into preserves. The everyday co-existence with wild animals that we in Wyoming enjoy, even if it does mean a mountain lion on your back porch, is a rarity in Turkey.

You could also go miles without seeing a fence, even though there was plenty of livestock. But when labor is cheap, fences aren’t necessary, unlike the frontier west. In 1885, for the price of one month of cowboy wages, about $30.00/month, you could build six miles of barbed wire fence.

I watched herders guide a flock of about 100 sheep on 10-foot strip of grass between two wheat fields, an act of bravery that would induce any wheat farmer into a state of apoplexy.  Herdsmen tended herds of thin Holsteins along the easement and burrow ditches of heavily used four-lane highways.

Those cattle are there because every square meter of arable land in Turkey is harnessed for food production. If it’s not plowed, it’s planted with olives trees or grapes. If not fertile enough to grow anything, the Turks build a greenhouse and grow tomatoes and cucumber anyway. Ground producing bunch grass gets grazed. Not much left for wilderness.

Finally, stream conditions gave me the willies.  With precious few exceptions, streams were seen as a form of garbage disposal, littered with all nature of trash, especially plastics, and old building material.

I’m not here to cast aspersions of the nation of Turkey. It’s a remarkable place, surrounded by some of the politically hottest nations on earth, including, Iran, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia.  It’s country filled with people with big and generous hearts. It actually brought creatures, like the Anatolian red stag, back from brink of extinction. It’s got 254 people per square mile. Wyoming has just over five.  The trip was, however, another affirmation about how good we have it in Wyoming. And, the central question of every person in this room, some of you have made it a life-long question is: how can we keep it that way?

I was recently going through my old clip file and I came across an article I had written in 1985 for Northern Lights that wonderful magazine published by Deb Clow in Missoula that was obliged to put out it’s last issue in 2003.

I found this quote:  “There is going to be a crisis, an economic crisis, that is going to make it expedient to dismantle all the work we did in the 1970s.”

The person doing the talking was John Perry Barlow, a former president of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Now John, as we all know, has a fondness for hyperbole. He, himself, has admitted that there are times when he needs a hyperbolectomy.

Furthermore, I’m wary of the term “crisis.” It’s a word that often gets ginned up to rile emotions which then act as a handmaiden to serve someone’s specific agenda. The next thing you know, someone utters the ultimate loaded word, survive. It implies either death or victory. True, a finch without the right-shaped beak, does not survive long on the Galapagos. Yet such drama rarely obliges the dynamic of nations. It doesn’t mean things don’t get ugly or messy. You’ve noticed, however, that Egypt, despite its upheavals, is still a going concern. Only in scripture and Hollywood do things succumb to apocalyptic endings.

Every generation since the beginning of the industrial revolution has fretted how fast the world turns under their feet. In 1870, George Ticknor, a stalwart but well-traveled New Englander and a professor Spanish literature at Harvard concluded, “It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”

Ticknor was born in 1791 and died in 1871. Think of the changes he saw.

Then how do we differentiate between crisis, like the 2004 Tsunami in the East Indian Ocean that cost over 250,000 lives or the equivalent roughly of half the population of Wyoming, and threatening events that, if not ameliorated, certainly impoverish our lives?

I recently read an interview with Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers. “Right now,” he said “there are the greatest number of bills threatening to roll back Clean Water Act protection in its 40-year history. Opponents of the Clean Water Act have gotten pretty smart. They’re introducing lots of individual bills that do things like prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers from protecting headwater streams and wetlands, both of which are critical to the health of rivers. Most Americans would be appalled at the idea that we are going to turn back the clock to a time when rivers were so polluted you couldn’t touch them or they were on fire.”

This worries me plenty, believe me. There’s now a whole generations of Americans that never witnessed a river outside Cleveland ablaze.

But Mr. Miller’s language also worries me. About eight years ago, two writers named Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, wrote an article I imagine not a few of you in this room are familiar with, called “The Death of Environmentalism.”

In the article, these two men say, “The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections.”

There’s probably no better place to demonstrate this than Wyoming. In poll after poll, people evince a great love of open space, clean water, and protection of our really unique areas, like the Red Desert. Yet try to pass legislation protecting these areas, and you get stigmatized with the label of “job killer.”

Do you remember that sign that stood for years outside the old Parkway Plaza hotel in Casper: “Mindless Marxist Environmentalists Working for Russia?”

Or there’s this belief in Wyoming that, because, we need jobs so much, what’s good for industry is good for Wyoming.

A few years ago I was doing some research and came upon a 1975 AP story about the Wyoming Industrial Plant Siting bill, a piece of legislation that passed in no small measure due to some of the people in this room.  The article quotes Governor Ed Herschler, and you just hear the sense of bewilderment in Herschler’s voice when he talks about how cities and towns of Wyoming have been “conspicuously absent” during hearings about the bill. “I can’t understand it. This bill has great bearing on the growth of Wyoming cities and towns.”

Still, laws did get passed, and, again, many of them conceived and shepherded through the hallowed halls of Cheyenne by the people in this room or members, now far-flung, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Furthermore, no person in the history of Wyoming or probably the Rocky Mountain west, ever acted as a more effective and persistent voice of conscience, that voice that struck bone in every coal and uranium miner, every logging company, lobbyist, and livestock producer – whether they would admit to this voice or not – that Wyoming was such a beautiful place that it deserves protection. That voice belonged Tom Bell, the founder of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

As the saying goes: preservationists may be hell to live with but they make great ancestors.

*****

Milton Friedman, the father of modern free-market economic theory, once said, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.”

Well, OK. How bad does the crisis have to be before we consider change? Do have to wait until the Cuyahoga River, or its metaphorical equivalent, catches on fire again.

I think the answer is yes. It’s going to take something just like that. We live an age of intense anxiety about our economic future. Recall that those pieces of environmental legislation that you passed on a statewide level and that groups passed Washington were enacted in times of economic bounty. The Clean Air Act was Pass in 1970; the Clear Water Act in 1972. From 1961 from 1969 was one the greatest period of economic expansion in U.S. history.

I don’t know what the conflagration will look like, but I have a few ideas about how to battle the flames.

We’ve got to think differently about defending things, as in “Defenders of Wildlife,” etc. I think it’s ultimately a losing proposition.

Eventually all defenses, both physical structures and the idea of a defense dynamic, collapse.

Any military historian or tactician will tell you that being on the defensive is ultimately unsustainable. “Stationary defenses are monuments to the stupidity of mankind,” General George Patton famously quipped.

Besides, as the conservation biologist George Schaller told M.A. Sanjayan of the University of Montana, “There’s no such thing as winning the fight for nature, because all victories in this war are temporary. But,” said Schaller, “You never stop fighting.”

But then Sanjayan noted, “Schaller’s ethos — perpetual struggle — implies a perpetual problem for conservation. Successful movements and successful leaders in times of conflict — from Grant to Churchill to Gandhi — share two things: a clear articulation of what winning meant, and a clear understanding of who the enemy was.

“Conservationists have never had an understanding of what it means to win as a movement. Sure, we’ve done well on specific campaigns — clean this river, save those whales. But step back from the individual battles, and our articulation of success is wholly unintelligible.

Some would call this objection unfair. For these critics, victory means slowing down the train wreck that will inevitably come — saving pieces of the world so that, as our impact on the planet stabilizes in about 200 years, we can put it back together. This triage strategy may keep the patient alive — but it will never cure the disease.”

I don’t think we have to “win” or be so defensive if we (a) don’t fear change so much and (b) have an organization that has an active negative feedback loop, which is something I’ll talk about in a minute.

Actually, deep down inside, I think we don’t much fear change as we fear our inability to handle change or, parenthetically, we fear a certain watershed or a specific species, the grizzly or the wolverine, won’t be able to handle the change placed upon it by a growing population.

This fear of the inability to handle change has been a devastatingly effective tool employed by the current version of the Republican Party. They’ve a significant proportion of the American public convinced that we won’t be able to handle any change unless it’s a path chosen by a leader or member of congress who is a True Believer, or at least not by a Republican who has the audacity to think independently or a person who, God forbid, who calls themselves a Democrat.

That is their strength and that will be, eventually, their downfall.

Why? Because members of the current makeup of the Republican Party have a tendency to dismiss criticism not within their political purview. Try telling, for example, a True Believer Republican that part of this nation’s financial problems came about because Ronald Reagan tripled the American national debt to nearly $3 trillion. By the time he left office in 1989, Reagan more than equaled the entire debt burden produced by the previous 200 years of American history.

That idea gets very little play on Fox News or in Republican enclaves. This is because the current make up of the Republican Party lacks what’s called a negative feedback loop.

A negative feedback loop is a self-correction mechanism in any big system, be a social one, like a political party, or physical one, like an air traffic control system, that keeps things in balance.  It’s that voice that says, hey, uh, we might have a problem over here. Maybe we’re not dealing with reality.

The person who in large measure coined the phrase negative feedback loops was a professor at Dartmouth College named Donella Meadows. In talking about negative feedback loops, she mentioned that there is a segment of the population “trying to weaken the feedback power of market signals by twisting information in their favor. The REAL leverage here is to keep them from doing it.”

Hence the necessity, she said, “of anti-trust laws, truth-in-advertising laws, attempts to internalize costs (such as pollution taxes), the removal of perverse subsidies, and other ways of leveling market playing fields.  But, she said, negative feedback loops “depend upon the free, full, unbiased flow of information back and forth between electorate and leaders.

Then she said something that just killed me. “Billions of dollars are spent to limit and bias and dominate that flow. Give the people who want to distort market price signals the power to pay off government leaders, get the channels of communication to be self-interested corporate partners themselves, and none of the necessary negative feedbacks work well. Both market and democracy erode.”

If she hasn’t just described Citizens United, I’ll eat my triple-x Resistol.

However, in the long term, the party or entity who can self-correct will be the successful party.

I think the lack of negative feedback loops have likewise been a bug-a-boo for most environmental groups.

One of the reasons we’ve lost clout is because we’ve predicted things that did not come true: famine, marshal law, critical fuel shortages, etc., because we did not listen to that voice that said, in essence, “pshaw, that’s a projection.”

As Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote in their article, “what was striking to us in our research was the high degree of consensus among environmental leaders about what the problems and solutions are. We came away from our interviews less concerned about internal divisions than the lack of feedback mechanisms. Engineers use a technical term to describe systems without (negative) feedback mechanisms: “stupid.”

I’m a fan of Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth catalog, who believes humans are highly adaptable creatures but endowed with the predilection to engage in apocalyptic thinking. “In 1973 I thought the energy crisis was so intolerable that we’d have police on the streets by Christmas. The times I’ve been wrong is when I assume there’s a brittleness in a complex system that turns out to be way more resilient than I thought.”

“Any time that people are forced to acknowledge publicly that they’re wrong, it’s really good for the commonwealth. I love to be busted for apocalyptic proclamations that turned out to be 180 degrees wrong.”

I, personally, was certainly wrong about a number of things, like the abundance of natural gas. I was one of those people who thought: we can’t drill our way out of the energy crisis.

I continue to think we can’t drill our way out of this crisis, not in the long term. I also think there are some serious consequences to shale gas production, or even regular gas production, like fracking or an ozone layer over what was the once the cleanest air in Wyoming. But I was not prepared for a new discovery of gas made possible, largely, through better technology, which I admit I don’t totally embrace.

Vinod Khosla, a remarkable venture capitalist, described shale gas a black swan, a high impact event that is a surprise to experts in the field. And, he says, “Black-swan technologies will show up again.”

That’s our challenge in Wyoming, because if it’s not fracking or cluster drilling like Pinedale, it’s going to be combined combustion coal gasification, or in-situ coal gasfication or oil shale. That’s the price we pay for being BTU central. As the technology changes, so will the challenges for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. And in each one of those developments, and the one thing we have to keep challenging is our assumptions.

As we challenge those assumptions, we need to keep in mind: what really matters? The dynamic here that Arnold Toynbee calls the “deeper, slower, movement.”

Here are the full quotes.

“The things that make good headlines attract our attention because they are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract our attention from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. But of course it is really these deeper, slower movements that, in the end, make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions.”

I cannot over emphasize the importance of what groups like the Wyoming Outdoor Council do. A book that’s been deeply influential to me is Bill Bishop’s “Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”

Bishop makes the point that when, historically, the U.S. Congress stalls and become sclerotic, “people see no sense waiting for the national 50-50 to resolve itself…the current federal stalemate has touched off an eruption of activity by state and local government – federalism that doesn’t sleep.”

Again, conservative Republicans have done an excellent job of marshalling state legislatures. Anything from ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) which sends legislators to “schools” to learn about conservative political strategy, to limiting birth control, to stem cell research, to gun control…the hot zone these day are state legislatures. This includes environmental measures. Carbon Emission Standard and greenhouse gas, now being discussed on the Senate floor, got their legs in 2006 and 2007 in Sacramento, Salem, and Olympia.

This makes your job, as Wyoming’s premier conservation group, all the harder.

I want to return to the theme of wild animals which, to me, are so emblematic of country or state’s effort understanding that unfettered and wild areas are important.

Last year, after four years of trying, I pulled an area 68 antelope tag. This area goes from north of the Green Mountains up into southern Natrona County. It’s spectacular country, despite being pockmarked by a lot old uranium claims.

On the third day of the hunt, I was driving my ancient land cruiser somewhere southeast of the beaver rim. The tracks kept getting fainter and fainter until finally I was driving on two tawny ribbons going through the sage. I went through gate after gate. Finally, I stopped and watched two beautiful bucks chase a doe and disappear over a ridge.

I got out, grabbed my gun, binoculars and topo map, and headed out in the direction they ran. I was actually more curious about what the other side of the hill looked like than I was in shooting a goat right then. It was pretty hot.

What I saw when I got to the top of the ridge took my breath away. I was looking directly into the setting sun. But beneath those red rays, I could see, maybe a quarter mile way, a dozen pair of antelope bucks sparing. I could hear the clack of their horns and see the giant puffs of dust they kicked up as they tussled.

I sat on the ground in astonishment, unable to conceive the bounty and beauty that lay before my eyes. I unfolded the topo. Try as I might, I could not find any trace of the two track I had just come down. I then uttered the phrase that every person in his room has said at one time or another as they explore Wyoming: where the hell am I?

I hunted for two days and saw, literally, hundreds of antelope. But I did not see another person. But for the power line off in the distance and the occasional Black Angus, I knew I was looking at a scene unchanged for a millennium. It was a feeling of great exhilaration and gratitude. It was a moment brought to me, and to thousands of others, by people like the Wyoming Wildlife Association and the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

I, we, they owe you an unrepayable gift of gratitude. Thank you.

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4 comments on “Samuel Western’s keynote address to the Wyoming Outdoor Council
  1. Leniegh Schrinar says:

    Thank you for this!
    Powerful!

  2. Jared Schwab says:

    Mr. Western,

    Thank you so much for sharing these ideas with us. I am a former resident of the state of Wyoming. It sure is a special place- coming from the developed farmland of southern Minnesota.

    That the coming generations will need to address the deeper environmental issues is an idea I will now hold at the front of my mind. I have been looking for a job that will allow me to take a greater part in this battle. That is why I am going to teach social studies courses- history, social studies, sociology, psychology, and geography. We will need to add more sustainability components to the standards of these subjects and teaching natural history will be essential.

    Our younger generations will need to relearn the concepts of living sustainably. Education is one place where we can meet kids nine months out of the year, at least….

  3. Teresa Ukrainetz says:

    So the question is,
    how do we speak in ways that resonate to all the people for whom all this is “a nice extra” while they:
    – are afraid for their jobs and ways of life,
    – feel that the future for them and their country is on a downward slide,
    – and believe that the problems are largely due to people like us?

    We need to step out of own own social circles to listen and learn from “the other side”. Then maybe we can drop nuggets into the conversations that might be pocketed and then later, taken out for a closer look.

  4. Edith Cook says:

    Mr. West, I loved the essay you delivered as keynote speaker. Because I was unable to attend (I live in Cheyenne) reading the speech was truly a treat. All my best to you.

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