American politics resembles its counterpart in Iraq in at least one respect — some regions win, and some regions lose.
In Iraq, The Shiite south and the Kurdish north were historically shortchanged (to put it very mildly) by the minority Sunnis, who made sure that their co-religionists were the chief beneficiaries of whatever prosperity the country’s oil wells could generate. Post-Saddam, the tables were turned — and now the Kurds keep their oil and the Shiites keep theirs, leaving the rest of the country to freeze (or bake, depending on the season) in the dark.
In America, states move slowly, and usually predictably, from one column to another. One hundred years after the Civil War, the South was still politically weak, economically inconsequential and culturally irrelevant. And for most of that time, New England, the Atlantic states and the Midwest led the nation, and often the world, as manufacturing, agriculture and finance generated vast and continuing prosperity.
The West and the Southwest slid into the winner’s column as well, as Texas, California and Arizona saw endless growth fuel apparently endless prosperity. The mountain states thrived as well, benefiting from growth, tourism, the military and modest bases in agriculture, ranching and mining.
But as the 20th century waned, a national re-alignment had taken place.
Manufacturing declined inexorably, and industrial powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania became the Rust Belt, home only to decaying “smokestack” companies. New industry and new prosperity came to the long-dormant South, along with the political muscle of the renascent Republican Party. Virginia, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas thrived, while the Midwest stagnated.
But some states, imprisoned by geography, demographics, corrupt local politics or exploitive business practices, remained stubbornly in the loser column.
In West Virginia, the coal industry shaved off mountaintops to get at coal seams, and dumped the overburden into valleys and streams, exacerbating the problems of a historically backward region. In Louisiana, crooked, feckless politicians let unscrupulous businesses pollute at will, while the Corps of Engineers ignored decades of warnings … do we need to finish? And in Mississippi, a state deeply divided along racial and political fault lines has remained poor, badly governed and apparently immune to change.
Colorado has long been among the winners — a state defined by open, expansive landscapes, by clean government, by economic opportunity, by good schools and colleges, by low crime rates and by its entrepreneurial culture.
But will we remain among the winners? That’s a difficult question to answer.
Last week, the Bureau of Land Management brusquely refused to consider altering plans to drill for gas on the pristine Roan Plateau in western Colorado. Gov. Bill Ritter, supported by the legislature and by a majority of the state’s legislative delegation, had proposed limiting such drilling in order to mitigate impacts on wildlife and upon the environment. Essentially, the BLM said that the nation has needs that trump the petty concerns of Coloradoans.
That’s a familiar refrain. We’ve heard it as companies prepare to make a serious run at shale oil extraction, despite the vast environmental consequences of such operations. We’ve heard it from the Army, whose need for maneuver room trumps the need for ranches in southeastern Colorado. We’ll hear it from Arizona, California and Nevada if the waters of the Colorado River continue to diminish, and their thirst trumps our need for the water to which we may be entitled.
We’ve heard it from the Forest Service, which has sat idly by as pine beetles have destroyed a million acres of Colorado forests. And we hear it from the rich, whose baronial mega-mansions plopped down in the mountains have transformed once quirky, self-sufficient towns into exclusive islands of wealth, to which immigrant servants commute.
Do I exaggerate? Sure. But states — and nations — with energy-based economies often don’t thrive. Look at the aforementioned Louisiana, at the Middle East, at Nigeria. The river of cash generated by the industry flows out of state, and the mess — social, political, environmental — stays behind.
And more significantly, states that don’t control their own destiny will, despite their best efforts, have economies that are fragile and vulnerable.
The problem has less to do with policy than with power. It’s possible that, for example, a shale oil industry could come into being that wouldn’t pollute and that wouldn’t use excessive amounts of water and power to produce oil. And for that to happen, we need to make wise regulatory decisions, as well as insist that Coloradoans control Colorado’s destiny.
The New Orleans levees were not broached by Katrina. They were broached by decades of local neglect, by politicians incapable of working for the best interests of their state and by fatalistic, disempowered and cynical residents.
It’s encouraging that Coloradoans seem committed to resisting the efforts of out-of-state entities to make decisions that we should make. We need to be, as President George W. Bush once characterized himself, “the decider.”
Because, after all, we know what we need, and others are driven only by what they want.
And we live here — they don’t.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.