I’m writing this on the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. That is appropriate since I spent the past several weeks deep in nature. I recently returned after several weeks of visiting my brother in Montana. He lives in the city of Missoula. Later I spent some days in Bozeman, which is down by Yellowstone National Park.
My brother moved West 28 years ago. I’ve been visiting Bozeman and Missoula yearly ever since he moved out to Montana. These two cities have grown and changed over the past quarter of a century. It has been interesting watching these changes, especially over the more recent years.
The Rocky Mountains are gorgeous. Like it or not, people from upper-middle-class and people of significant wealth have discovered this. They are moving into these areas in large numbers. While I was out West, I read some newspaper articles examining the ecological effects of such progress. One article, written by Todd Wilkerson, had to do with the impact on natural resources of rapid growth. The title summarizes the issue. “Unnatural Disaster: Will America’s Most Iconic Wild Ecosystem Be Lost To A Tidal Wave Of People?” The sub-title put a fine point on it. “What does it mean for greater Yellowstone if Bozeman becomes Minneapolis-sized and Jackson is an anchor for Salt Lake City-like sprawl?”
Wilkerson focuses on the consequences on nature, local culture, and specific groups of people. I can understand that. For over 25 years, my brother and I have hiked, fished, hunted, and gone backpacking and horseback riding. We enjoyed cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and went ice-climbing (Well, maybe not ice-climbing.. at least not me. I leave that to my brother). As Wilkerson writes, “The big issue is not just the level of disturbance being caused by constant, rising levels of human activity. It gets complicated for wildlife pretty fast. By the time you recognize a problem, it can be too late.”
For example, Bozeman is currently experiencing incredible growth, almost 4% a year. Let me give some perspective. At that rate, this former small, western farming community could be the size of Minneapolis – Saint Paul within the next 50 years. Missoula has grown too, but not at the same rate. This kind of growth is also being experienced in cities all across the west in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. Is this progress a good thing? What does the Catholic Church have to do with this?
Laudato Si is an encyclical of Pope Francis published in May 2015. It focuses on caring for the natural environment and all people. It also examines broader questions about the relationship between God, humans, and the Earth. The encyclical’s subtitle, “Care for Our Common Home,” reinforces these key themes.
Wilkerson seems to be expressing the same types of concerns as mentioned in Pope Francis’ encyclical. For example, in Laudato Si, “Chapter Three: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” the Pope explores social trends and ideologies that have caused environmental problems. These include the unreflective use of technology, an impulse to manipulate and control nature, a view of humans as separate from the environment, narrowly-focused economic theories, and moral relativism.
The Holy Father is on to something here.
Places grow and change. Wilkerson writes that he understands that. However, he also writes, “I have been fortunate to view some of the more spectacular undiscovered places firsthand in my reporting around the world. What I see locally has radically altered the way I think about the place I call home. He describes “home” as, “The place that I assumed given the huge base of public lands would always be protected.”
Wilkerson is going to the heart of Laudato Si. The Holy Father writes:
“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? … This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. This leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the base of social life: ‘What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?’” Unless we struggle with these deeper issues – says the Pope – I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results.
Wilkerson, to his credit, and other people I spoke to in Montana, are asking these deep, poignant questions. Wilkerson writes that the current situation, “made me realize no other models from elsewhere can be imported to resolve what’s currently happening rapidly in Greater Yellowstone, the wildest corner of the lower 48 states.” (Personal note: I saw this happen in greater Austin, TX. Texas is a very business-friendly state. It encourages high-technology commerce. Austin was simply not prepared for the onslaught of people who took seriously the invitation “Y’all come over now, y’hear?” Austin is a college town (University of Texas) that provides a rich treasure of powerful academic brain power and educated talent. Highways now are constantly jammed (think the Schuylkill Expressway all of the time on every highway). There are no public transportation systems. Utilities are being stretched.
We’re dealing with something called “externalities.” According to an article in Investopedia entitled, Externalities: What it Means in Economics, With Positive and Negative Examples, “Externalities occur in an economy when the production or consumption of a specific good or service impacts a third party that is not directly related to the production or consumption of that good or service.” Build a new Costco, and you get convenient shopping for products at an attractive price. You also have to raise taxes to build new roads, left and right-hand turning lanes, parking lots, traffic signs, and more traffic. In one town hall meeting in Bozeman, the townsfolk wanted Costco to help pay for these ancillary structures. The representative from Costco “scoffed at the suggestion.” What does that tell you?
Besides the effect on the environment, there is an impact in other areas. Two are the impact on local culture and the impact on people. The latter group especially includes people without resources and significant amounts of money. I’ll look at that in the next article.