How do you govern? If you're an elected official, you're guided by an obvious and eminently reasonable principle: the future will resemble the past.
If, for example, you serve on the Colorado Springs City Council, you assume that the region will continue to grow, that we'll always elect Republicans, that we'll argue about the General's statue, that traffic will increase ... you get the picture.
And if the future does resemble the past, it's a good way to govern. But when the world changes abruptly, the old paradigms shatter, and yesterday's comforting cliches are of no use.
In the halcyon August of 1914, for example, no serious observer imagined that some damned fool thing in the Balkans would lead to war. And once the war started, none of the participants imagined that it would drag on for four years, cause millions of deaths, and lead to yet another war of unprecedented scale and ferocity. In that last innocent summer, only a few observers saw World War I for what it was: the end of one era, the beginning of another.
As Lord Grey, England's foreign secretary, presciently remarked in 1914: "All over Europe, the lights are going out; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes."
Today, all over the West, the fires are burning. Last Sunday, a vast pillar of smoke from the Hayman fire rose in the western sky, to be replaced at night by a fitful red glow. Driving up Highway 24, Fountain Creek was dry; just a few stagnant puddles. The drought continues -- river flows in all eight Colorado drainages are at or near historic lows.
Just three years ago, the Arkansas River near the Kansas line was flowing at the rate of 2,780 cubic feet per second (cfs). Last Friday, it was flowing at 3.6 cfs. The Rio Grande south of Alamosa, whose May flows have been as high as 13,100 cfs, was running at 24 cfs on Friday, just slightly above its all-time low of 7 cfs, recorded in 1935.
In Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs, officials have begun to implement compulsory water use restrictions as reservoir levels drop precipitously. Open fires are banned throughout the state; the Pike National Forest is closed. These are, of course, short-term measures.
All our leaders, from Gov. Bill Owens on down, assume that the drought will end, that the fires will go out, that the rivers will flow, and that it'll be business as usual for Colorado. We can go on laying down turf, building new subdivisions and subsidizing companies like Intel, whose computer chip plant consumes millions of gallons of water annually.
But maybe it won't be business as usual. Maybe global warming has already triggered climate changes, swiftly and irreversibly. Take a look at the just-released Environmental Protection Act document Climate Action Report 2002 (yup, the one that the president contemptuously dismissed).
Using conservative assumptions, the report makes a couple of projections that should be of intense interest to those of us who live in the Rocky Mountains. By the end of this century, the flowered alpine meadows above timberline -- the tundra -- will no longer exist.
And the winter snowpack that covers the mountains -- gone. That's right, gone.
In the Sierra Nevada, the Southern Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, the winter snowpack will simply disappear; there will be no significant snow accumulation. Things may be a little better in the Central Rockies, where estimates range from little change to an 80 percent loss.
But there's another trend out there, one independent of the effects of global warming. Simply put, Colorado may be at the beginning of a 20-year drought. Such droughts have occurred several times in the last millennium, and there's reason to believe that we're in one right now.
Overlay these two phenomena, and the consequences are beyond imagining. There will not be enough water to support our oasis landscape. Or agriculture. Or wildlife. The forests will burn, regardless of fire bans/fireworks bans/visitor bans.
Development will stop. There will be an out-migration of people (refugees?) on a very large scale. Real-estate values will collapse. It'll be a social and environmental disaster without precedent in American history.
Are these predictions right? Will it happen? I don't know. And, according to Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science, there's no way of knowing. Complex systems, whose behavior may be governed by simple algorithms, are still inherently unpredictable.
In computer terms, "Computational Irreducibility" means that you don't know what's in the program until the program runs. Let's hope that we're running the same old system (Colorado 3.0), and not a sinister update -- Apocalypse 1.0.