The WorldWatch Institute has one of the planet's grimmer jobs. It investigates the forces that threaten life as we know it: 1 billion hungry people, climate change, deforestation, desertification, species extinction and AIDS, to name a few of the modern-day horsemen of a possibly coming apocalypse.
Surprisingly, there is a market for this depressing information.
WorldWatch has been publishing its annual State of the World reports since 1984, and the cover of each says: "Over 1 million copies sold." It's not McDonald's billions, but it's impressive.
Still, I was amazed that a crowd packed an Aspen, Colo., auditorium on a beautiful late July weekend for the State of the World Conference, sponsored for the second year by the McBride Foundation of Aspen.
The timing was impeccable: A gathering in Genoa, Italy, on the same weekend had brought the richest nations' leaders together. The G8 leaders were covering the same ground the Aspen speakers were addressing, although with very different spins.
Why this interest in subjects you'd think most people would avoid like the plague? I don't know what the Europeans see, but it is clear why several hundred Westerners would want to hear reports on water scarcity, on the downsides of tourism, on immigration and on alternative paths to what is called "development."
It is the stuff of our everyday lives. Westerners once thought we lived in an insular region far removed from anything called the "global economy." We now see that we are on the front line of this phenomenon. The interior West, in its remotest reaches, is witnessing what may be the global economy's greatest triumph: the destruction of this nation's southern border. Whatever you think of this morally or economically, the inability of the federal government to control the border has come to symbolize the weakness of our central government and the strength of the global economy.
Westerners can identify with the turmoil in Genoa for another reason. That turmoil centers on the direction of economic development, especially in Third World nations. For several decades, Westerners too have been battling over what form our region's economic development will take.
In Third World nations, the battle centers on loans. Enormous debt has been incurred to build dams, electric power plants, aluminum smelters, and highways and to log forests. After the money is spent, and the graft skimmed and nature denatured, the projects don't generate enough income to repay the loan. As a result, Third World debt has become a humanitarian "crisis" with many African and Latin American countries spending more on interest than on health and education.
We are more fortunate in the interior West. No one is calling on us to repay the money squandered on subsidized logging, irrigation and hydroelectric dams, or 1980s oil shale schemes. The House of Representatives even voted recently to throw even more federal money at subsidized oil and gas development.
But although we in the West get this "development" at a cut rate, many of us are as much against it as our Third World counterparts. We object to what the dams and clear-cutting and open-pit mining have done to our landscapes.
Aside from the fact that the leaders of the developed world were humiliated in Genoa, it is hard to say what the angry protests will mean. Here in the Western United States we can make a prediction: The revolt against conventional development will continue.
The Bush Administration's attempt to drill for oil in Clinton's new national monuments has already been turned back in Congress. The coming attempt to drill in the Arctic will likely also be turned back. Still up for grabs is the fight over 90,000 square-miles of national forest land that Clinton, the Forest Service under Mike Dombeck, andthe American public concluded should remain roadless.
This may well be the most important struggle of the year for the future of the West. In a way, all who care about the future of the planet should be grateful to President Bush. For unlike Clinton, Bush doesn't try to slide by issues, as we saw on the Kyoto agreement. Bush stood firm, and the world united against him.
As with global warming, as with missile defense, and as with population control, he has created a situation on the West's public lands that leaves no room for compromise. Only now, he's got a fight on his hands, and a growing record of defeats.
Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). He has been publisher of High Country News since 1983.