Limits to Growth Now Undeniable and Inescapable

Dry lakebed, Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

When Europeans first landed on the North American continent it was “ripe for the picking,” lush with forests, rivers, wildlife, fish and land as far as the eye could see. As for those already inhabiting those lands and waters, well, they were considered “savages” and their removal by whatever means necessary was a foregone conclusion. And so “civilization” rolled across the continent, spurred on by the capitalist economic system in which the foundational tenet was continuous growth.

But now the continent is covered coast to coast and the once abundant resources have been seriously diminished through over-use, pollution, outright destruction and unbridled consumption. The old myth that continuous growth was not only possible, but necessary, has hit the wall of our current state, national and global reality. We are running out of water, clean air and livable habitat not only for the once-abundant wildlife and fish but for humans as well. As this desperate summer of climate-change induced and exacerbated drought, wildfires, insect infestations and extreme weather events bluntly portends, we have “hit the wall” on our myopic approach to how much more we can squeeze from already over-extended systems.

Montana’s Upper Missouri River Basin had the lowest run-off in 123 years. To put that number in perspective, it’s less water that ran off the east slope of the Continental Divide since eight years after Montana became a state and is a shocking 34% of average — which has been falling consistently as the drought years stack up.

Bear in mind that run-off not only feeds rivers and streams, but recharges the groundwater upon which thousands of wells rely on to deliver potable water to individuals, cities, businesses and agricultural operations. As the old saying goes “you don’t miss the water till the well runs dry” — and wells are now running dry all across Montana.

The consequences of unrestrained growth are taking new and bizarre forms. Fifty years ago I tucked my fly rod under my arm while standing in the Gallatin River, reached down and scooped up a big handful of crystal clear and ice cold water to drink. But that was before Big Sky existed, let alone Yellowstone Club’s bizarre enclave for the uber rich — and what flowed down the West Fork of the Gallatin back then was pure, clean water, not minimally treated sewage that has turned the bed of this world-famous trout stream neon green with algae.

As the drought and extreme heat bake pastures, Montana’s governor has decided to open our wildlife management areas to domestic cattle grazing and haying — and for free, to boot! These are lands purchased with sportsman’s dollars for the benefit of wildlife, not cows. And you can bet the extreme drought scorching pastures is doing the same to the forage our wildlife rely on for their existence. Yet, it appears the public trust and the public’s wildlife resources take a back seat once again to commerce at any cost — no matter the consequences to the land, water, vegetation and public’s wildlife.

Of course, it would be extremely naive to think that the clear signs we are pushing all our resources to the limit will engender the necessary changes in our society any time soon. Our politicians are, after all, reactive not proactive, and will only act when forced to by inescapable crises. But as those crises pile up and the opportunities to avoid them become more scarce and costly, the future will force us to admit there are limits to growth — and whether our politicians or Wall Street like it, we have reached those limits.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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