Our Challenge is the Future, Not the Past

Sewage overflow pipe, Willamette River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

They say “the generals always fight the next war the way they fought the last one.” Unfortunately, that’s been true not only in war but in politics as well, where far too often the challenges of the future are met with the dubious strategies of the past. Yet, on the eve of an election that has been hyped to high heaven and in which the partisan politics of “divide and conquer” have been endlessly thrust in our faces, the simple truth remains that our challenge is the future. And given that challenge, we’ll need not only a clear eyed assessment of its enormity, but a willingness to admit it will not be met through the divisions of the past.

When the election is over and the votes are counted, the winners will crow and the losers will cry. Nothing new there. But once the celebration and wailing is over, the job of running Montana will remain – and that’s going to take the best abilities of all of us.

Many of those challenges are eternal — we still have to educate our children, provide police and fire protection, ensure our citizens have access to health care, and allow our senior citizens to live out their lives in dignity.

We will still have to deal with our common need of clean water to drink and the treatment of our sewage at the other end of the pipe. And of course we’ll need the energy to meet our huge spectrum of uses. The growing urgency of those challenges are mute testament that the methods of the past are failing to meet the exigencies of the future.

It’s no news that many Montana cities, as well as those across the West, are facing serious difficulties in providing clean water for their residents. The West’s greatest mega-drought in 1,200 years is causing once-reliable sources dwindle or, in the worst cases, disappear entirely.

The old “meet the demand” excuse for rapacious use of natural resources isn’t cutting it anymore. You can only drill so many wells until, like a milk shake with too many straws in it, you start sucking air from depleted aquifers. You can only divert so much water until your rivers run dry.

Likewise, you can only put so many pollutants in the air and water before both become unusable — at least for humans. Our sewage treatment facilities, by necessity, must be upgraded to “future” treatments, such as reverse osmosis, or we’re going to be drinking our own effluent. Despite the debilitating effects of the climate change our atmospheric pollution has caused, the transition to “clean” energy sources is incredibly slow. Why? Because we inexplicably hang on to the energy sources of the past.

Simply put, there are very real limits to growth — and those who deny that do so not only at their own peril, but at the peril of future generations as well. Yet, the old tenets of capitalism still hold continuous growth as a necessity —despite the fact that the resources to do so are increasingly limited. That “old strategy” must change.

Yet, perhaps the greatest challenge for the future is simply admitting we must calm the partisan political divisions that have been so mercilessly and intentionally stoked. In that regard, the good news is that Montanans have a long tradition of “live and let live.” Simply put, we need each other, and political affiliation doesn’t matter much when helping someone out of a snow drift. The challenges of the future demand we bring exactly that approach to our governance as well — and leave the “last war” in the past, where it belongs.

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