America’s Cycles of Change

The Rise of the Rocky Mountain West

Wed, 18 November 2015

The Rocky Mountain West here needs to be carefully defined. It means what Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau in his classic 1980 book The Nine Nations of North America called “The Empty Quarter.” It is the vast region that covered the Rocky Mountains and the desert West. It stretches north through the Canadian Rockies to embrace almost all of Alaska. But it does not include the coastal strip of California or much of the left-progressive states of Oregon and Washington. Nor does it include the Pacific Coast of British Colombia in Canada or the southern coastal strip of Alaska. All these areas, Garreau named “Ecotopia,” following the visionary utopian 1970s novel of Ernest Callenberg.

Writing in 1980, Garreau predicted growing political and economic strife between the “tree-hugging’ environmentalists of northern California and the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Coast “Ectopians” take their abundant hydroelectric energy resources for granted. They are at odds with the old fashioned, anti-environmentalist developers of the West. The conflict between the two regions has intensified, as Garreau predicted. It has spread to embroil the Federal Government in Washington.

The Federal Government has been the largest landowner and owner of resources throughout the West since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. Abraham Lincoln set the example. He acted energetically to reserve huge areas of Western land to be controlled by Northeastern-based railroad interests.

Sixth Era presidents were all fashionable environmentalists. Bill Clinton found it very good politics. The environmental lobby in the Democratic Party went far beyond wealthy pressure groups like the Sierra Club. It also included powerful figures like CNN founder Ted Turner and movie star Robert Redford.

But Clinton’s environmental politics were hated by most people who actually lived in the Rocky Mountain West and the Sunbelt. They felt the growing pressure of property prices and soaring utility costs. They saw at first hand the growing scarcity of water and energy resources. And because basic commodity prices were low, they slumped behind the rest of the nation. So they had far less money in their pockets to meet these prices. Westerners also resented prognostications in the national media that the arid plains west of the 100th Meridian should be abandoned from cultivation and left for the buffalo.

The inhabitants of the West had other gripes. They voted solidly for the Republicans throughout the Sixth Era but they were taken for granted, just as Southern whites were by the Democrats in the 1960s. Nixon, Reagan and their successors could take a “Solid West” for granted. But GOP leaders could not take the West for granted indefinitely.

In the coming Seventh Era, there will be Western pressure to break the Federal Government’s stranglehold on federal land. There will be demands to stop the federalization of land to conserve national resources and pristine environments. They will grow to a firestorm of populist protest. But these protests will collide with resistance from big city dwellers on the West Coast and in the East. For many of them, the ideology of protecting the environment has reached the intensity of a religious crusade.

But suppose the United States faces nation-wide rolling electrical blackouts and critical shortfalls in electrical energy generating capacity. Suppose America can no longer pay for energy imports from overseas. Then this opposition will fail.

Environmental activists will quickly appear out-of-date hangovers from a past age. They will become as obsolete as champions of slavery in Industrial America of the Third Era. Or like laissez faire capitalists trying in vain to rally support against Franklin Roosevelt the 1930s.

Depending on how serious the crisis of 2016-2024 becomes, this crisis could go to the very heart of the Union, as the 1860-65 and 1929-32 crises did.

There will be one enormous difference in the current crisis compared with the two previous ones. They strengthened the Federal Union. The crisis of 2016-2024 may greatly weaken it. If the crisis is not wisely handled as FDR responded to the crisis of 1932-33, it could sever the Union completely as the crisis of 1860 did.

Even if the Union holds, demand to use the resources of national parks and other federal land is likely to sweep the West. Then Western leaders could exert pressure to renegotiate the Union.

This coming continental-scale battle over control of the energy and valuable metals resources of the Rocky Mountain West is explored in my book Cycles of Change: The Three Great Cycles of American History & the Coming Crises That Will Lead to the Fourth which can be purchased from Amazon.com.