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Summer 2000, Volume 18.0

READING THE WEST

read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] - vt. 1 to get the meaning of, 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.

PANDORA'S BOX 2000

Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has written a long article in Wired magazine describing  a frightening vision of the future.  Joy who now lives in Aspen, Colorado, foresees a world where easy access to three technologies will bring the destruction of civilization.

Each of these technologies offers untold promise: The vision of near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine can address yet more ills.  Together they could significantly extend our average life span and improve the quality of our lives.  Yet, with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible advances leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly, great danger.

What was different in the 20th century?  Certainly, the technologies underlying the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) were powerful, and the weapons an enormous threat.  But building nuclear weapons required, at least for a time, access to both rare, indeed, effectively unavailable raw materials and highly protected information; biological and chemical weapons programs also tended to require a large-scale activities.

The 21st-century technologies genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.  Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups.  They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials.  Knowledge alone will enable the sue of them.  Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.

I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals. ...

The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment:  to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.

Yes, I know, knowledge is good, as is the search for new truths.  We have been seeking knowledge since ancient times.  Aristotle opened his Metaphysics with the simple statement:  "All men by nature desire to know." We have, as a bedrock value in our society, long agreed on the value of open access to information, and recognize the problems that arise with attempts to restrict access to and development of knowledge.  In recent times, we have come to revere scientific knowledge.

But despite the strong historical precedents, if open access to and unlimited development of knowledge henceforth puts us all in clear danger of extinction, then common sense demands that we reexamine even these basic, long-held beliefs.

SOURCE:  Wired, April 2000, p. 240-256

 

FIRE FAULTS

The recent Los Alamos forest fire did terrible damage and had the capacity of doing even more.  Because it started as a controlled burn, forest service officials at all levels have come under criticism.  But as Ed Marston, publisher of the High Country News, points out, issues of fault are complex:

We can expect more hysteria and distortion in the wake of the Los Alamos fires:  a fierce blaming attitude toward federal agencies and suggestions that we log the heck out of the land to save houses.

The situation is more complicated than that.  In part, the fires are burning because we have already logged the heck out of the land.  In the wake of that logging, especially among Ponderosa pine in the Southwest, thousands of small trees per acre have grown up.  The fires that might have thinned those trees in earlier centuries were suppressed in the 20th century.

Even where forests have not been logged, fires have been suppressed, and brush and fallen trees have accumulated, creating the conditions for vast, all-consuming fires.

This was bad enough before the 1990s residential boom, when Western towns were still relatively compact.  But over the past decade, people have built homes on ridge lines and dragged trailers into the brush as if the vegetation were made of asbestos.  The urban-rural interface, as planners like to say, has been turned into one sprawling urban-rural mess...

If we are to live with [nature's] magnificent, destructive, life-renewing rampages, we must get smart, fast.  We have to resist  building houses in fire-prone forests or scrublands; we have to let natural fires or controlled burns eliminate dead vegetation before it builds to high levels; and we have to resist an angry, blaming approach when fire does strike, as it has at Los Alamos.

SOURCE:  Ed Marston, "Yellow Fire in a Crowded West," Writers on the Range, http://www.hcn.org

 

SOFT MONEY LAUNDROMAT

Curious about the flood of soft money donations to political parties?  The Common Cause web site names in detail the corporate contributors to the Democratic and Republican parties.  The length of the lists is discouraging.  A summary of soft money gifts in eight western states (totaling nearly $22 million)  is shown below.

SOFT MONEY CONTRIBUTIONS 1995-1999

STATE to Democrats to Republicans
Colorado $2,332,422 $5,884,760
Nevada 2,853,503 3,946,293
Arizona 776,949 1,814,829
Utah 1,105,192 1,022,027
New Mexico 399,500 484,585
Wyoming 0 842,944
Idaho 61,500 261,861
Montana 8,300 98,029
SOURCE:  http://www.commoncausse.org/laundromat/

 

WESTERN GOTHIC

Brian Bedard, editor of the South Dakota Review, introduces a special issue  of that journal with an essay detailing the oddity of giant prairie dogs, cows, and other shapes sprung up across the West:

A Holstein cow the size of a Greyhound bus on the lawn in front of the Land 'O Lakes Dairy at the northern edge of Sioux Falls, a bison big as a boxcar in the parking lot of Al's Oasis near Chamberlain, South Dakota; a brontosaur surpassing its real life model at a truck stop near the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana..   It's a curious phenomenon, this King Kong statuary jutting into the western skies...

Mythologist Joseph Campbell would probably consider these objects to be symptomatic of the mythmaking impulses in humans, traceable to ancient Egypt and Greece and the sky-seeking deities of those cultures.  Yet  Campbell would probably disqualify the cow, the buffalo, and the Badlands prairie dog as commercial anomalies lacking spiritual significance essential to myth.  He stated more than once during his celebrated television interviews with Bill Moyers in the late 1980s that western culture had careened out of control due to the explosions of science and the emergence of "Great Cities."  Our modernity had rendered traditional myths obsolete as rudders for our journey through time and space.  The closest we have come in creating new ones, he claimed, was George Lucas's "Star Wars."  In that film, he was a mythological map by which we might find our way not that institutionalized religion has   become fossilized and superfluous.  These are profoundly disturbing assertions.  Yet in the context of the bizarre and grotesque statuary I described earlier, the argument that western civilization is in a "free fall" has undeniable merit, and the statuary can thus be seen as a kind of tragicomic measure of our search for meaning through artificiality and magnification.

What better example of this colossal neurosis than Mount Rushmore?  Those mind-boggling granite heads might come closer to embodying spiritual values than a fifteen-foot wooden prairie dog, yet there is an affinity between the two that is unmistakably Euro-American.  To add to the American West's answer to the Macy's Day parade, commercial promoters of the Black Hills are now touting a granite monolith of Chief Crazy Horse that is nearing completion only a few miles from Rushmore.  Like Rushmore, this new statue has been sculpted out of a mountain.  It's supposed to be a monument to Crazy Horse and all he represents, but one could see it as a tribute to dynamite and technology.

SOURCE:   Brian Bedard, "The Fifteen-Foot Prairie Dog,"  South Dakota Review, Spring 2000, pp.3-4

 

LEGISLATURE ON TARGET?

In recent years, a series of school shootings has rocked America - Mount Morris Township, Michigan, February 29, 2000; Conyers, Georgia, May 20, 1999, Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999; Springfield Oregon, May 21, 1998;  Jonesboro, Arkansas, March 24, 1998; and West Paducah, Kentucky, December 1, 1997.  Coming on top of already high levels of hun violence, these shooting prompted State Legislatures magazine too prepare a report of what laws have been passed since 1997.  Some of the intriguing report is shown below:

2000

Idaho HB 444: Makes it illegal to possesses a firearm on school grounds.  HB 663: prohibits      cities form suing firearm manufacturers.

Utah HB 199: prohibits lawsuits against firearm manufacturers.

Washington SB 6206: Requires that schools be notified of firearm violations by students.

1999

California AB 22295: Makes it illegal to carry firearms in state or local public buildings.

Nevada AB  166:  Expands areas where permit holders may carry concealed firearms.  AB 543:  prohibits cities from suing gun manufacturers.

Oregon HB 2396:  Expppands crimes for which youths 15 or older may be tried as an adult.

South Dakota HB 1301: Limits the liability resulting from the manufacture, distribution and sale of firearms.

Texas SB 717: Prohibits cities from suing gun manufacturers. HCR 57: declares the week of October 18-22 as Children's Firearm Safety Week.

1998

California SB 130: Requires as of January 2002 that firearms sold, transferred or manufactured in this state be accompanied by a Department of Justice approved safety device.

Utah HB 286: provides for firearm injury prevention instruction in public elementary schools.

1997

Alaska SB 70: Outlaws discharge of a firearm at, or in the direction of, buildings, dwellings, vehicles or people. [Was it legal before?]

California AB 491:  Extends liability resulting from negligent storage of a firearm to include access by minors age 16 and younger.

1996

California AB 624:  Makes penalty for possession of a firearm on school property two to five years in state prison.

Oklahoma SB 38: Requires suspension of a student for possession fo a firearm on school property.

South Dakota SB 43: Specifies the length of expulsions premises.

Washington SB 5440: Requires expulsion from school for at least one year for possession of a firearm on school premises.

SOURCE: State Legislatures, June 2000, pp. 16-17

 

VENTURE PHILANTHROPY

Giving money away has its own special challenges.  The Roberts Foundation in San Francisco is one of a new group of foundations that not only give money away, but insist that their recipients earn some of it back.  They are attempting to combine the "methods of venture capitalism with the needs of the nonprofit world." Thomas J. Billitteri, writing in The Chronicle of Philanthropy explains how the system works:

The enterprise found supports seven nonprofit umbrella organizations that together operate more that 20 businesses, from thrift stores and janitorial services to a bakery that makes expensive deserts and sells them through area grocery stores.

The businesses, which Roberts officials call "social-purpose enterprises," are run by nonprofit organizations and compete in the open market. Their employees are people who live on the fringes of the booming Bay Area economy: homeless youths, recovering addicts, former prisoners, and people with psychiatric and physical disabilities.  One of the fund's goals is to give people a chance to learn employment and social skills so that they can find and keep jobs in the for-profit world.

[An example,] Youth Industry, which operates thrift stores, a business that collects an sells donated goods, a bicycle-repair shop, and a cafe, began in 1993 as a tiny program founded by a pediatrician who lived in the beleaguered Mission District of San Francisco.  The doctor rented a warehouse and invited a group of friends to provide activities for homeless youths in the neighborhood.  "They had their articles of incorporation a board of directors and little else, Mr. Jed Emerson [the fund's president] says.  "It was clearly the Mickey Rooney approach to social change."

The Roberts fund and, earlier, the Homeless Economic Development Fund infused Youth Industry with money and a broader vision.  We were able to give a larger amount of ongoing capital to build the organization over time, "Mr. Everson says.  From that single storefront group have grown five businesses employing more than 100 youths annually, and the nonprofit enterprise earns enough to cover about 85 percent of its budget.  This year, Youth Industry's sales will total about $3 million...

SOURCE:  The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 1, 2000, p. 8.

 

WHEN DID THE ANIMALS DISAPPEAR?

Page Stegner in Sierra magazine writes of a contemporary expedition following the 200 year old trail of Lewis and Clark along the Missouri river.  Describing an eastern Montana stretch, Stegner writes:

Others who have written about this river have found the badlands along this eastern stretch below Judith more teeming with wildlife than the White Cliffs section.  Bighorn sheep and elk have been reintroduced in the area.  There should be whitetail and mule deer in abundance, and this is the most likely place to spot a golden eagle.  But we wee, in fact, fewer birds, more signs of human habitation, and, apart from a small herd of pronghorn antelope and a few beaver, not much along the banks.  Captain William Clark suffered no such disappointment.  He remarks in his journal entry for the 23rd of May, 1805,   "I walked on shore and killed 4 deer & an elk, & a beaver in the evening we killed a large fat Bear, which we unfortunately lost in the river...  The after part of this day was warm & the Musquetors troublesome.  Saw but five Buffalow a number of Elk & Deer & 5 bear & antilopes today."     The following morning, just to get his blood circulation, Clark "walked on shore and killed a female Ibi or bighorn animal...inmy absence Drewyer & Bratten killed to others."  A kill count from the Lewis and Clark journals might help explain our diminished sightings.

SOURCE:  Sierra, May/June 2000, p. 92

 

ELK IN A BARRELL

At least Lewis and Clark killed animals that could have run away.  Hal Herring, writing in The Atlantic describes the rise of game farms in the West where wealthy hunters are guaranteed finding and killing trophy elk and other animals.

The rise of the elk game-farming industry is a relatively recent development, but the notion has been around since the 1920s, when an eccentric Montana character named Courtland DuRand set up a dude ranch where elk pulled wagons and rowboats, and customers applauded as trained bison dropped form a forty-foot-high platform into an artificial lake.

[Today] farmed elk provide shoots for trophy seekers who have neither the time not the inclination to take their chances in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.  The number of people taking part in these staged hunts is growing.  Last year the Big Velvet [Ranch in Montana] broke its own record, providing trophy heads for more than 140 clients.  The price for a bull varies according to how large the antlers are.  Hunts at the Big Velvet start at $5,500 and may cost $20,000 or more.

Colorado is the current leader in elk ranching, with more that 140 game farms holding more than 10,000 elk captive.  In 1994 the game-farming industry in Colorado successfully lobbied the state to transfer the regulation of elk game farms from the Division of Wildlife which worried about habitat loss and the spread of disease form captive elk to native wildlife populations to the Department of Agriculture, which is less concerned with such matters.  Wyoming is the only Rocky Mountain state that has outlawed game farming and captive shooting after a campaign that took several years and a great deal of money.

SOURCE:  The Atlantic Monthly, June 2000, pp 21-2277

 

CARTOONING THE WEST

Currently a resident of Everett, Washington, William Sommers Quistorf is interested in general political issues and issues affecting Native Americans in particular.  His cartoons appear regularly in Indian country Today, the nation's largest Native American newspaper.  More of his work can be seen at http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/cartoons2go/

[Please refer to the hardbound edition of Weber Studies Vol. 18.0 to see William Sommers Quistorf's cartoons.]