Wild Wild West

A few posts back, I indicated that I was finished with travelling, and ready to settle into my classes at CU Boulder. Naturally, chaos has a way of affecting plans made with certainty. Sure enough, as soon as I returned from New York, I found myself packing my suitcase once again, this time to head to Wyoming and South Dakota for my grandpa’s funeral. The timing wasn’t wonderful; I had to miss a day of class, and ended up spending part of my "vacation time" studying. That’s where the chaotic parts played in.

Of course, the subjects that I’m studying are intrinsically relevant to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be studying them. Still, the questions raised by my reading assignments seemed to coincide with strange events along my road trip. Allow me to explain.

Two of the classes I’m taking this year relate to environmental changes. First, I have the "introduction to environmental studies" class, and then a class titled "global change". In the latter, I was originally assigned a piece called "The Tragedy of the Commons." If you aren’t familiar with the piece, I’d highly recommend it. It discusses the problem of population, and shows how the unrestricted use of natural resources will inevitably lead to exploitation and suffering... without it even being realized.

It almost seems unfair, that we can cause inevitable destructive changes to our home, without even realizing what we are doing. It isn’t like this is a new thing, either. We’ve probably been affecting our habitat adversely since we started building and growing things, or perhaps even before. When we crossed the oceans, connecting continents, we unwittingly sparked inevitable changes to the entire system.

I had the chance, while driving through Wyoming, to the some tragic effects of choices made as long ago as the late 16th century. The ironic part is that I was seeking out photos of more modern environmental concerns, fossil fuels. Wyoming, particularly the areas around Gillette, where my Grandpa lived, has been quickly growing to become one of our biggest resources for coal. Large open-pit coal mines can be seen in satellite photos, surrounding the town:

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This map shows two coal pits, and several coal-burning power plants. Not all coal is burned here on the spot, however. A good amount is loaded onto trains, which run in and out of Gillette on a frequent basis. Of course, Where there is coal, there is often another sort of fossil fuel.

Near this particular mine, there are a large number of gas and oil wells. My immediate family was willing to tag along while I tried to get pictures, even when we ended up exploring unnamed dirt roads. In Wyoming, like many places here in the "wild" west, you never know when you’re going to run into a rancher with a shotgun or find that the road has been washed out. We didn’t encounter the former on this trip, although we discovered the latter. Just past an oil well that I was aiming to photograph, the road (which paralleled the northern mine on the map above, on the eastern side) was completely gone. Not just washed out, but grown over without a sign of human foot or tire. It seemed folks would drive out to get to the oil well, but no further. I got the impression that didn’t happen on a daily basis.

We did, however, meet some locals. The place was barren of shade, except for perhaps the shadows cast by the wells. Our hosts were taking advantage of the shadow of a small gas well. I couldn’t blame them... the giant, pounding oil well was rather noisy and imposing up close. The gas well was a poor substitue, however:


Mustangs near the wells

i-5042f274866442320a190d060d32e7d7-splithooves.jpgHalf a dozen horses had gathered near the well. At first, I thought we must be on someone’s land. There were fences nearby, and the horses seemed to be on the wrong side of them. It quickly became apparent that these horses had never been shoed, and were obviously wild. They didn’t seem to be in the best shape. If I can empathize with a horse, I’d say these were very sad creatures... they didn’t have a very satisfying life. The bleak scrub and dry arroyos were a difficult sight to see in the presence of these tragic beings. When we stopped the car to look at them, I fully expected them to run away... you know, like wild horses always do on TV. These just gazed woefully at us. After a quiet minute, a few of the horses ventured forward, curiously approaching the car. We had our windows down to take photographs. They came as close as they could to our compact car, and put their noses inside. And there they stood.


It was a little frightening, but also quite awe inspiring. The expression on my son’s face says it all. "This is really cool, but please don’t come in closer!"

I suspect they enjoyed our air conditioning. The horse near the front of the car seemed to sniff at the air, as if trying to locate a source.

It would have been easier if they had run away. As it was, we had to shoo them away. It was sad to see them go. The Bureau of Land Management estimated that approximately 7,615 mustangs were living in the wild in Wyoming in the year 2000. Too few are rescued and adopted. This small herd has probably slipped the notice of rescue programs; all of the official herd management areas are hundreds of miles away, in Southwest Wyoming. There wasn’t much we could do; they certainly wouldn’t fit in the car.

They never did run away, showing that graceful gallop a mustang is known for; instead, they slowly and sadly walked back to the bit of shade offered by the gas well. Born into a life they didn’t ask for, in a habitat not really suited to them, the shadow cast by that squat concrete box was the best offer around.

That brings me back to the Tragedy of the Commons and the precarious position we are finding our planet in. It isn’t like any of us started the industrial revolution and began the trend of putting excess CO2 into the atmosphere. We didn’t really begin the "let’s make babies and eventually overpopulate" trend, either. These things have been going on for quite a long time. The world doesn’t stay the same, however. We burn these increasingly limited supplies of coal; things change. We let our population grow exponentially; things change. Change itself is always an inevitable. It isn’t like we asked for it, right?

The horses didn’t ask for it. They wouldn’t be here if we’d stayed out of it. But then again, maybe we wouldn’t either.... that is, maybe we wouldn’t have cities in the west if early explorers hadn’t come on horseback. We wouldn’t be blogging and commenting and surfing the web if we’d never burned fossil fuels. There is a major difference between us and the horses, however. We might be able to do something to change our situation. That isn’t saying much... maybe we already screwed it up so bad, there’s no turning back... we’ll use up our resources and have a starving population that is as sad and unhealthy as those mustangs. But we might not. We might find a way to adapt, to be flexible, to survive. The only way we might have a chance is if we can understand what is going on. Not just scientists and students and bloggers... but everyone who has a family or uses electricity. If we assume we can continue exactly as those who came before us, and never pay attention to our effect on the whole, we’re screwed.

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Thanks, Hank. I thought the first paper was still quite applicable today, but it helps to have an update.