Alamo-Time for the West?

It was a grand ideal. For a whole generation now, the West Coast of America came to believe that it could grow and prosper and grow more, while at the same time restoring harmony with nature.

There were rough spots, particularly when New Age values came up against Frontier customs. But still, it seemed within our grasp to save the salmon, clean up ocean bays, return the color blue to the city skies, preserve open spaces, maintain wildlife, conserve while consuming.

Now, poof. The conceit seems to be vanishing in the furious blow-back from the politics of energy, water and development.

In the span of just months, California's energy blackouts and a drought in the Pacific Northwest have sent us racing into the past for salvation, as if the ideal was just an illusion all along.

Suddenly, clean air is secondary to air conditioning. In a panic, California commits itself to fossil fuels for another generation. Conservation? Just look where that gets you, scolds the president. Less than a year ago, we talked about tearing down Western dams. Now, we're talking about raising them higher.

Longer-term trends seem to be running on a parallel track. Ballot initiatives and conservative courts are making it tough to control private development along what remains of the West Coast. Public lands protections have been reversed in Washington. California's populist coastal commission is under legal threat.

What is happening on the West Coast is not that old cliche, build it and they will come. We are here. In the last decade, Washington's population rose 21%, Oregon's 20%, California's 14%. Almost 6 million new residents in 10 years.

Environmentalists will say, we told you so. But they share blame for the predicament we're in. Over the years, they grew adept at saying "no." It became a habit. They brought things to a standstill, one by one. But they haven't shaped a consensus for how to move ahead.

Yes, their most important achievement was instilling us all with the idea that we have a right to a healthy environment--itself a landmark change in thinking.

But not since the 1970s and Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has a national political figure dared explore what an environmentally friendly future would actually look like. In retrospect, his vision seems leagues more promising and exciting than the one charted now by his old chief of staff, Gray Davis, who moved into the same office with none of the same imagination. Every time a match is lit to a new fossil-fuel power plant, Davis beams like a 19th century plainsman who has bagged another buffalo. Our like-minded president would have all the nation follow suit. Brothers to the cause.

Billions are spent to find and burn the hydrocarbons that are asphyxiating the planet, while teams of college students and shade-tree futurists are left to prove alternatives.

It is a fair question to ask: Who in the West, who in America, even aspires to lead where we know we must go? Not just this summer, but this century.

I've talked to a dozen environmental advocates in the past week. Their best hope seems something like Davy Crockett at the Alamo: Hold out until the 2002 elections and pray for political reinforcement. Much as it pains me, I cannot think of anything better myself, even though I know how it turned out for Crockett and the other lads in Texas.

Yes, I can sort of envision a day when the West Coast turns its tremendous vigor and talent to the task of the future. I can imagine the leaps of invention that spawn new jobs and industries and progress, along with a renewed sense of direction and purpose. Yes, I can see the grand ideal off in the distance. I just cannot find anyone who dares lead us there.

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