Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Leadville, Part V: A Lesson We Should've Learned in Kindergarten

So what lessons should Leadville's struggle teach us...

There is a rule we learn in kindergarten but struggle to live our whole lives: If you make a mess you should clean it up. It seems simple, yet from the time we are born, human beings have a hard time following it, and life is far more complicated because of it.

As anyone who has children can attest, it's much easier to make a mess than to clean it up. Laurie and I joke that we always say we know where our daughter Becca has been. As she moves from place to place around our house playing, she will inevitably leave what I like to call a creative remnant behind.   (You could also call it a mess, adding other "colorful" adjectives as I sometimes do.) Now, while its frustrating to her parents to always clean up after her, at Becca's age the area of consequence of her actions can be fairly well contained to our home.  However, if we don't at some point learn the "clean up after yourself" lesson, as we grow older, the consequences of our failure to "clean up our mess" begins to have broader impacts.

For example, let's imagine that we are all grown up, and find ourselves in charge of a mining company.  We have resources we want to extract from a certain area.  How will we go about the process?  Well, if we never learned to clean up our mess as a child, we figure it's okay to strip the resources from the soil, leaving complete environmental devastation in our wake. After all I got what I wanted, now I'm ready to move on.  What is left behind is merely creative remnant—collateral damage necessary for economic progress.  Someone else can deal with the mess... 

Unlike when we were kids, there's no one to put us in "timeout" if we fail to clean up as adults.

It seems to me that EPA tried to play the role of "disciplinarian" in Leadville. When EPA arrived in town, the parties were finally forced to sit down and try and work out a solution.  It wasn't easy, but eventually (it took more than a decade) they got it done.  I assure you, though, EPA was not warmly welcomed when they first arrived in town, anymore than the defiant child likes being placed in "timeout". 

The Yak Tunnel entrance as it appears today.
But when contaminated water pouring from the Yak Tunnel caused the Arkansas River to “run red” on February 23, 1983, and began threatening water supplies downstream, there was no denying the need to act anymore. Leadville’s problem, which had been a "local issue" for decades, suddenly became Colorado's problem—and even America’s problem. The public became much more aware of the issue and demanded action to protect them. Something had to be done—and someone would have to pay for it. Millions of dollars would be spent to figure out how to clean up what the mining companies had carelessly left behind—and who would pay for it. While some “responsible parties” could do identified, many others could not be made to pay; the companies had long sense gone out of business; the individual owners had died. But make no mistake, future generations paid a considerable “cost” for their failure to clean up after themselves.

Leadville's story serves as a reminder to me that in our thirst to fuel our relentless engine of progress we have done considerable damage to the natural world—and the planet can only take so much before there are serious consequences for life on Earth.

Sometimes, such as in Leadville, we reach a point where we just can't deny what's happening.  The river is red this morning—clearly that's not natural.  We are forced to reckon with the facts; we have to repent. We have to acknowledge what's been done and change our direction. Even though you and I are not the "responsible parties" for past damage to our environment, like the citizens of Leadville, we are still called to be part of the solution.

We need to find a better way that strikes more of a balance between economic and environmental prosperity.  Both are important.  Are we truly "prosperous" as a nation if our environment is in ruins?  What good is financial wealth if the only planet we have to live on is a desolate wasteland due to our insatiable lust for economic prosperity?  (The movie Wall-E is an over-the-top example of the consequences of unchecked economic growth.  But perhaps the hyperbole makes a point...) 

God entrusts human beings with stewardship of the planet—Genesis 1:26-31.  We might take time to consider:  How are we doing in that regard? Yes, the Earth is God's good Creation, and we are given resources to to continue that work of creation with God.  These resources are here for our use, but there have always been limits/boundaries that we must respect, or suffer the consequences.  And when we do use resources, hopefully Leadville's example will remind us of that fundamental rule of life: when we make a mess, we should clean it up—not leave it lying around for someone else to deal with.  It's much easier that way...