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‘No-Growth’ is not the solution, or the problem

Column by George Sibley

Growth – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

ONE OF THE MOST PERNICIOUS growth-at-any-cost arguments is the one that says that without economic growth our children will have to leave their homes and make their living elsewhere. This argument claims that our real economic problem in the West is “strident opposition to development that stifles opportunities for our children and forces our children outward.”

That quote is from a particularly fatuous exposition of this argument that appeared in the Denver Post a month or so ago, and also in local newspapers around the region [and on the preceding page]. It was by Stephen Lyons, an eastern transplant who came to the mountains some time ago to “fulfill some back-to-the-land, experience-the-West fantasy,” but who has now gone back to Illinois, having, in his perception, participated sufficiently in screwing up the West with his generation’s “unrealistic goal of no-growth.” And in so doing, he dismisses whatever community it was he lived in here as “a cul de sac of career opportunities” for his own daughter, who has also left to increase her “quality of life in a metropolitan setting.”

There are so many inaccuracies and fallacious arguments in Lyons’ exercise in self-and-generational chastisement that one hardly knows where to start. One could start by noting that young people in America have been leaving the towns they grew up in for the city for a long time — a population trend that started around the 1830s, and persisted through the first two thirds of the 20th century. This was an era in American history when never was heard a discouraging word about growth on any American Main Street.

The interesting demographic phenomenon through the last third of the 20th century has been the “nonmetropolitan population turnaround;” more people have been leaving the cities for the towns and countryside than have been moving from the countryside to the cities — lots of them young adults (like Lyons and I were when we arrived). This trend has been wavering and erratic in the nation overall, but it’s more pronounced and consistent in places like Central Colorado.

A lot of the people who moved here were Baby Boomers looking for some kind of an alternative to the great eating machine our civilization has become. And because we saw that civilization as complex, we felt that the alternatives should be “simple.” Accordingly, many of us invested in simplistic alternatives like Lyons’ “back-to-the-land” version of the old American homesteader dream. And many indulged in the “no-growth” fantasy — the belief that we could, in our little valleys, “roll the rock” like Lassiter did in the Zane Grey novel. We could shut the gate on further migrants like ourselves.

Every western town has had its shifting and often noisy contingent of “last settlers” going through this no-growth stage. But I can’t think of a single small town in the West whose economy has been even seriously impacted, let alone “destroyed,” by these “no-growthers.” Just a look at the new census figures for almost every mountain county in Colorado would show Lyons how ineffective the no-growthers have been in stopping growth.

Here in Gunnison County, which has had a pretty strong “no-growth” contingent through the past couple of decades, there are enough subdivisions already approved (with more pending) to keep the resort, real estate and construction industries going for the next decade or so.

BUT THESE AREN’T going to be what Lyons envisioned as sites for “long-time residents who want to trade up, opening older homes to first time buyers.” These lots alone cost as much as a good middle-class home in Illinois, and the $150,000-plus prices for tolerable older homes are rough even for buyers with decent construction wages.

“Young adults,” for whose absence Lyons holds no-growthers responsible, can still make it here on the strength of a good business idea and a lot of work, just like anywhere — but it is made harder, not by idealistic no-growthers, but by the big resort, realty and financial interests that have replaced the big mining and timbering interests as the control elements in the local economy.

Like a lot of the rest of us, Lyons stayed in the West long enough to see the death of all those dreams — delusions — of starting over more simply.

Now, confronted with the absence of simple alternatives, he has left. So sayonara, Stephen.

Meanwhile, those who stay confront a challenge that defies conventional answers: how to generate, grow, attract, or otherwise develop local economies that do offer young (and older) adults something besides just more futureless service jobs, or construction jobs on houses they’ll never be able to afford if they stay here to work — local economies that offer all adults ways to build capital here.

The “New West” economy looks a lot like the “Old West” economy in that respect; it is still mostly owned elsewhere. No-growthers and back-to-the-landers don’t know what to do about this — but they certainly didn’t create the problem.

George Sibley teaches and writes in Gunnison.