The Futures of the West, Utopian and "Less Utopian" AlikeS

Americans have long had an obsession with the West — as much an idea as it is a physical place. Even if you risked getting lost, its wide open spaces have always had a sort of mystical pull. The West holds the promise of a new life; the idea of starting over; the appeal of new beginnings. So it's no surprise that when people of the 20th century made predictions about the future of the West, even the dystopian predictions had a glimmer of hope to them.

Forty years ago, Colorado State University held a conference titled "Alternative Futures in the West," where people imagined what the year 2000 would hold for the western United States. The October 23, 1973 edition of the Yuma Daily Sun in Arizona outlined some of the highlights from the conference.

They imagined that the world would be quite different by the dawn of the 21st century: alternative energy would reign supreme, nearly all water would be recycled, and 300 mile per hour trains would zip across the terrain.

But it wasn't all positive. The west's future problems were America's future problems, whether that was extreme poverty or rampant pollution or finding a way to deal with the food crisis.

First, what the newspaper called the "utopian" possibilities:

  • Solar cells, geothermal and nuclear power and the hydrogen engine will make energy one of the earth's most plentiful commodities, but a new environmental ethic will see it used conservatively.
  • Three hundred mile per hour Amtrak trains will connect the refurbished cities and new towns that sprung up across the West to replace obsolete suburbia and shoddy mountain developments abandoned as ghost towns.
  • Population in the United States will stabilize at 225 million and that of the West will level off slightly above present totals.
  • The Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona will be torn down as a symbol of old unthinking
    technology, and other massive restoration projects will follow.
  • Nearly 100% of the region's water and other resources will be recycled.

Then what the newspaper called the "less utopian" possibilities for the West:

  • 100 million new people in the United States, with many fleeing the overcrowded East for the plains, mountain and Pacific northwest states.
  • Redirection of some of the vast irrigation projects supporting western agriculture to support the new population.
  • 10-fold increases in major metropolitan areas, with young people continuing to seek out cities like Denver, San Francisco, Dallas and Houston.
  • Compromise between spiraling economic growth and environmental pressures, but
    improvement in big city pollution still limited by available tax money.
  • An overburdened East looking on the West more and more as a dumping place for
    the dissident poor of the ghettos.
  • A food crisis even greater than the energy shortage of the 70's and a revitalized western agriculture striving to produce the one American commodity cheap enough to compete in world markets.
  • An introverted, isolationist West banding together to halt growth in the face of population pressures.
  • All out political warfare between overburdened eastern states and a West reluctant to help.

And it's that last few "less utopian" ideas that are perhaps the most curious. The notion that the West is somehow independent of the rest of the United States — and in some ways more self-reliant.

People who move West do so for any number of reasons. But it's fascinating to see how quickly territorial and snotty people can become when fighting over resources. What are some of the biggest problems facing the West, judging by this list? More people coming West.

Welcome to the West. Now get the hell out.


Image: 1981 painting by Robert McCall scanned from the book Vision of the Future: The Art of Robert McCall