Can Jackson Hole be sustainable?


“Sustainability” is one of those words often used but misunderstood. The dictionary definition goes like this: Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. It has three main pillars: economic, environmental, and social. In this valley I have often seen the word combined to produce an oxymoron, as in: sustainable growth. Unlimited economic growth is impossible on a finite planet because of limited non renewable resources like oil and metals and degraded renewable resources like soil and water. The dominant force driving economic growth is solar energy, primarily stored  fossil energy with a small contribution from so called “renewable” energy.. There is a direct correlation between energy use per capita and GDP going back almost to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Increasing energy use yields increasing economic growth, improvment in living standards and rising wealth. Environmental sustainability is assured if the organisms in the system can obtain the necessary nutrients to meet their energy needs using what is available in their environment’s “carrying capacity.” Social sustainability is a community which cares for, fosters and respects its member’s social, cultural, legal and economic rights and needs allowing loyal members to bind together as a community. It is my contention that we are entering what Jim Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency.”  We are facing a host of predicaments: Global Warming, species extinction, digital surveillance, economic inequality, social disintegration and violence, political polarization, overpopulation, critical resource depletion, and massive debt issuance  just to name a few. The common cause is the growth and development path the world has followed for the past few hundred years which has been made possible by harnessing the cheap concentrated solar energy contained in fossil fuels, primarily oil. That rodeo is coming to an end. The worldwide production of cheap conventional crude oil has been essentially flat for more than 10 years. Expensive less useful “unconventional” oil has increased but too high oil prices imperil an economy and too low prices imperil the oil companies. The economy has become a highly complex networked, self organized and globalized entity. It has been characterized as a “dissipative structure” capturing and converting energy in much the same way as a hurricane or for that matter almost any living organism. This complexity has hit a point of diminishing returns where problem solving by implementing complex solutions has the effect of adding unanticipated problems. The most obvious problem for Jackson is the Just in Time(JIT) supply chains that allow this valley to survive. Everything and everyone coming to Jackson arrives by oil. We produce virtually no food besides cattle forage. Even the alfalfa pellets for the Elk Refuge arrive by truck. We saw the fragility of Jackson recently when the access corridors were largely closed by avalanches. Grocery shelves went empty as did most gas station fuel tanks.  What Jackson does is produce “services” to the inhabitants, most of whom are visitors able to visit because of their discretionary income. Environmental  sustainability exists when the individuals can live within the carrying capacity using  available resources and not contaminating the environment with their waste. What is the carrying capacity of Jackson Hole? It is effectively Zero for humans if food can’t be grown and stored over a long winter. It might be a few hundred or thousand under skilled agriculture and judicious harvesting of the flora and fauna to augment protein needs. JH a century ago had an operational fabric of social sustainability characteristic of small agricultural communities. I contend that is now degraded by vast income and class inequality, hyper tourism, expensive housing, and services provided by distant workers among other factors.  The decline of cheap energy will end growth as we have known it.  The decline may be swift and sudden going over a “Seneca Cliff “as recently noted in a book by Ugo Bardi. It may also be possible to obtain energy from renewable sources “decarbonizing” the economy as has been proposed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Ultimately we will have to obtain all our energy from renewable solar energy rather than non renewable solar energy from fossil sources.  It is vital to develop a risk management strategy as an intelligent response if we are to ever achieve sustainability in JH.





Published by Rendezvous Mountain Farm

I was born in Cascade county Montana and raised in a dozen Air Force SAC bases. I attended Holy Cross,West Point and UNC in Chapel Hill(MD"71). Army doc in the last years of the Viet Nam fiasco. My wife and I live in a log cabin I built from standing dead lodgepole trees we cut from Shadow Mountain and regional local timber in 1976 . I've done a dozen different jobs including construction, boat building,magazine writing and commercial fishing and retired from the Emergency and Operating Room in 2004. We manage a small diversified organic farm including leased land which totals about 40 acres in the Jackson Hole valley. We raise a variety of livestock which includes some heritage breeds of animals and poultry. We grow most of our food and forage. Our land is irrigated from Granite Creek and the Snake River and we raise and bale our own organic hay. We supplement with food collected from Jackson Hole Food rescue which is mostly dairy, bread and past date vegetables and food from the grocery stores and restaurants.

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