The Facebook post was heartfelt. A woman living in Asheville, North Carolina was pleading with the public not to overwhelm her lovely little town. “Visit, then leave” was the message. We like our little town just as it is: Little. Homey. Just us’ns.
Listen, I can empathize. As someone who’s lived in the Denver area since 1971 — right about the time John Denver’s songs were enticing folks to move out West — I’ve seen what can happen when a small, unremarkable cow town is inundated by folks who suddenly discover the wonders of Colorado. We now have traffic issues and infrastructure issues, and we’re back to high pollution days. I no longer camp in the high country because there are too many inexperienced people who don’t know how to put out a fire. The I-70 in ski season is a parking lot. Bring your sleeping bag and plan to nap on the way home. All the lovely, soothing, horse-populated open land is now filled with ugly apartment buildings and tract homes. Ugh.
Lock the Doors, Zip Up the State Lines, and Throw Away the Key
Not long after I made my move to Colorado, I began hearing people talk about not “Californicating Colorado.” While insulting to those from that gorgeous state, I know precisely what they meant. Because it’s happened. The I-25 is now one long conga line of malls, and cheaply made rubber-stamp tract housing, and more tract housing, and more malls, and and and. Just like the I-5. The intense pressure on our limited water supply is horrendous — especially given our lengthy droughts, increasingly less snow, and the need to water all those lawns in what is effectively plains desert.
City folks bring the city with them, along with their aggressive driving habits that kill cyclists, lack of mountain manners, and tendency to start wildfires.
People from greener states don’t understand. Colorado is slowly becoming Arizona. Water rationing is real, and it will never go away. Snow is becoming increasingly rare. It’s making skiers unhappy, but far worse, it’s making water scarce for our booming population. The once-overflowing Colorado River, a lifeblood for so many, is no longer fed by huge annual snows. Colorado can no longer afford to keep desert golf courses green in Palm Springs. Massive fires — not just from lightning — are a way of life now, which has driven up home insurances rates by an unprecedented percentage ($577, the third-highest jump in the nation). A lot of that is because of human error — meaning wildfires — as well as climate change, affecting the number of tornadoes. We never used to get tornadoes in our cities nestled against the front range. Now, they are more common. A huge chunk of Colorado is plains, just like Kansas’ “Tornado Alley.” Not right along the front range.
That, along with far more machine-produced snow to keep the skiers coming, is just the beginning.
Years ago, there was a spate of license plates that identified people as Natives. Soon, copycats made Semi-Natives, Transplants, and the rest to mock the trend. Native-born Coloradans wanted to state their superiority over those who had just moved here. Then, as now, those who moved to the area settled in and they most certainly didn’t want anyone else to, which would make it too crowded. Lock ’em out. I have mine, but you can’t come share it with me. This is our paradise, stay out.
In other words, we want the idea of a gated community applied to our state, our great little town. And of course, our nation. Hence, the wall.
Asheville is just one more charming mountain town experiencing an historical boom. Americans, with good reason, want to escape big city life and capture something closer to nature. They want a better community, places with old-growth forests to play in that haven’t been paved over for yet another Walmart or TJ Maxx.
You can’t blame them. Right now, I’m contemplating the same thing, for the same reasons. After nearly forty years in Denver, I don’t want to live here anymore. It’s too busy, too crowded. While some folks love the sophistication that comes with a happening urban scene, that’s not why I came here. I’m tired of struggling to find a single place to ride a horse that isn’t overwhelmed with cyclists, runners, and hikers. I’m tired of riding a horse where people in the nearby park fly illegal drones over my head, terrifying my animal (and those with four-year-old girls on them), because they just want to see what happens.
We Bring Our Baggage With Us
The ranches were here hundreds of years before the suburbanites. That’s the fundamental problem. City folks bring the city with them, along with their aggressive driving habits that kill cyclists, lack of mountain manners, and tendency to start wildfires.
This is the case with every lovely hamlet that has an established way of life, be it an isolated fishing town or a Maine village in the deep woods. When folks come in from elsewhere, they bring “elsewhere” with them. Suddenly, the town is nothing like it used to be. Those of us who liked it the way it was either get angry or move.
Many of us have moved to Panama City or Ecuador. We’ve fundamentally changed those places for the locals — who often resent us — in precisely the same way.
People have every right to move where they want. Neither the Asheville woman nor I have any right to tell anyone not to move to “our” state. We all believe we have the right to live where we hope to have a better life.
There are lots of places in the world that do not want to be taken over. But that’s what we do: We tend to want to take over.
The territorial imperative is universal. We all feel it when, suddenly, a place we love is fundamentally and irrevocably changed. How do you think the Native Americans felt when we marched them off their lands? How do you think folks in San Francisco feel now that prices there (and sinking properties) have changed what was once the “City of Love” to the City of How Are We Going to Afford Rent?
There are lots of places in the world that do not want to be taken over. But that’s what we do: We tend to want to take over. We have a hard time acclimatizing, learning a new language, becoming a part of the existing community. This is true all over the world.
It’s Not Just Here
The 2015 Paris Agreement saw leaders from all over the world gather to discuss efforts to reduce global warming. The gathering included many heads of state of island nations, who are affected the most by these environmental changes. For example, the Solomon Islands are losing land steadily due to rising seas from melting glacial ice. The tiny nation of Kiribati will also soon be underwater. In the not-too-distant future, rising sea levels will force the wholesale relocation of millions.
In Alaska, the thawing of permafrost is causing the loss of habitable land for many Inuit. Polar bears, starving from a lack of food supplies, march into town in desperation. Drought has devastated crops and life for millions. Climate change is likely to cause the mass migrations of untold millions of people — and just where do you think they are going to go?
For those of us contemplating a move simply because additional traffic is inconvenient and our perfect little town has too many “outsiders,” this specter is a wholly different argument. One hundred and forty million people will lose their homes entirely. With the world’s population continuing to explode, we can’t just say “not in my back yard.” There’s no denying that America and other wealthy countries’ consumption of oil and gas has been a contributing factor to this massive displacement. Now’s not the time for us to be saying “Katy bar the door.”
A World of Immigrants
As a species, we’ve always been immigrants, making our slow way out of Africa and other continents to settle elsewhere when changing climates or exhausted food supplies forced us to move on. We have always sought to explore and conquer (whether or not we were welcomed). Someone always wins, someone always loses. I’m not here to make an argument for what’s right or wrong. Whether you believe in climate change doesn’t change the simple fact that sea levels are rising and drought is worldwide. Plenty of folks on the Gulf Coast of Florida are experiencing the fear that in no time they may not have those multi-million dollar condos. As for overcrowded, densely-populated places like New York City, climate change promises major flooding every five years. What if all those folks decide to move to your lovely little hometown?
The woman in Asheville speaks eloquently for me, and for anyone else who’s ever invested deeply in a place and seen it irrevocably changed. Think of how islanders in the Indonesia archipelago must feel, watching their homeland disappear under their feet. You may not particularly care, but they sure do. And they will have to live somewhere. Just as those ravaged by drought in parts of Africa will have to live somewhere.
The Water War
As companies like Nestle and Coke continue to buy up the world’s dwindling water resources, our future will be increasingly dictated by those who can afford to buy water controlled by companies and their wealthy owners, whose primary concern is profit. They know climate change is real. That’s why they want the water. Water is the new gold. Ask anyone who has lived in the water-starved West for any number of years about the bloody history of water rights — it’s the most precious resource that exists. The fanciful scenario in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, in which an unscrupulous operator exploits entire countries’ water supplies, is very, very real. Access to clean water is a fundamental human right. For more information on how water became an increasingly scarce commodity, I’d recommend this documentary.
There are unintended consequences to how rich nations became rich.
So yes. I’m seriously thinking about moving out of Colorado. My way of life is in danger. But millions in the world may have to move because where they are, there’s no life at all. We cannot put a padlock on every community, every country. It’s impossible. What’s coming far outstrips the Syrian War. The mass of migration from Africa to the EU from terrorism. We will soon see massive waves of immigrants whose countries have simply disappeared or become uninhabitable. The facts are indisputable. People will have to migrate.
There are unintended consequences to how rich nations became rich. We’re just beginning to see them play out in our cities and small towns. What happens in an island off Papua New Guinea does indeed affect us. We’re too small a marble. How we learn to share what belongs to the entire race will be a whole new chapter of humanity. We must learn to share, to co-create solutions that will be fundamentally essential to our very survival.
Because I’m an incurable optimist, I believe many good people are also working on solutions. Because we have to. It’s the only way we can make it as a species. So while I can understand my friend’s lament in Asheville, I’m more concerned with the looming factors that touch us all in every corner of this achingly small world.
Our neighbors will change. It behooves us all to figure out a way to learn to live with them, and for them to learn to live with us.