Diamond in the Rough
How a 600-page book became a must-read in rural Montana.
Can a thick volume examining societal disintegration all around the globe over 3,000 years have an impact on local politics in one American county in the 21st century? That's a question raised by "Collapse," the current bestseller by UCLA geographer Jared Diamond. Professor Diamond argues that many societies, from primitive Easter Island to ancient Mexico and modern Rwanda, failed because of environmental pressures and simple human short-sightedness. But he kicks off his book with a long look at Ravalli County, in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana--where he and a number of other well-to-do Californians have set up summer homes in recent years.
The area's traditional industries, mining, timber and apple orchards, have all petered out. Ranching continues, but the spike in property costs threatens many operations. Diamond concludes that were it not for money being pumped into the valley from the federal government and out-of-staters, its "economy would already have collapsed."
Diamond's book, in case you couldn't guess from the title, tends toward the apocalyptic. But his description of life in Ravalli County jibes with the way many people in the valley think. They fear that rapid growth threatens both the area's natural beauty and its ability to sustain an economy that will support anyone other than wealthy outlanders. Others worry that the book will have an impact, but in the wrong direction. "The people who don't want any growth at all are going to wave the book around and say, 'See, I told you so,'" says state Senator Rick Laible.
That's not so crazy. "This book is going to offer us an opportunity," agrees Kristine Komar of the Bitter Root Land Trust, which is applying for a federal grant to create an art exhibit that would illustrate points made by the book. Diamond is scheduled to give a speech in the county next month, and local residents are already talking about what sort of reception he's going to get.
The argument about growth started well before the book's publication, of course. Ravalli grew by 44 percent during the 1990s, and last November voters approved a countrywide growth plan, with limits on future expansion, after many years of trying. But the fight over the ordinances and regulations that will actually implement the plan is just now getting underway.
Laible says he's gotten calls from all over the country about "Collapse." He believes any book that prompts so much talk will make a valuable contribution to local discussions, even though he doesn't accept all of Diamond's conclusions himself. "Any debate that we have in regard to growth and growth issues is a good debate," Laible says.