The jigsaw puzzle 

Time to put the pieces back together

Global warming, record growth in Flathead County, the precipitous decline of the dollar, out-of-control military spending, a global ranking of how well nations protect their environment, and the collapse of a Montana fishery may seem like disparate topics to the casual observer. But they actually fit together like pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle that, if put in proper context, can provide Montanans with some significant guidance for our future.

The new report issued by Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research, the Center for American Progress and the Australia Institute warns in the strongest possible language that global warming is approaching a “climatic tipping point” at which “abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate change” becomes unavoidable and irreversible.

The international task force, which was co-chaired by Stephen Byers, a close confidant of England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, concluded: “an ecological time bomb is ticking away.” Co-Chairwoman U.S. Senator Olympia Snow, a Republican from Maine, added: “climate change is the single most important long-term issue that the planet faces.”

Of course, those of us living in Montana really don’t need an international task force to reveal the obvious. This week, cities across Montana saw their warmest weeks on record as January temperatures skyrocketed to 60 or 70 degrees in many locations, ravaging our thin mountain snowpack and threatening another hot, dry summer.

We’ve all heard the leading cause of global warming before and we hear it again in this latest report: The warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations. The solution is also old news: Cut back on coal-burning power plants, muzzle carbon dioxide emissions and increase use of renewable energy sources.

Yet faced with incontrovertible evidence, the Bush administration continues on a disastrous course of doing just the opposite of what is recommended. Another report released just this week by researchers at Columbia and Yale Universities ranked the nations of the world for their environmental sustainability. And guess what: We came in 45th out of the 146 nations studied. The top three slots went to Finland, Norway and Uruguay, but Japan, Botswana, most of Western Europe and even the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan all ranked higher than did the U.S.—yet again confirming that Bush policies are quickly changing America the Beautiful to America the Trashed.

The alternative, of course, would be to get our national priorities straightened out and begin our long climb back to environmental sustainability and global respect. But that’s not happening. Instead, as announced this week, Bush is requesting yet another “emergency” appropriation for his aggressive wars. This one clips in at $85 billion which, when tossed in with the previous $20 billion, brings the total 2005 funding for military operations to $105 billion—13 times more than the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hard on the heels of the new military spending increase comes a dismaying report from the BBC that the U.S. dollar is now being “shunned” by international financiers who are turning to the euro for their reserves. According to a poll commissioned by the Royal Bank of Scotland and done by Central Banking Publications, 39 of the 65 nations surveyed have “raised their euro holdings, with 29 cutting back on the U.S. dollar.” Bush’s wildly excessive spending has driven the U.S. into record deficits of $500 billion a year—and when nations spend more than they make, they have to borrow the money from somewhere else. In our case, China and Japan are buying large amounts of U.S. government bonds, sustaining Bush’s spending spree but threatening to touch off what The New York Times calls “a potential currency crisis, in which a steep plunge in the value of the dollar touches off economic waves around the world.”

Against this backdrop of what seems to be national and international financial, environmental and military chaos, stands Montana. Just this week a report came out documenting record growth in Flathead County, where, in the last year alone, 1,574 residential, commercial and industrial subdivision plats received approval. Contrary to the failed philosophy of Montana’s political “leaders” for the last decade, this growth is not occurring because of tax breaks, environmental rollbacks or expensive economic development initiatives. People are not coming to mine or log, but because the Flathead Valley is home to Flathead Lake, the largest body of pristine fresh water west of the Mississippi, because it is ringed by mountain wildernesses, and because, out of our whole degraded nation, it remains one of the places where the natural environment is still evident, accessible and highly valued.

I say “natural environment” for a reason. The prime example of what could happen to Flathead Lake is Canyon Ferry, a 26-mile long reservoir on the Missouri River that used to be one of the most heavily used lakes in the state—but no longer. Illegal walleye introductions brought the foolish call to co-manage the lake, once highly prized for its trout and perch fishery, for walleye and the existing species. Then, as predicted, the walleye decimated the population of young trout, so the state planted larger trout, which are vastly more expensive to raise. Now, perch, trout and even the walleye at the top of the predator chain are in precipitous decline. Not surprisingly, so are the anglers and the economy they sustained. Poof! Just like that—gone.

When all the pieces are laid out, the big picture becomes clear. Montana’s future well-being requires that, above all things, we maintain and enhance our natural environment because, following the classic capitalist tenets of supply and demand, it has now become the single most precious asset we have.

Sustaining our environment requires protecting what we have, rejecting radical manipulation of our natural ecosystems and not looking to the feds for salvation—because they won’t be there.

Admittedly, it’s not the prettiest picture—and certainly not the one we’d choose—but few can deny it’s the jigsaw puzzle of our times.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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