Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Legacy of the Myth

Legacies are complex creatures.
War Memorial Court, commonly known as The Pylons.
I started college as a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, the military core of what was once an all male, all military, institution. On top of that, I joined the Corps of Cadets as freshman in the Regimental Band of Virginia Tech, the Highty Tighties.
The Highty Tighties, Circa 2008
Amongst the larger body of cadets, the legacy of the Corps of Cadets has a certain meaning, but in the Highty Tighties, or HTs, it takes on a whole new dimension of meaning. Right off the bat you learn that you are working towards becoming part of the heart and soul of the heart and soul of Virginia Tech. Then they show you the trophies, photographs, etc., and what was just word takes on another dimension, it becomes material, "real", so to speak.

But there are always two sides to a story.

Current HTs and HT alumni I met during my time would talk about the early days of the band and the Corps of Cadets as well as the glorious 1950s and 60s, but not much about anytime afterwards. In fact, the few stories I remember about the HTs in this "afterglow" period are about how the band, and the Corps of Cadets in general, sank to a less than respectable status in the university.

Granted, part of this "fall from grace" tale is hyperbole.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that from the 1970s onwards (the period that exactly coincides with the "fall from grace") Virginia Tech's shift from an all white, predominantly male military school, to an all inclusive modern institution, changed the role, and the fortunes, of the Corps of Cadets.

In reality, the "material reality" of what Virginia Tech was and is and the symbols used to describe both the legacy and the "afterglow" of the HTs are in fact the same story. Like a mixture of oil and water left to sit, they were once merged together.
Nucla, Colorado between 1910 and 1920
The legacy of uranium extraction in the American West possesses a similar quality when framed in the arguments of those who do/do not support the return of uranium extraction (such as the Pinon Ridge Mill) to western Colorado. Like the HTs and their relationship to the greater forces that mold and shape Virginia Tech, uranium extraction has an equally long lived place of symbolic and material meaning to latch on to.


As the final project for Advanced Science Communication (the blog this class is for) I took a look at how proponents and opponents of Pinon Ridge frame the legacy of Uravan, both in the positive and negative sense, in their arguments for what the future of the uranium industry should be.

What I found was, despite the rhetoric and emotion associated with both sides, both were portraying Uravan accurately, if you accounted the moment in time they spoke of.
USV Uravan Commissary Circa mid-1940s
Proponents of Uravan note that the community at its height was a bustling center of western Colorado. A little slice of order in what was otherwise a world of prospectors and shifting economic tides. Symbolically Uravan functions for them as the idealized uranium centric community, free from the interfering hand of the government that, for some, brought it down. Materially, Uravan was a place of prosperity, a community of nearly 1,000 that could afford the best teachers, doctors, and facilities in western Montrose County.
Opponents on the other hand argue that Uravan is the product of unbridled corporate greed and government incompetence. For them, Uravan symbolizes environmental and social ruin at its worst. Materially, this Uravan is not a bustling town, but the complete opposite, a government run environmental cleanup of the worst kind, a Superfund site.

In reality, Uravan is both a place of growth and prosperity, and environmental and social ruin.
Uravan, 1978
The former is Uravan during the uranium booms of the 1950s and 70s, a time when nuclear power was considered the solution for the world's energy needs. Conversely, the latter case is Uravan during the 1980s, where a mix of the uranium market's bottom dropping out and the ever mounting costs necessary to stabilize the decades of waste rock (tailings) built up around the town forced Union Carbide to shut up shop. This Uravan, no longer a part of a viable uranium industry, turned into a battleground over who exactly was going to clean it all up and who would pay for it all.

Now, after reaching this conclusion I thought to myself: "okay, so what do we do to break this mess up?" It's been five years since Energy Fuels began the process of getting the proper approvals for building Pinon Ridge, and so far its led to a lot of headaches, talking past each other, and more recently, litigation.
The Paradox Valley, Colorado
Pacing around my apartment (the people upstairs should be thankful I live on the first floor) I began to think about what other people had said about how western Coloradans have always had a strong distrust of the government...

And then it hit me.

Legacy of Conquest

In the revised edition of Patty Limerick's game-changing novel on the history of the American West, she makes an interesting, if not timely, comment about addressing the myths and legacies of the American West:

In countless showdowns and contests, the romanticized, commercialized, Myth of the West prevailed over my plucky challenges to it. After defeats beyond counting, a new strategy seemed in order. Why not try to co-opt the myth and enlist its endless energy for good causes? Moreover, why not even have fun with it?

At the rate I keep making plugs for Patty Limerick, I must either be trying to get into CU's History Ph.D. program (I am not) or I am becoming like every other scholar of the American West.

Pretty sure its the latter.

Anyways, it struck me that what I had before me was a similar "myth of the west"; both supporters and opponents strongly identified with the notion that you cannot trust the government to look out for your best interests. While each side argued it from a different angle (free market economics versus environmental protection) both reached at some level or another the same conclusions.

Co-opting this notion of distrust may serve to accomplish what legally mandated processes have failed to produce: real discourse. By getting stakeholders on both sides to come out and talk in an environment where they, not the government, are in control, it might be possible to generate discussion that will lead to actual results. Investing power in the people might not only bring them to the table, but encourage them to take responsibility for the future of western Colorado.