Colorado's quality of life fades in a changing West

The celebrated ''Rocky Mountain high'' isn't quite what it used to be.

There is a growing perception here that the quality of life for which Colorado has been noted is becoming seriously strained.

It is one of Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm's favorite topics. In the prologue of his newly released book, ''The Angry West,'' he writes:

''There was something special about the West in the 1950s and 1960s. . . . Not many years ago, you still could catch a native trout, gallop a horse for miles without running into fence, track a mountain lion, float a lonesome river. You could escape the regimentation and restrictions of a civilized life. You could be free . . . (But the region) has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. It sees a decade of change each year. One West is dying and a new one is being born.''

These concerns were some of the reasons why a mixed group of more than a hundred people braved 90-degree temperatures and spent last July 23 in an un-air-conditioned cathedral on the University of Colorado's Denver campus listening to philosophers, economists, lawyers, and politicians discuss the ''Quality of Life in Colorado.''

''This topic is especially important because the quality of life here is so high. It is what has attracted many people to the state. Yet now they fear that continued economic growth will destroy the very qualities which brought them here in the first place,'' explains Jerry L. Martin, a Colorado philosopher and director of the Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy which has been studying this issue.

Quality of life is an apt topic for philosophers like Professor Martin: Although maintaining and improving the quality of life has become the ultimate goal of US public policy, it defies precise definition.

According to Martin's colleague Dale Jamieson, attempts to define this slippery concept fall into two basic categories - psychological and economic - and both have real problems.

In the psychological approach, the more people in a region who say they are ''happy,'' the higher the quality of life is considered to be. But this approach has the problem that a consistently higher percentage of the poor report that they are happy than those in higher income brackets. Also, reported happiness varies little from region to region, race to race, or between sexes, Professor Jamieson says.

One problem with equating quality of life with standard of living is that, despite the unprecedented economic growth in the US since World War II, fewer Americans say they are happy with their lives today than even 10 or 15 years ago. ''This has led to criticisms that the quality of American life has been sacrificed for economic growth,'' says Joseph Sneed, professor of humanities at Colorado School of Mines.

While economics is an important element in people's sense of quality of life, so too are the environmental and social aspects of their lives, the speakers said.

CU geographer A. David Hill interviewed a number of people in Western Colorado last summer when the energy boom - fueled by the oil and gas, coal, and oil shale industries - was in full swing.

''The people we interviewed did not line up in two groups: pro- and anti-growth. Everyone seemed ambivalent,'' he reports. He feels that people's sense of control over events in their lives has a profound influence on their feeling of quality of life. So, if an area's economy is stagnant or declining, its quality of life suffers. But, if the rate of economic growth is too great, it can also be threatening.

Another aspect of quality of life is the balance of adversarial and cooperative relationships. ''The US has become the world's most litigious society, employing over two-thirds of the world's lawyers,'' points out James Spensley, a lecturer on environmental law at the University of Denver. While the adversarial process works well in some areas, it has frequently proven divisive and counterproductive in complex and technical issues such as the environment. ''What we need is a system of public-interest advocacy rather than the adversarial approach'' on issues of this sort, he argues.

In its search for the good life, American society started with a distrust for government. As a result, it developed a romantic view of private enterprise, Dr. Martin summarizes.

Then market failures were found. There are cases where property rights cannot be assigned, as with clean air. Or situations where one person can make a profit by imposing a cost on another person who has no recourse, as in polluting the air.

As a result, Americans shifted their hopes to the government. But, with the institution of the Great Society, it became apparent that the conditions that cause markets to fail also make it difficult for government to succeed.

So, today, Americans must face the fact that ''there is no final, perfect, overall, single answer'' to the question of how to improve the quality of our lives, says Martin. Something that comes as no surprise to philosophers, George Santayana having once observed, ''Life is not a spectacle or a feast: it is a predicament."

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