(Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr CC)

Wyoming is at an unavoidable crossroads. Due to the collapse of mineral revenues, our future will not be anything like our past. Coal mining was once part of Wyoming’s identity, but this phase of our history is quickly coming to a close. 

In 2020, betting on coal remaining the future of energy is like betting that horses would remain the future of transportation in 1920. Since the peak of coal production over a decade ago, annual state revenues from the shiny black rock have dropped $770 million. The state of Wyoming is expected to have a roughly $1.5 budget shortfall in the next two years — a result of declining minerals and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Mark Gordon is ordering a 20% cut to all state agencies, which will severely impact programs for children and the elderly, veterans, education and health services.

Hence, we are not only at an economic crossroads, but at a profound cultural crossroads. What kind of state do we want Wyoming to become? What kind of Wyoming do we want for our children and grandchildren? In the coming years Wyoming will be required to reimagine itself right down to its roots, a process that will necessitate self-reflection and a clear, accurate understanding of history. 

It is not possible to know where you are, let alone where you are going, if you don’t know where you’ve been. This is where humanities can help.

The humanities — language, literature, theater, music, art, dance, history, philosophy — all explore and express the nature of human nature. The humanities teach us how to think critically about complex problems — how to distinguish between the anecdotal and the statistical, the myth and the reality. For example, we here in Wyoming think of ourselves as the “cowboy state,” but in truth, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic analysis, fewer than 3% of our workforce is employed in ranching and farming. 

There are more cattle in Florida, according to Beef2Live.com, and thus more cowboys, than in Wyoming. The biggest employer in the state, by far, is the government itself — teachers, administrators, state agency workers. 

The humanities help us understand each other, value diverse perspectives and promote tolerance, all of which stand at the center of social justice and equality. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 10% of Wyomingites live in poverty. Despite the fact that we have one of the lowest tax burdens of any state (Wyoming has the lowest beer tax in the nation), the bottom 20% of Wyoming workers pay seven times the rate of the top 1%. A 2018 report by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy reveals that Wyoming has one of the largest tax rate discrepancies between the rich and the poor in the United States. Finding solutions to entrenched inequalities will require open-mindedness and creativity, precisely the skills that the humanities bring to problem-solving.  

The economic inequities and harsh realities that Wyoming is facing today provide a unique opportunity to explore and encourage the true wealth of this state — the intellectual, cultural, social and civic wealth that exists in every community from Bondurant to Buffalo, Sundance to Saratoga. All Wyoming communities have their own proud heritage, committed citizens and singular sense of place. There is no doubt that the people of Wyoming love this state and are willing to do what it takes to make it a better place to live.  

At this time, when democracy itself can sometimes feel imperiled, the humanities help develop informed, insightful citizens willing to engage in the civil discourse and elect solid, thoughtful leaders. “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day,” Thomas Jefferson said.

Wyoming is at a grand societal crossroads and needs the humanities to make the right choices. There are great challenges ahead, but also great opportunities. The humanities can help us navigate this new, beautiful future.

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  1. Lets see, Wyoming. It has been in the news and courts for the last 15 years. Add new federal drilling permits, more grazing allotments, remove antelope, fencing, migration patterns, archeology finds and hides, Yellowstone, ranches for sale with 10’s of thousands of acres, wasting disease, grizzly, predator killing sprees, bison, wolves, watersheds/pollution, forest fires, cheatgrass infestation, sage grouse, diamonds, jade, gold, more court battles between exploiters and conservationists, red desert, crazy checkerboard distribution, billion dollar share in 2014 of public receipts (whatever happened to that?) and especially the zeroing and/or limiting to nonviable your unique native wild horse populations.
    As a child one could ride a commuter train from Billings to Cheyenne, Laramie, even to Thermopolis to enjoy the hot springs. Take in a local powwow, rodeo and go rockhounding. Visit relatives, go skiing or off to Cody for the mountain experiences of hunting, fishing, hiking and horseback riding. Not to mention some of the best western and native American art museums.
    What you need is to make it easier to travel to your state other than car. (with Biden in the WH, might be a good time to advocate for rail). Take care of your wild horses and wildlife since you are one of the last states that could possibly be a preserve. Get rid of so many exploiters where none if any of the money stays in the state, but goes off to a tax shelter elsewhere or tax the HH out of them for being in the state. Let honesty come back to your natural environment, stories of the past. Stop selling off archeological etc antiquities. I have always loved visiting relations in Wyoming. The last time we went through we had to go through the backroads SW of Jeffries due to a fatal oil truck accident holding up hwy 287. In the years past that road would of given us the opportunity to view the wild horses of Green Mtn – Stewart Creek etc, but all we saw is one poo pile.
    So, Wyoming, yes you are rural, yes, the rest of the world would love to view, visit but you will need to determine how much and how. The new comers/billionaires need to appreciate and anti up.
    Do not let it became a dustbowl of industry. Mary

  2. Well, to reply to Jeff’s reply, YES, humanities, and the discussion of ethical issues, are very important, But how to jump start their implementation in the middle of a Covid epidemic, not to mention the threat of climate change–the environmental destructiveness of coal not to mention cattle ranching– is the question. I remember traveling around Wyoming to give a humanities lecture, “What’s Happening in Western Ghost Towns,” about the re-invention of old mining towns in the West, 32 times, in the early ‘nineties. What now when you can’t give lectures. I certainly don’t have any answers. Perhaps the “rugged individualist” myth, so much part of the Wyoming identity, as well as the “Wide Open Spaces” reality for many, adds a difficult dimension to the question of what one owes one’s fellow humans. And what about leadership–what role does that play on the local and national scale? I’ve noticed in Colorado that at the start people disobeyed the mask law, but in the end, I suspect, couldn’t take the s–t they got from other people That’s ethics in action. Now you almost never see anyone without a mask in a place with a large stern sign on the door, “No Entrance without a Face Mask.” The Chinese shut Covid down by becoming extremely authoritarian…..not humanist at all.

  3. In partial answer to Vicki’s question, the humanities (philosophy in particular) provide the methods and structures to address normative questions–that is, questions about what we OUGHT to do. It seems that Wyomingites need the capacity to think through these fundamental questions, such as, “Do I have an ethical obligation to wear a mask in public so as to reduce the risk to my fellow citizens?”. Mark states with seeming optimism, “There is no doubt that the people of Wyoming love this state and are willing to do what it takes to make it a better place to live.” Given the poor rate of compliance with public health standards (see the article in this issue of WyoFile concerning the behavior of UW students, for example), I’m dubious that the people of this state are willing to do “what it takes” when it takes something a incredibly simple as the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask to make their communities more livable, even survivable. So yes, the humanities are desperately and demonstrably needed.

  4. So Mark, what exactly do you propose the ” “humanities “should do, which branches of the humanities are most suitable for a state severely impacted by a budget crisis,, and how should the humanities reach out and make themselves known in Covid times with a budget crisis.? And, last but not least, how are humanities and politics intertwined?