If Dirt Could Talk

Monday, 24 August 2009 17:04 By Leslie Thatcher, Truthout | name.

If Dirt Could Talk ...

    The American West At Risk Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery Howard G. Wilshire Jane E. Nielson Richard W. Hazlett Oxford University Press, 2008

    Thick roiling billows of ochre, rust and mushroom earth crest into a towering 5,000 foot high tsunami of dirt in the photograph of a 1977 dust storm above the southern San Joaquin Valley. I cannot think of another book I have ever read more true to its cover than Howard Wilshire, Jane Nielson and Richard Hazlett's "The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery." It is truly as though the three earth-scientist authors allowed the Western earth to speak, to explain its complex but inexorable response to human displacements of soil and rock, to toxic emissions, applications and run-off, to deforestation, agribusiness, over-grazing, mining, road building, war games, nuclear testing, "development," water "management," garbage "disposal" and recreation activities.

    The result is an absolute jewel of a book that anyone anywhere in today's world could read for profit and a certain kind of pleasure, but that is indispensable to any concerned citizen of the Western United States. If my budget allowed, I would place a copy in the hands of every elected and unelected official in the West involved in policy-making, along with a firm injunction to first read it through and then keep it on hand for reference. Oxford has published "The American West at Risk" as a textbook, and while it's organized like a textbook, and has wonderful, useful textbook features like a glossary, 150 pages of notes and a first-rate index, it doesn't read like any textbook I've ever encountered: the prose is polished, dispassionate and crystalline, accessible and even seductive in spite of the perhaps generically rebarbative topics addressed. And while it is arguably unpleasant to learn the details of how we as a society have squandered and continue to misuse the sensitive systems on which our own and all life on Earth depends, there is considerable dramatic tension to "The American West at Risk" that draws a reader in and propels the narrative forward.

    Much of the tension is created by the authors' success in conveying the indissoluble interconnections of earth systems: cutting trees changes climate and soils; agribusiness erodes soil "and destroys its fertility, pollutes the groundwater and compromises the safety of the food we eat"; grazing slashes biodiversity; mining leaches toxins into water tables and pollutes rivers and streams, while scarring the land permanently; road-building spreads erosional effects and pollution everywhere, while reducing biodiversity and habitat; military training in the desert creates permanent and pervasive damage to fragile Western lands; we are all for the indefinite future "downwind" of nuclear testing, while both the testing and nuclear waste storage pollutes waterways and groundwater; "dams starve coastal and ocean ecosystems," while "natural precipitation is the source of water supplies ... neither legislation nor engineering approaches can create or control it, and ... surface and groundwater are a single resource"; garbage isn't thrown away "because there is no away"; "fun" that rips up forest and desert and contaminates water is not free; every technological "fix" entails its own set of issues and consequences that need to be considered: nature provides no free lunches.

    An equally riveting drama contained within the overarching theme of human action and cascading natural reaction is that of scientific hubris, error, oversight and occasional corruption. The authors convey the unstoppable and unforeseeable chain of natural interactions in response to human intervention, even as they document other scientists' assurances that radioactive wastes will be "contained," that forests will regrow, that the essence of the natural systems on which all life depends can be sequestered from the various toxins humans introduce into fragile ecosystems. The history of scientific experts writing with apparently absolute conviction on subjects they do not really understand, asserting unequivocally that which proves in fact to be untrue in very short order is the cautionary subtext of the book. That such scientists have consistently erred, not on the side of prudence, but in favor of reckless risk-taking is a cautionary tale in itself.

    Wilshire, Nielson and Hazlett neatly skewer the myth of sustainable growth:

    The plight of third-world nations shows that population increases can lead to unsustainability, even at low levels of affluence and technology. The US experience shows that growing affluence can lead to unsustainability even with a relatively stable population. This implies that sustaining a high-tech world has to mean shrinking both populations and affluence. The term "sustainable growth" is therefore an oxymoron. The potential for sustainable development is an unproven hypothesis.
    So here is the rub: reaching for true sustainability represents a profound change in current American culture and economic life. Yet it takes us back to the practices of only 60 or so years ago. Americans, particularly in the Western states, have a long way to go before reduced per capita consumption takes them to the level of most Europeans, who live quite well and tend to register higher satisfaction with their lives than Americans.

    While such conclusions draw on the social sciences also, and certainly provide valuable perspective, the great strength of "The American West at Risk" is its dense presentation of factual data, organized and explained in a way that makes it accessible to the non-specialist for quick information and policy development. Figures, maps, boxes and photographs document key points both visually as well as verbally. Stunning quotations set up each chapter. A shifting focus between the general and sometimes abstract issues that create the "calamity of the commons":

    While the US population increased only 65% between 1950 and 1990, American industrial minerals, metals and plastics consumption increased 130%.

    and their translation into personal terms:

    A three-bedroom two-and-a-half-bathroom house of about 2,000 square feet, with two-car garage, central air conditioning and a fireplace contains more than a quarter of a million pounds of mined metals and other minerals.

    further assures that reading "The American West at Risk" remains the kind of impassioned engagement with oneself and one's society that I once believed only literature could provide.

    A book that should provoke fury and dismay - if nothing else moves you, the history of using Western populations as guinea pigs to test the effects of radioactivity cannot fail to - its existence alone also provides a kind of antidote and example: research thoroughly, document carefully, learn - including what you cannot know - teach widely, act with focus and commitment.


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Last modified on Monday, 24 August 2009 18:30