In Other Words Los­ing Eden: An En­vi­ron­men­tal His­tory of the Amer­i­can West by Sara Dant

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Sandy Nel­son

Sara Dant cov­ers a lot of ground to con­vince read­ers that the Amer­i­can West was never a pris­tine, un­tram­meled Eden. In Los­ing Eden, she goes way back, be­fore the West even ex­isted, when Earth’s land mass was clumped into the mega-con­ti­nent Pan­gaea, and then to the be­gin­nings of life, the emer­gence of a hu­man species, and the mi­gra­tion of pre­his­toric peo­ples to the Americas dur­ing the last Ice Age. All this is back­ground for a rea­son­able as­ser­tion that hu­mans have shaped and al­tered the land­scape of the Amer­i­can West, have been molded in turn by its ex­tremes and lim­i­ta­tions, and now need to take a more mind­ful, sus­tain­able ap­proach to us­ing and in­hab­it­ing the re­gion. And that re­quires aban­don­ing ro­man­tic nos­tal­gia about a West that never was.

For most of the time peo­ple have lived in west­ern North Amer­ica, she writes, they did what peo­ple do: bend na­ture to their will and ex­ploit ev­ery avail­able re­source for group or in­di­vid­ual sur­vival and en­rich­ment. To feed their com­mu­ni­ties, the Ho­hokam peo­ple built canals to di­vert wa­ter from the Salt and Gila Rivers to nour­ish the crops they cul­ti­vated. An­glo ranch­ers later con­sol­i­dated huge ex­panses of low-cost West­ern land to raise live­stock for com­mer­cial gain, and ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries plumbed the re­gion for gold and other pre­cious me­tals, along with coal, gas, and oil.

“Na­tive peo­ples gen­er­ally lived lightly on the land but some­times pressed it be­yond its car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity,” she writes. “When Euro­peans and later Amer­i­cans ar­rived, then, they were en­gag­ing not with undis­turbed na­ture, as so many ar­gued un­til the 1990s, but these im­mi­grants nev­er­the­less por­trayed the West as an ‘Eden’ or Promised Land des­tined for them. … For some, the West ful­filled this di­vine ‘land of milk and honey’ vi­sion, but for many, the re­gion con­sti­tuted a harsh and un­for­giv­ing desert of arid­ity and strug­gle.”

The in­tro­duc­tion of pri­vate prop­erty up­ended the com­mu­nal sub­sis­tence economies of in­dige­nous cul­tures and left the West vul­ner­a­ble to unchecked plun­der by peo­ple act­ing in their own in­ter­ests and ig­nor­ing the best in­ter­ests of so­ci­ety as a whole. This de­ple­tion of com­mu­nal re­sources for per­sonal gain — what ecol­o­gist Gar­rett Hardin called the “Tragedy of the Com­mons” — was ar­rested by an­other west­ern anom­aly: the de­ci­sion to pro­tect mil­lions of acres from pri­vate devel­op­ment and man­age them for the pub­lic good.

Vi­sion­ar­ies like Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt, con­gress­men Frank Church and Ste­wart Udall, and pi­o­neer ecol­o­gists like Rachel Car­son and John Muir fought pas­sion­ately to save the West’s crea­tures from ex­tinc­tion and its forests, prairies, rain forests, and deserts from pol­lu­tion and habi­tat loss. Their legacy in­cludes na­tional parks like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yel­low­stone, and Glacier, along with mil­lions of acres of out­door play­grounds and pre­serves.

But the West is also where sci­en­tists tested the world’s first atomic weapons and later buried the ra­dioac­tive byprod­ucts of Amer­ica’s Cold War buildup. It’s where wild rivers were dammed to power hy­dro­elec­tric plants and cre­ate reser­voirs to sup­ply the needs of cities and towns that sprawled from its arid, in­hos­pitable soil. And it’s where low-im­pact recre­ation­ists seek­ing soli­tude and si­lence can’t seem to es­cape noisy, dis­rup­tive all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles.

None of the gains of the con­ser­va­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ments seem se­cure when the forces of ex­ploita­tion and preser­va­tion can’t rec­on­cile and when states and pri­vate in­ter­ests keep try­ing to wrest fed­eral lands from their care­taker agen­cies. This is where Dant makes her case: “The broad arc of deep his­tory re­veals the evolv­ing re­la­tion­ship between hu­mans and the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment in the West over time,” she writes. “As west­ern­ers tran­si­tioned from sub­sis­tence to mar­ket economies, and wres­tled with fron­tier and con­ser­va­tion-ver­sus-preser­va­tion ide­olo­gies, they ul­ti­mately ar­rived at a present char­ac­ter­ized by cli­mate change and sus­tain­abil­ity chal­lenges. … It is time for a new, col­lec­tive par­a­digm — what we might in­stead call a ‘tri­umph of the com­mons.’ Just as no one per­son is re­spon­si­ble for en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cline, no one per­son can hope to change the West’s — or the planet’s — en­vi­ron­ment.”

En­tire books have been writ­ten on the sub­jects that Dant tack­les in each chap­ter. The vol­ume of in­for­ma­tion she crams into 205 pages makes the book read at times like a text­book or doc­toral the­sis. But for some­one new to the area or un­schooled in West­ern politics, it’s a good place to start.

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