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