Science … does not compromise…. [It] forces ideas to compete in a
dynamic process. This competition refines or replaces old hypotheses,
gradually approaching a more perfect representation of the truth…. The
natural process of a bureaucracy … tends to compromise competing ideas.
The bureaucracy then adopts the compromise as truth and incorporates it
into its being.
John M. Barry, Rising Tide
This book focuses on the human-caused environmental woes of America’s 11 contiguous western states, its mostly arid western continental frontier. In the nineteenth century, penny pamphlets and dime novels mythologized the American west, making icons of its prospectors, “cowboys,” northwestern loggers, and wide open spaces. The west was free of encroaching neighbors and government controls, open to fresh starts. As Robert Penn Warren wrote, in All the King’s Men, “West … is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach … when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire … when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills…. ” But the “West” was more than gold and oil bonanzas—it was also a land of rich soils, bountiful fisheries, immense, dense forests, desert wonders, and sparkling streams. It is no myth that the western states were America’s treasure house.
The romantic myths related to “winning” the west tend to obscure both its basic objective of resource exploitation and the huge public expenditures that supported every aspect, bestowing fortunes on a few. Western resources supported U.S. industrial growth and affluent lifestyle, but now they are highly depleted or largely gone, and the region is in danger of losing the ability to sustain an even moderately comfortable future. Much of what we have done to these magnificent lands opened them to devastating erosion and pollution. Today, whole mountains are being dismantled to produce metals from barely mineralized zones. Entire regions may be devastated in the attempt to extract the last possible drops of petroleum. We soon could cut down the last remnants of ancient western forests, along with the possibility of ever again seeing their like. Large-scale farming has opened vulnerable western soils to erosion by water and wind, perhaps inviting another dust bowl era. Irrigating vast crop acreages has converted many of them to salt farms, perhaps resembling the conditions that spelled doom for the ancient Babylonian Empire.
The how and why of these risks—the past and impending losses—are the theme of this book, along with proposals, strategies, hopes, and even fantasies about how