Losing the West
“Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources”
By Amanda Witherell
Our society can’t continue functioning the way it does. Exploiting the natural abundance of resources in the western United States, without balancing the needs of nature, has lead to the myriad environmental problems outlined in The American West at Risk, a book recently penned by Bay Area–based geologists Richard W. Hazlett, Jane E. Nielson, and Howard G. Wilshire.
A thorough survey of environmental issues related to forestry, water, agriculture, mining, road building, outdoor recreation, waste disposal, military testing, nuclear energy, and warfare, the book was written from the perspectives of scientists, but told in such a way that the science makes the case for preservation by driving home the point that everything the human race depends on comes from nature. Ultimately, the authors stress that the solution is homegrown. “Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources.”
We caught up with Nielson and Wilshire by phone to discuss the book in anticipation of their visit to San Francisco this week.
SFBG It often seems like saving the world becomes an emotional or moral stance and less of a scientific one — or that’s how it frequently gets framed by opponents.
JANE E. NIELSON That’s right, and for no reason. Economics have become more important. One of the things we’re trying to say is the environment is the basis for our economic well-being.
SFBG Do you think that if people more fully realize that resources aren’t infinite, thriftiness will become more of the American lifestyle?
JEN It would be very desirable for people to realize that more, to have it taught in schools. How much time we have left to do that, I don’t know. I feel that once people do get an appreciation for the fact that life is going to be leaner, that the soil is really important, things can change very rapidly.
HOWARD G. WILSHIRE My pessimism is borne of the fact that they will have to respond quickly because we are on the brink of serious problems. Climate change is a big one and coping with that — the plans that are being endorsed now and pushed now by politicians and businesspeople — are that we’re going to have to find alternatives to cheap oil to keep on doing what we’re doing.
SFBG In the book you reveal a pattern of public commons being used to benefit a minority, whether its subsidies for big growers, cheap grazing rights, water rights for a handful of a farmers …
HGW It’s across the board.
SFBG How do we break these patterns of privilege, because it’s so ingrained it seems like an institutional problem?
JEN I have to tell you this is something that just sort of grew on us as we wrote the book. We knew about various subsidies, but the immensity of it and the pervasive pattern really only became clear as we progressed through the book.
SFBG It’s interesting that not only is there a pattern of subsidies, but they’re for a very small percentage of people.
JEN The whole history of land ownership in this country was intended to support the small person. The Homestead Act was supposed to give land to individuals, but most people failed at homesteading and there was no provision built in to prevent land from being gobbled up by big landowners.
SFBG So how can we flip this? Some of it is local, but for a lot of it these laws are federal.
HGW We have to take money out of the election system so we can get people free of monetary interest promoting their offices to do something useful. There are people who have the insight and the knowledge to know that we have got to stop this bleeding of our resources through subsidies.