Contemplating America’s desert civilization

ONE late November night in 1980 I was flying over the state of Utah on my way back to California.

Thus Marc Reisner began his 1986 book Cadillac Desert, quoted to this day in the West’s perennial water wars.

I remembered his lines this week as I myself was flying back from Utah to California, and also looking out of my window at the desert below, baked dead by the July sun.

[This note is cross-posted from my note on The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog.]

As Mr Reisner did then, I looked down and contemplated the barren mountains, mesas and buttes and the endless empty expanses of salt and sand, one of the most inhospitable wastelands in the world.

This is where Brigham Young and his Mormons had decided to make “a Mesopotamia in America”, as Mr Reisner put it. Then, in the early 20th century, the federal Bureau of Reclamation took over their work and dammed the West’s rivers to impose the will of America upon this desert.

There, on the horizon, I espied the result: Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, formed as the pathetically small, snaking trickle of the Colorado River runs into the Hoover Dam and backs up.

As Mr Reisner put it:

Thanks to the Bureau—an agency few people know—states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semitropic green.

The people in the states below my aeroplane are today among the most conservative in America. The tea-party movement thrives here. Big government is the enemy.

How ironic that the people are only on that land because big government first subdued it.

Then again, “subdue” may be a word from another time and worldview. The water wars have never really stopped (Californians will vote on another water bond in November, in the never-ending effort to bring water from where it rains to where the people live). And in the long run, as Mr Reisner might say, the desert may yet subdue the people.

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