The American West at Risk: Science, Myths and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
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Amanda Witherell, "Two geologists on saving the earth,"
interview, San Francisco Bay Guardian (January 2009)
San Francisco Bay Guardian

This week we reviewed The American West at Risk, a recently-published tome that details how ongoing environmental issues are destroying the general livability of Earth for all species, including humans. In short, this book shouldn't just be on every wannabe Greenpeace activist's nightstand. Each of the 13 chapters explore one subject in depth -- forestry, mining, military operations, road building, to name a few -- and balances science with politics and reality to sharpen the argument for preservation of natural resources.

We spoke with two of the authors, Howard G. Wilshire and Jane E. Nielson, who will be reading and discussing the book with co-author Richard Hazlett on Thursday, Jan. 8 at Books Inc, 601 Van Ness Ave.

SFBG: I'm curious why you wrote this book and who you feel you wrote it for.

Howard G. Wilshire: We wrote it because the three of us, all geologists, have a great deal of experience working on environmental issues in the West and we were concerned about it. We get a lot of inquiries from reporters and lawyers and others about specific issues and we figured that since we're not going to be around forever we should write down our responses and make them available.

When we began the book we told Oxford University Press that we were writing it for nonscientists as well as for academic use, but they're pretty fussy and decided they would market it only as an academic book. But we wrote it for people who have a problem in their own backyard and want to get some background information on how to respond to it.

Jane E. Nielson: Or for decision makers and environmental lawyers. Often they are not people trained in science and they may not know all the ramifications. Reporters often don't know all the questions to ask when presented with some sort of a program that's going to improve things or they have a hard time figuring out what the answers mean. These are the kinds of people who would call us, as well as people from a citizens group who have some kind of major problem coming up and want to know what they needed to think about and what they should be concerned about. This is really the reason we wrote the book. There's a lot of expertise here and a lot of consideration of things that most people don't think about.

SFBG: One of the things that I've been struck by is the balance of science in the book. There are a lot of things here I've never heard of, like soil crusts, and it's been great reading about it and have it couched in deeper research. It gives some depth to the issues.

JEN: We've had some comments like that from classes where it's been used already -- mostly our coauthor's classes. He found that reading the chapters deepened the students' interest.

HGW: It upgraded their participation in class and their reports.

JEN: Usually it's hard to cover all of the connections. What we tried to provide are the societal connections, us as well as what we do, the decisions that are made, and how that is reflected in the environment.

SFBG: It seems like you've been able to bring in how the environment or nature is on its own course. Natural systems are taking information or effects from us and running with them. Climate change is kind of an example of that.

HGW: When we disturb the natural way of things usually the reaction of nature is to solve or reduce our problem, but instead it often gets worse.

JEN: Nature has to reduce its own problems first. What you said -- nature is running on its own -- is exactly the case. Natural processes created the environment for life and we take that for granted -- but we should not.

SFBG: So was it sort of a tactical decision to include the science or was it part of your natural perspective as geologists?

HGW: We are scientists, so that was our intent -- to bring the scientific basis for assessing environmental problems into the public arena.

JEN: Actually explaining the science -- explaining why the science supports protection of natural environments -- was really the most important thing we wanted to do.

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, often by opponents of it.

JEN: That's right, and for no reason. Economics have become more important. One of the things that we're trying to say is the environment is the basis for our economic wellbeing.

SFBG: You have a lot of recommendations in the book but do you think we'll need a massive catastrophe for people to come around?

HGW: If people don't come around we're going to have a massive catastrophe. We're straining the earth's systems to their limit

JEN: Our economic system is entirely based on the creation of materials. Material wealth comes out of the earth and the level of our lifestyle is entirely based on our consumption of resources. The thing that has allowed that to accelerate so there is even a middle class in many countries, including our own, is cheap energy. Petroleum. If that becomes less available, less cheap because it's less available, that is going to limit everything that we do. It's going to have a major impact. It's going to limit whether we can produce non-petroleum alternatives.

SFBG: The media has been really focused on the economy and it seems like people are sort of changing -- there's been a decrease in driving because of higher gas prices. Are we getting close to people comprehending that they can't just buy a new TV every five years?

HGW: I don't think it's a comprehension of that as much as it was the price of gasoline that caused the reduction in driving. The high price of oil, which is now plummeting, has caused all commodities to increase in price because it takes energy and oil is the energy of our choice.

JEN: It's always slippery. This is the weakness of a democracy: what do people actually conclude when they look at what's going on? I think Tolstoy put it very well in War and Peace -- he said the causes of phenomenon are so complex that people can't understand them. He was talking about history, but it applies generally -- people grasp at the most easy thing to understand and say this is the cause. Even petroleum economists, looking at their websites online, disagree about what's going on, but they do agree that our economic situation really parallels resource considerations. For example, it's probably no coincidence that the US went off the gold standard in the same stretch of years that the US reached its peak production of petroleum and really began to be unable to expand its gold supply. So that produced a constraint on how much more wealth could be created. So we went on to a different footing for our currency and that has lead to where we are now, by means that I won't go into.

We're just beginning to look at the financial aspects of this but we do know that worldwide we're reaching the peak of what can be produced in terms of petroleum and that will have massive ramifications. Whether we're really starting into the final downward plunge or whether we're just entering a spiral where there's a bubble and everyone feels good for awhile and then we hit another plunge like this --I can't answer the question as to what people really attribute this to. There are so many different attitudes out there and it's really hard to form a consensus, but that's what we're trying to do. We're hoping that people will start to realize that the resource part of the equation is critical.

SFBG: Do you think if people more fully realize that resources aren't infinite thriftiness will become more of the American lifestyle? You sort of touch on this in the book when you write about the mythology of the western frontier and this American freedom to do and be whatever we want. It seems like resource exploitation has sort of fostered that.

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. That's my optimism.

HGW: 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.

But the total resource depletion picture of the world is that we've got to change our ways, we can't just find something that's cheap and easy and go on doing what we're doing.

JEN: Because there isn't anything.

SFBG: That technological fix doesn't exist?

JEN: That technological fix doesn't exist. We have to realize that we have to adapt to limitations.

SFBG: So it's more of a cultural fix?

JEN: Definitely.

SFBG: President-elect Obama recently appointed some cabinet heads that have to do with some of he reporting that you have in your book. We have new heads for the Department of Interior, the EPA, the USDA. What are your thoughts on his picks?

JEN: Not very positive. We see a couple of people who are really into genetically modified organisms. We cut that chapter out of our book but it's on our website. It's a very bad prognosis for the environment, genetically modified organisms, and it's not a help to agriculture.

Steven Chu, who's been appointed to energy, I just learned the main thrust of his Helios project is trying to create genetically modified organisms that will extract oil more efficiently from Canadian tar sands. Of course, that has to be mined and will destroy a large tract of the boreal forest which is the lungs of the northern hemisphere.

HGW: That's a technological fix.

JEN: There's a lot of technological fix in what Obama is doing. Whether he can lead in the right direction or not, that's really the question. Lincoln couldn't lead in terms of emancipation until he realized that enough people had become convinced that abandoning slavery was one of the things that would help the North win the war. It's really hard for a politician, even if they see the direction that they need to be going -- and I'm not at all sure that he does see that -- it's very hard for them to lead unless people are convinced. It was very easy for the forces against the Clinton health initiative to defeat it when people didn't see what the alternative was going to be. Now that we see what the alternative was now there's a chance for leaders, decision makers, to lead us in the direction of something that's more universal. It really takes the people leading before an elected official can really take us in the direction. That's more of an answer to your question about what people are responding to -- they're responding to what's hurting them and they don't really know what it is.

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: And don't we see it now with the Wall Street bailouts? 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. It really took my breath away. It was probably the most surprising thing -- this is not something that is generally known and even I hadn't known to what extent it was true.

SFBG: It's interesting that not only is there a pattern of subsidies but they're for a very small percentage of people. You point out that grazing rights benefit a small minority of ranchers -- this isn't a large workforce for the country.

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. That is what the range wars were all about. At one point in the book we talk about how the new settlers drove the Indians out and then the less powerful members of those new settlers were driven out by big landowners -- the same kind of thing happens now. Who benefits from many of these laws? It's not the small farmers getting the water from the big water projects -- it's people exploiting the loopholes in all of those well-intentioned projects who dominate.

SFBG: So how can we flip this? Some of it is local but 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 we have got to stop this bleeding of our resources through subsidies.

JEN: A few states have adopted the clean election process where the money that's put in small amounts determine who the candidates will be. Arizona actually has a very good law.

HGW: And we've gotten some good people as a consequence.

JEN: And there's quite a balance. There are a lot of conservative people in Arizona who will support candidates to run. That's where a lot of the more innovative ideas are for more progressive laws -- in the sense that we really do conserve what we have, where really truly conservative laws come from. How fast we can do that, I don't know. It's a timing issue now. How much time do we have to make this change?

SFBG: I was at a talk the other day about how climate change is affecting Bay Area wildlife. Something that a couple of the speakers really stressed is that we've had these serious ongoing environmental problems, we've documented them, we know they exist -- loss of wetlands, water pollution, habitat destruction. These problems have been there for awhile, we know how to fix them, and we haven't done anything. Now, we have climate change making them worse. Your book really documents these problems and I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that.

JEN: Our only answer is a public uprising. People really do get the idea and start to react. People start realizing that politics is local -- whatever happens in Washington really does come back to bite them.

Right now, for example, California -- without having a state water conservation policy, without insisting that per capita uses be under control, without limiting the water use for agriculture -- is promulgating a policy to use recycled waste water under the state's clean water provisions, which are very old and very limited, without really investigating what it's going to do first. There's no precautionary principle in place. This could just add to the disaster that you've just described.

HGW: The problem is there are armies of self-interested people trying to line their own pockets who are pushing these projects. I think that the change can come only when people understand, really understand in their guts, that their welfare and their wellbeing and their economic wellbeing for themselves and the future, is in preserving natural processes that give us the things we need to live for nothing.

JEN: But they don't put money in anybody's pocket. They just give us what we need.

You're too young to know about a daily cartoon in the paper called Lil' Abner that was drawn by a guy named Al Capp. He invented an animal called the Shmoo. Shmoos gave people everything for free. You could use their eyes for buttons. You could use their whiskers for toothpicks. You could saw them up and build them. If you looked at them in a hungry way they'd fall down and, depending on how you cooked them, they tasted like lamb or pork or chicken, They gave you everything for free.

In the storyline of his comic the powers that be decided they had to be killed because nobody could make money off them. I'm not sure what he really meant. I don't think he was thinking of nature, but you could think of the natural world as a Shmoo. It gives us what we need if we work with it. If we decide we're going to conquer it then all those processes are working against us and we are killing ourselves with poisons. If we could accept our Shmoo and not need to make money off of it, live at a lower level and somehow factor the natural process into our economic model we would not be so rich, we would not be so mobile, but we would be healthy and maybe even happy.

SFBG: How much do you think population is part of the problem? You kind of talk about it a little bit but it's one of these subjects that doesn't get a lot of attention.

HGW: It's a major problem. In fact, the population of the world now is beyond the carrying capacity of the earth.

JEN: Three times beyond Earth's carrying capacity.

HGW: The earth can't support as many people as are on it. Our resource problems are basically population problems because there are so many people demanding so much and the earth doesn't have all that to provide.

JEN: We focus more on consumption because that is the United States' main contribution to this problem. I'm not saying the United States is not overpopulated right now, but our consumption level is so high compared to the rest of the world. It's said that if we tried to bring the rest of the world to our economic level we'd need three more earths. Part of that problem is we're using so much of the earth's resources and making it into garbage as fast as we can, putting it into toxic waste dumps, that's largely where our pollution problem comes from, which is also the global warming problem. It's all part of the same process.

SFBG: But Americans want to have babies as much as they want to drive cars and have new appliances. Again, it gets at that American freedom model of living.

HGW: Americans who realize what the cost of more babies will be in terms of reduced quality of life may help solve that problem.

JEN: That's a tough one. It's well outside our competence. People say the higher the standard of living the fewer children people have. Countries where there are very large populations and high population growth are still at subsistence levels.

It seems to me that to achieve the kind of balance that's really needed there would have to be some kind of government intervention. But look at the kinds of places where that has happened -- China, for example -- it's horrendous. That's something that's very hard to think of in terms of how Americans see the world. Full disclosure, of the three authors of this book, one of us doesn't have children at all, but between Howard and I we have five children and going on nine grandchildren. So, that's a real issue for all of us. One of the things we've tried to say in our book is we're looking at ourselves, too. We're not necessarily pure.

SFBG: I guess in the interest of my own full disclosure I don't have any kids but I feel really pessimistic about the future and that's part of my decision to not have kids. It will be interesting to see, as time unfolds, if more people become more pessimistic and that starts having an effect on population. It's a dismal, horrible thing to say, but...

JEN: And in which direction it starts to have an effect.

HGW: I think people in this country are going to become more pessimistic because of the financial difficulties they're running into and as the quality of living that they desire and have had disappears. That's going to lead to pessimism and certainly it will make a number of people think about family size.


JEN: Especially if they're educated. The level of education in this country has not been well supported. And there are religious groups that feel that the most important thing to do is go out and procreate. And evolution tells us that the ones who procreate inherit the earth. [Laughter]

So there is room for pessimism, I grant you. It's not proved that a system that lives in a more balanced way with the earth can make rational choices, but just on the off chance that could happen we felt that it was important to get this information out there. It's the only hope. It's a very narrow way.

E.O. Wilson has said there's going to be a strangle point. How can we slip through and come out on the other side and still have what we feel is the most important thing -- self-determination? It's a very big question.


The American West at Risk: Science, Myths and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

The American West At Risk summarizes the dominant human-generated environmental challenges in the 11 contiguous arid western United States - America's legendary, even mythical, frontier.

It now faces depletion of many of these resources, and potentially serious threats to its few "renewable" resources.

Purchase Here at Oxford Press



Dr. Howard G. Wilshire, Geologist; Dr. Jane E. Nielson, Geologist; Richard W. Hazlett, Geologist

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