The American West at Risk: Science, Myths and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
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Warren Hamilton, The Geological Society of London
Geoscientist, February 2009, p. 5005
© 2009 The Geological Society of London
reprinted with permission

Review of The American West at Risk

The western United States has been explored, exploited and settled by non-indigenous people, mostly within the last two centuries. Thousands of motion pictures, novels and political spiels have integrated mythic versions of that brief history with the magnificent landscapes. This book examines the real legacy - degradation, pollution, exhaustion of resources - of profligate development, and the wrenching changes looming as present lifestyles become unsustainable. The viewpoint is primarily that of geoscience, but discussions also probe biology, economics, politics and long-term effects. Topics given multidisciplinary treatment include deforestation, agriculture (soil, water projects, irrigation), grazing and range mismanagement, mining, roadbuilding, military exercises, waste disposal (domestic, industrial, radioactive), surface and ground water, climate change, resource exhaustion, the end of cheap energy (addressing the quantitative inadequacy of substitutes, including the dangerous nukes), and the hard choices that must soon be made as the problems go critical. Sample: many Western communities and much agriculture are dependent upon fossil groundwater that is being rapidly drawn down; then what? (Most Arab lands are among the many other regions facing this problem.)

Development has been guided by expediency, maximization of short-term private profit, indifference to consequences, and outright chicanery. Immediate costs that enable widespread degradation have been heavily subsidized by public funds, and some of the worst of that degradation is due to direct government actions. Long-term costs are charged to our grandchildren. We in the States suffered a barrage of presidential election disinformation from demagogues asserting that all we need do to reverse high fuel prices is to abolish the already-weak environmental constraints on polluting and extraction industries, and many voters with large automobiles and commutes from distant suburbs are swayed by this.

The three authors are distinguished geoscientists. Wilshire and Nielson are retired USGS research geologists, and Wilshire is Chairman of the Board of the activist organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Geologist Hazlett holds an endowed environmental-studies chair at Pomona College. They write authoritatively and clearly. Documentation is meticulous (150 pages of end notes and references follow the text), outrage is severely understated, and the tone is never shrill. Photographs, graphs, and tables are well chosen.

The book will be used as a textbook for multidisciplinary undergraduate environmental-studies classes, but professional scientists will find much that is new and of keen interest here. I learned a great deal from it, even though I have worked throughout the region during my long career. Politicians and lay audiences need the book's message but likely most will opt to maintain complacent ignorance.


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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