Marc Reisner’s 1986 Cadillac Desert occupies a unique space in LI’s mental bookshelf. We first read that book in 1992. This was three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. C.D. caused a wall to fall in our own mind – essentially, C.D. destroyed our faith in the central tenet of what you might call the positive economic aspect of Marxism. That tenet, for one hundred years, had been that rationality in economics was the equivalent of finding a way to minimize the social cost of economic activity, which in turn required government planning. No book that we have ever read has presented a more scathing picture of the largescale effects of government planning. If you read, say, interviews with Hayek, the man whose life work was devoted to attacking central planning, you will find that he retained the 20th century’s touching faith in the government’s ability to engineer the environment. Hayek expressly approved of such government programs as the dam building, largescale irrigation, and the lot. What C.D. did is put into question the results of those programs.
We are just beginning to understand those results. If presidential campaigns were truly about our real, long term problems, in 2000 Al Gore and George Bush would not only have mentioned Osama bin Laden at least once in their debates (did they? LI doesn’t have time to check), they would surely have talked, at length, about the disappearance of the Louisiana coast. We’ve already devoted several posts to this topic, and its multiple causes.
Another symptom of the coming of large scale environmental problems directly linked to the government’s engineering of the environment has been just over the horizon of visibility in the West. For the past five years, the West has suffered from a drought that could be more than a drought – it could be a change in the very equilibrium of the climate system in the West, a change to a much drier weather pattern. That would be eerily parallel to the beginning of C.D., which is a pondering of the end of the Anasazi Indian culture in the Southwest. That culture flourished over hundreds of years within a climate that favored agriculture – a climate that was suddenly transformed into a much drier climate.
Ed Quillen, in a retrospective review of C.D., quotes a marvelous paragraph from Reisner’s concluding chapter:
"We didn't have to build main-stem dams on rivers carrying vast loads of silt; we could have built more primitive offstream reservoirs, which is what many private irrigation districts did -- and successfully -- but the federal engineers were enthralled by dams. We didn't have to mine a hundred thousand years' worth of groundwater in a scant half century, any more than we had to keep building 5,000-pound cars with 450-cubic-inch V-8's. We didn't have to dump eight tons of dissolved salts on an acre of land in a year; we could have forsworn development on the most poorly drained lands or demanded that, in exchange for water, the farms conserve as much as possible. But the Bureau [of Reclamation] sells them water so cheaply they can't afford to conserve; to install an efficient irrigation system costs a lot more....
"But the tragic and ludicrous aspect of the whole situation is that cheap water keeps the machine running; the water lobby cannot have enough of it, just as the engineers cannot build enough dams; and how convenient it is that cheap water encourages waste, which results in more dams."
I do wonder how we will look back, in a hundred years time, at such social phenomena as Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S., perched in the fastest growing desert – for deserts do grow with climate cycles – in the West. Surely the hunger for water, in the next decade, is going to make large scale water projects irresistible – like selling Alaskan water, or Canadian Water, to the Las Vegas or Phoenix municipalities. Mining water like that will extend the unsustainable project of maintaining millions of more people in a desert environment to which they refuse to adapt. At least the Anasazi worked, as well as they could, with what they knew. We don’t have that excuse.