Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Cadillac Desert

Marc Reisner’s classic, Cadillac Desert, takes us for a walk on the wet side, revealing far more than you ever wanted to know about dams, flood control, irrigation, and municipal water systems — and the serious long-term drawbacks that came along with building thousands of water projects in the frenzied pursuit of short-term wealth and power.  It’s a brilliant, funny, and annoying expose of government corruption.  It’s an ecological horror story.  It’s a collection of powerful lessons for our society, lessons on how not to live, warning signs.

The western regions of the U.S. tend to be dry.  Agriculture is risky where annual rainfall is less than 20 inches (50 cm).  Locations like Phoenix, Reno, or El Paso, which get less than seven inches (18 cm), are especially poor places to settle, let alone build cities.

Native Americans in the west were blessed with excellent educations, and they wisely lived in a manner that was well adapted to the ecosystem, for thousands of years, without trashing it.  Europeans suffered from dodgy educations that celebrated the magnificent civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, all of which transformed lush oases into moonscapes and went extinct.  Almost all of these dead cities were hard-core irrigation addicts. 

Around the world, most civilizations arose in arid regions.  Desert soils were often highly fertile, because the nutrients were not leached out by centuries of significant rainfall.  Desert farmers did not need to clear forests before planting.  All they needed to do was add water.  Irrigation turned their deserts green, but it also accelerated the growth and demise of their societies.

By the late nineteenth century, Los Angeles was growing rapidly, but it was doing this by mining the groundwater, a practice that had no long-term future.  The city finished the Owens Valley project in 1913, which brought in water from 223 miles away (359 km), and included 53 miles (85 km) of tunnels.  Drought hit in 1923, and the head of the water department frantically urged the city to stop the growth immediately, even if this required killing everyone in the Chamber of Commerce.  They ignored him, so he began pressing for an aqueduct from the Colorado River.

To make a long story short, America built a couple thousand major dams between 1915 and 1975.  Many were built during the Depression, to put the unemployed to work.  In congress, water projects became an extremely popular form of “pork.”  A great way for me to get your support for my bill would be to amend the bill to include a water project in your district.  This got out of control, to ridiculous proportions.

Many worthless projects were built at great expense to taxpayers and ecosystems.  Corporate America refused to invest in dams, because they were unlikely to pay for themselves, let alone generate reliable profits.  So, the west became a socialist utopia, dominated by militant free market conservatives who adored massive government spending in their region, and howled about it everywhere else.

By the time Jimmy Carter came into office in 1976, the national debt was close to a trillion dollars, and inflation was in double digits.  It was time to seriously cut spending, and Carter hated water projects, because they were so wasteful.  He attempted to terminate 19 water projects, and promptly became the most hated man on Earth.  He was a president with above average principles, a serious handicap.

Ronald Reagan took a different principled approach — no more free lunches.  He thought that those who benefitted from the welfare should fully repay the government for the generous help they received, both capital costs and operating expenses.  States should pay a third of the costs of reclamation projects, up front.  Pay?  Legions burst into tears.  The keg was empty, and the party ended.

I was amazed to learn that Carter was special because of his sense of history.  “He began to wonder what future generations would think of all the dams we had built.  What right did we have, in the span of his lifetime, to dam nearly all of the world’s rivers?  What would happen when the dams silted up?  What if the climate changed?” 

Well, of course, great questions!  As victims of dodgy educations, our graduates do not have a sense of history, a tragedy for which we pay dearly.  What right did we have to build 440 nuclear power plants that cannot be safely decommissioned?  What right did we have to destroy the climate?  What right did we have to leave a trashed planet for those coming after us?  A sense of history is powerful medicine, an essential component for an extended stay on this planet.

We know that any dam that doesn’t collapse will eventually fill with silt and turn into an extremely expensive waterfall — no more power generation, no more flood control, no more irrigation.  Every year millions of cubic yards of mud are accumulating in Lake Mead, the reservoir at Hoover Dam.  Many reservoirs will be filled in less than a century.  In China, the reservoir for the Sanmexia Dam was filled to the brim with silt in 1964, just four years after it was built. 

We know that irrigation commonly leads to salinization.  Salts build up in the soil, and eventually render it infertile, incapable of growing even weeds.  This often happens after a century of irrigation.  Salinization played a primary role in the demise of the ancient Fertile Crescent civilizations.  China’s Yellow River Basin is an exception, because of its low-salt soil.  It’s a serious problem in the Colorado River Basin, the San Joaquin Valley, and many other places.  It’s sure to increase in the coming decades, following a century-long explosion of irrigation around the world.

We know that the Ogallala aquifer will eventually become unprofitable for water mining.  This ocean of Ice Age water lies primarily beneath Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.  Following World War II, diesel-powered centrifugal pumps enabled farmers to pump like there’s no tomorrow.  A 1982 study predicted problems after 2020.  When the irrigation ends, many will go bankrupt, many will depart, and some will return to less productive dryland farming, which could trigger another dust bowl.  Water mining has become a popular trend around the world, a short-term solution.

Stonehenge was built between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, and it was a durable design.  It had no moving parts, no electric-powered controls, and it was not required to prevent billions of gallons of water from normally flowing downstream to the sea.  How long will our dams last?  The Teton Dam did a spectacular blowout two days after it was filled.

Typhoon Nina blasted Asia in the summer of 1975.  Near China’s Banqiao Dam, a massive flood resulted from 64 inches (163 cm) of rain, half of which fell in just six hours.  The dam collapsed, and the outflow erased a number of smaller dams downstream.  Floods killed 171,000 people, and 11 million lost their homes.

In 1983, a sudden rush of melt water blasted into Glen Canyon Dam, damaging one of its spillways.  The dam did not fail that day.  It did not take out the Hoover Dam downstream with a huge wall of water.  It did not pull the plug on agriculture and civilization in southern California. 

As we move beyond Peak Oil, and energy production goes downhill, industrial civilization will wither.  It won’t be able to make replacement parts for dams, turbines, the power grid, and so on.  Will the nation of the United States go extinct some day?  The status quo in California is dependent on the operation of many pumping stations, which depend on the operation of hydro-power dams.  The Edmonston station pushes water uphill 1,926 feet (587 m), over the Tehachapi Mountains, using fourteen 80,000 horsepower pumps. 

As I write, the west coast is experiencing a serious drought.  Reservoirs in California are dangerously low.  Droughts can last for decades, or longer.  There is a good chance that climate change will increase the risks of living in extremely overpopulated western states.  So might earthquakes.

A wise man gave this advice to California governor Edmund Brown: “Don’t bring the water to the people, let the people go to the water.”

Reisner, Marc, Cadillac Desert — The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Penguin Books, New York, 1986.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Welcome to our all-you-can-eat buffet of eco-predicaments, a remarkable achievement brought to you by our old friend, technological innovation.  Our friend isn’t evil.  He’s a hilarious charismatic trickster who excels at making comical mistakes.  Every brilliant idea blows up in his face, flattens him with a boulder, or rockets him over a cliff.  He never gives up.  He never learns from his mistakes.  He never succeeds.

Like the trickster, Americans are famous for our manic techno-optimism.  Economic growth and material progress make us giddy with delight, and seventy-two percent of us believe that the benefits far outweigh the harms.  The planet doesn’t matter.  Technology will certainly enable the kids to have a somewhat life-like experience, riveted to their glowing screens.  A sane person can only conclude that we live in a world of illusions.

Techno-Fix, by Michael and Joyce Huesemann, takes us on a voyage through the hall of illusions.  It provides readers with magic x-ray glasses that allow us to see right through heavy layers of encrusted bull excrement and clearly observe our way of life in its bare-naked essence.  It delivers a super-sized serving of precious common sense that should be a central part of every youngster’s rite of passage, but isn’t. 

The human species invented techno-addiction, a dangerous habit that seems impossible to quit; we always need bigger doses.  This addiction has put quite a kink in our evolutionary journey, repeatedly blowing up in our face.  Science and technology are the mommy and daddy of most of our severe problems.  No other species has developed a fascination with endless growth.  The other critters have remained in balance for millions of years, limited by predators and food supply, nature’s brilliant time-proven design.

The Huesemanns note that we took a different path.  “Humans have used powerful technologies to escape these natural constraints, first by using weapons to eliminate large predators, then by inventing agriculture to increase food supplies, and finally by employing sanitation and medical technologies to increase their chances for survival.”

Our devious experiments at controlling and exploiting nature have created a thousand nightmares.  We’ve zoomed right past seven billion, giving the planet quite a fever.  Still, the mainstream mindset is convinced that life is always getting better and better, and that technology will overcome any challenges on our joyride to utopia.  We have no doubt economic growth can continue until the sun burns out, and nothing will ever slow us down.  According to Huesemann’s Law of Techno-Optimism, “Optimism is inversely proportional to knowledge.”

The mainstream mindset is so weird — it celebrates the benefits of technology, and steps around the stinky messes, pretending not to see them.  Innovation is never a free lunch.  Every benefit has costs, and it’s impossible to predict every unintended consequence.  When serious problems are discovered, we tend to resolve them with additional innovation, which generates additional unintended consequences.  We can delay paying the bills for our mistakes, but every debt must and will be paid.  It’s something like quicksand.

A century ago, the benefits of the automobile were immediately apparent, and the staggering unintended consequences were not.  This technology has caused huge damage to our health, our families and communities, the ecosystem, and the unborn.  Car problems are still growing, as billions of people in the developing world are eager to live as foolishly as Americans do.  The car and the television are our two biggest techno-bloopers, according to the Huesemanns.

Foolish fantasies are the deliberate consequence of the mass media and advertising, which are tremendously successful at persuading folks that the purpose of life is to transfer as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills.  “Needs” are what is necessary for survival and health, like food, shelter, and community.  “Wants” are things we have no need for, stuff we have sudden impulses to acquire.  They are infinite in number, constantly changing, generally frivolous, and often useless.

The path to consumer happiness and high status involves devoting a substantial portion of our lives to doing various sorts of work.  For many, the work is less than meaningful or satisfying.  The reward is trade tokens, which are used to acquire wants, and each purchase provides a brief consumer orgasm.  The thrill is soon gone, the gnawing returns, and we are compelled to go back to the mall and get another fix. 

No matter how hard we thrash our credit cards, we never arrive at our destination — wholeness and contentment.  “We are chasing a mirage, thereby remaining forever dissatisfied and unhappy.”  In the last 50 years, rates of depression in the U.S. have increased tenfold, and continue to rise (rates among the Amish are far lower).

Depression is also a result of our mobility and isolation.  Until the industrial era, most people spent their entire lives in stable communities, and formed long-term social bonds with the people around them.  Before the hell of automobiles, daily life included pleasant face-to-face encounters with others.  Before the hell of glowing screens, people spent little time sitting alone.

Luckily, technology has a daffy response for any problem.  It’s far easier to develop techno solutions than social solutions.  Rather than attempting the social challenge of creating a way of life that isn’t so lonely and dreary, technology can simply chase away depression and anxiety with happy pills.  It’s easier to build new road systems than it is to convince people to give up their cars.  It’s easier to provide life-saving surgeries than it is to encourage people to vacate their couches and eat a healthy diet.

The Huesemanns harbor special loathing for the medical industry.  It’s extremely expensive, and remarkably ineffective.  Intelligent, low cost preventative care is not the focus.  New treatments are constantly being developed.  The dead generate no profits, so we keep very sick people alive on machines; we transplant organs.  Death must be delayed by any means necessary, regardless of cost.  “If it can be done, it should be done.”  We need to remember that old age and death are normal and natural.

The last section of the book provides the theoretical solutions to our predicaments.  This plan requires world leaders that will eagerly cooperate in rapidly and radically reconfiguring the way we live and think.  It requires a humankind that is spiritually connected to nature, people who abhor pollution and mindless consumption, folks willing to make enormous sacrifices in order to ensure the wellbeing of future generations of all species.  Energy will be renewable, non-renewable resources will be shunned, and all wastes will be safely biodegradable.  The Huesemanns warn us that the transition might not be easy. 

Huesemann, Michael and Huesemann, Joyce, Techno-Fix — Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada, 2011.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Early white settlers on the high plains of the western U.S. were always bummed out when colossal swarms of locusts dropped by for lunch.  The sky would darken, and the land would be filled with the roaring buzz of millions of fluttering wings.  Within an hour or so, everything was covered with them, including the settlers, who frantically tried to brush off the hundreds of hungry insects that were chewing apart their clothing.

They were Rocky Mountain locusts, a North American species that lived west of the Mississippi — and the stars of Jeffrey Lockwood’s book, Locust.  When swarming, these insects were a horror show.  A swarm could devour 50 tons of greenery in a day.  Trains couldn’t move because the tracks were too greasy.  Swarms were like tornadoes, wiping out one area while leaving other neighbors in the region untouched.

In June of 1875, folks in Nebraska observed a swarm that was 1,800 miles long (2,900 km), 110 miles wide (177 km), and between a quarter and a half mile deep (0.4 to 0.8 km).  It devoured 198,000 square miles (512,000 sq. km), an area almost as large as Colorado and Wyoming.  The swarm took five days to pass.  Lockwood estimated that it might have been 10 billion locusts — possibly the biggest assemblage of animals ever experienced by human beings.

Normally, maybe 80 percent of the time, locusts stayed in their home base, in the river valleys of the northern Rockies, a habitat that may have consisted of a mere 2,000 acres (809 ha).  They ate, reproduced, and enjoyed life.

Periodic droughts would reduce the available food supply, causing locusts to crowd into pockets of surviving greenery.  Dry weather eliminated the population control provided by fungal diseases.  Drought also concentrated the nutritional value of vegetation.  Warmer temperatures meant that locusts grew to maturity more quickly, so they spent less time in the nymph stage, when predators took a heavy toll on the helpless youngsters.  The swarming process was triggered by crowding.  They could either starve or see the world.

A hungry swarm of two million American settlers moved into the high plains in the 1870s, and ravaged the short grass prairie with cows and plows.  They planted lots of wheat, and then discovered that locusts preferred wheat to everything else on the menu. 

They exterminated the bison that were perfectly adapted to the ecosystem, and brought in cattle that were unsuited for the arid climate, did not fancy the native vegetation, and died like flies during frigid winters.  They exterminated the wolves, and other wild predators, because they enjoyed owning and exploiting helpless dimwitted domesticated herbivores.

Settlers attempted to import their Western European way of life to an ecosystem where it could not possibly thrive.  Instead of trying to adapt to the ecosystem, they expected the ecosystem to adapt to their exotic fantasies — a traditional recipe for failure.  In their dream world, locusts were pests, wolves were pests, bison were pests — death to all pests! 

The Indians perceived locusts, wolves, and bison as being sacred relatives, not pests.  The Indians enjoyed a time-proven culture that was well adapted to the ecosystem.  Can you guess who the Indians considered to be pests?

Long ago, in the wilderness of Judea, there was a holy roller named John.  One day, he baptized a lad called Jesus.  The heavens opened up, a spirit appeared, and led Jesus away to the wilderness for a life changing 40 day vision quest.  The Baptist had a wild diet: “And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”  (Matthew 3:4)

To the Indians, locusts were not pests, they were a sacred source of nutritious food.  Their tasty flesh was rich with calories and 60 percent protein.  In an hour, they could forage 200 pounds (90 kg) of dried insects, storing away 273,000 calories.  It was faster, easier, and safer than hunting large, strong, speedy herbivores with sharp horns that took great pleasure in trampling and disemboweling hunters.

At the Great Salt Lake, Mormons discovered that locusts couldn’t swim.  Millions would drown, and then the winds would push their bodies to the shore, in piles six feet high (1.8 m) and two miles long (3.2 km).  As the corpses rotted, memorable fragrances wafted on the air.  While a tremendous source of excellent food rotted away, the settlers complained about the stink.

White settlers loathed the locusts.  Comically, everything they tried to exterminate the swarms failed — flooding, rollers, dynamite, trawlers, poisons, flamethrowers.  During the swarming phase, resistance was futile, the insects were impossible to control.

Eventually, entomologists were summoned to combat the insects with science.  Several chapters shine spotlights on famous entomologists who strove to understand locusts, and render them harmless to the devastating swarms of white settlers.

As more settlers moved into the high plains, the locust numbers declined.  There were fewer swarms.  Attention shifted to other challenges.  Eventually, entomologists realized that nobody had seen a locust in a long time.  The last Rocky Mountain locust died in Manitoba in 1902.  They went extinct, but folks didn’t notice for quite a while.  It was unimaginable that critters that existed in such enormous numbers could completely disappear within a few decades.

A number of half-baked theories attempted to explain the spooky extinction, but Lockwood was the one who finally solved the mystery.  He visited several “grasshopper glaciers” where layers of dead locusts could be observed, and found locusts that died 800 years ago.  Swarming was not caused by settlers. 

One day, he had an insight.  Monarch butterflies are vulnerable to extinction because the forests where they spend the winter are being eliminated, and this is a bottleneck.  The bottleneck for the locusts was their home base along northern river valleys — arable lands, exactly where whites preferred to settle.  Irrigation, tilling, and cattle grazing hammered the locusts where they were most vulnerable, home sweet home.

Entomologists around the world work tirelessly to discover new methods for exterminating agricultural pest species, and the insects always succeed in outwitting the wizards.  The Rocky Mountain locust is the one and only major insect pest to be completely wiped out, and they were driven to extinction unintentionally.

They were only “pests” in the eyes of the civilized.  Prior to white settlement, there were no plowmen, ranchers, pests, or entomologists, just a wild ecosystem living in its traditional manner.  Maybe entomologists should help us exorcist the pests in our nightmare worldview, teach us how to live in balance, and call an end to the futile poisonous war on our insect relatives.

Lockwood mused that crowding also inspires bizarre behavior in humans.  We have powerful urges to escape from the neurotic mob, and fly away to places of refuge, to pure unspoiled suburban utopias.

He noted that while locust populations sometimes soared to enormous peaks, vast numbers did not guarantee long-term survival.  He noted that the human population is currently at an enormous peak.  Both humans and locusts are generalists that can migrate and adapt.  Locusts dined on at least 50 varieties of plants.  Humans, on the other hand, largely depend on three plants: rice, wheat, and corn.  Will climate change be our bottleneck?

Lockwood, Jeffrey A., Locust, Basic Books, New York, 2004.

A 2:22 minute video of a minor locust swarm in Madagascar is here.

Lockwood’s condensed version of his locust story is here.