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Chapter Twelve of Marc Reisner's scathing indictment of the development of the American West, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, is titled "Things Fall Apart." That choice of a title pretty well summarizes the content of the chapter. Having taken the reader along for a centuries-old history of the region's "discovery" by European imperialists (mainly the Spanish) and the millennia-old occupation of these lands by what are now called Native Americans, and having provided copious details of the failure of successive governments over those centuries to properly manage and regulate the exploitation of the region's natural resources, Reisner now, in the book's final chapter, provides a sort of wrap-up of his history. In order to do this, he reiterates the failure of those of European ancestry, in stark contrast to the indigenous tribes that occupied the land for centuries before the Europeans' arrival, to adapt to the inherent limitations of the land. It is in Chapter Twelve that Reisner provides his exceedingly pessimistic outlook for the region's future, much of the water needed to sustain the region's growth having been largely wasted for so many years.
Reisner begins Chapter Twelve with a brief description of the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast expanse of land that begins in southern South Dakota and that stretches to the arid region of West Texas. Describing the experience of driving that expanse, and observing the seemingly endless series of flat plains on which are grown corn, sorghum, alfalfa, wheat, and cotton, the latter a particularly water-intensive crop, Reisner reminds the reader of the systemic misuse of this land by the United States throughout its history. A large part of the problem that condemns this region to a dismal future, Reisner suggests, is the role of capitalist economics in its development. The resources natural to the American West have historically been exploited according to economic factors, including interest rates and commodity prices established in remote financial centers. Throughout this chapter, as in the preceding chapters, the author emphasizes the long-term ramifications of treating the region's natural resources, especially water, which is, obviously, vital to every living creature, as artificial constructs designed to facilitate the growth of industries like mining and large-scale farming alien to a region where water is such a precious commodity.
Throughout his book, and again in Chapter Twelve, Reisner has emphasized the role of irrigation in developing the region economically. Irrigation, he points out, is essential for sustaining such large-scale agricultural activities, but it, again, was an alien concept introduced into the arid region for the purpose of facilitating the development of industries not native to the region. Reisner does not condemn the introduction of irrigation so much as conclude that its massive incorporation into the American West, rather than being gradually introduced in a more environmentally-sustainable manner, destroyed the region's long-term potential. Again, the economics of the situation provided the foundation for the scale of the disaster that is developing, but political considerations even trumped economics as a destructive force. As he wrote in this chapter,
"[T]he states had begged the government to build them dams for irrigation, and they had lobbied to keep the price of water artificially low, arguing that agriculture was the only stability they had. The opportunity for economic stability offered by the world's largest aquifer, however, was squandered for immediate gain. The only inference one can draw is that the states felt confident that when they ran out of water, the rest of the country would be willing to rescue them."
Deputy Chief of Planning for the Bureau of Reclamation Jim Casey serves in this chapter as, in Reisner's words, the Cassandra, having spent his tenure in government warning of the perils of unsustainable agricultural use and economic development. Casey, Reisner points out, was alone within the department he served in correctly foreseeing the dangers of manipulating the land through the use of dams and irrigation systems, but his warnings would be ignored. Unlike most, Casey saw an eventual end to the water supplies that sustained the region's growth. The culture of Texas, in particular, Reisner argued, remained painfully ignorant of the fragility of the land on which the politically-powerful state was built, and the author's reference to Texas' plans to reroute the Mississippi River as a means of compensating for the exhaustion of natural water supplies serves as the book's final epitaph.
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