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THE CALIFORNIA DROUGHT IS NOT OVER!
Rainstorms finally arrived in California, after a 14 month drought with no significant rain. But the big reservoirs are still pitifully low, and snow pack is less than a quarter of normal. Hundreds of thousands of acres will not be planted, and food bills will likely go up in North America, and possibly around the world.
This is the Radio Ecoshock special on the California drought, as a case study of what we can expect in many parts of the Earth. I’ve lined up 4 experts all with something new for you.
Dr. Peter Gleick is a climate and water specialist who has been warning this could happen for years.
Dr. Reagan Waskom is another water and agriculture expert from Colorado.
We connect with boots-on-the ground water conservation specialist David Schroeder in Montclair, right on the edge of thirsty Los Angeles.
Finally, we get back to the big picture, as Professor Jay Famiglietti at University of California Irvine warns of depletion of the ground water under one of the world’s biggest food producing areas. That’s a trend all over the world, as we race toward peak water.
PETER GLEICK: Is the drought climate change?
Our first guest is Dr. Peter Gleick. He’s president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, one of the world’s leading independent think tanks on water issues. Peter is also a scientist known around the world.
Peter introduced the term “Bellwether Drought” for this event. We know climate change threatens the water cycle. Scientists believe the wet areas (like the UK!) will get wetter, and the dry areas like California, will get dryer. So the dice are loaded for more droughts to occur in this major food producing area.
Dr. Gleick points out we could say this drought started in at least 2006. There have been several drier-than-normal years since then. Scientists have found records showing California has experienced droughts lasting more than a hundred years in the past, in the 1100’s for example.
So we may be asking if human-induced climate change has triggered this drought cycle. The causes of regional weather events are complex. We have ocean currents, natural cycles like El Nino and El Nina, and changes to the Jet Stream. All of those, especially the Jet Stream (as shown by the work of Jennifer Francis et al at Rutgers) can be influenced by climate change.
It’s a Bellwether event because whether or not we can nail down direct causation by climate disruption – it’s a sure test of what is likely during the coming decades. As in Australia, it is possible Euro-humans arrived in California during a cyclical wet spell that was bound to end. But have we hastened that process?
I also talk with Peter about desalination, it’s promises and obstacles. A new desalination plant has been build to feed the San Diego water system. But really, it’s so energy intensive and expensive that desalination cannot save the whole California agricultural system.
Peter Gleick is an influential scientist in many places. He talks about the global work his institute is involved in, and it’s heavy-duty stuff. It’s cool he Tweeted this program link out to his 11,000 plus followers.
DR. JAY FAMIGLIETTI: Looking at the drought from space.
When the rains don’t fall in California, every one checks their wallet for rising food prices. But rain or not, cities and farmers are pumping out California groundwater at an alarming rate. Thanks to new satellite science, now we know how much of that unseen wealth has been depleted. It’s a problem for farmers and all humans all over the world, as we grab water stored over the ages, to keep us alive right now. At some point, the water runs out.
When the federal government, and state agencies cut off water supplies, as they did just this past month, farmers don’t just roll over and die. All those who can start pumping up groundwater furiously. They’ve been doing that for decades, always at an increasing level. You may think ground water gets replenished with rains, but some of it was captured and contained over millions of years. When I have a glass of water in my village, that water is 100,000 years old.
So just like oil, ground water is a limited resource. When you run out, that’s it.
Amazing to tell, scientists can measure the rate of groundwater depletion in California from space. The twin GRACE satellites have shown the loss of mass in Greenland as the glaciers melt. Now scientists at the University of California Irvine report that California is setting new records for groundwater loss. The state is literally getting lighter.
Find out about the GRACE satellites here. Oh, and by the way, one of their top stories is the discovery that climate change is causing the Earth’s poles to migrate. Don’t believe that? Read about it here.
One result is the land starts to sink, once the water below is removed. That’s serious in the Sacramento delta, where so much of North America’s fruits and vegetables are grown. Once it goes too low, a rush of salt water, say from a storm surge, can take thousands and thousands of prime acres out of production.
Jay Familietti describes what we know. He says the average of prediction of when California will run out of groundwater at current rates is 60 years from now. After that, the glory days of big populations and big cities may be done. Some experts say it will come sooner than that.
That same story is being repeated, even worse, in countries like China and India. India is pumping out the water tables at an alarming rate. In both countries, as thousands of wells go dry, they drill deeper, and burn even more energy with bigger pumps, just to keep up. Some places are already out of water, and out of production.
Keep this story in mind as you build the big picture: peak groundwater. It’s coming.
By the way, I ask Dr. Famiglietti what happens to all the water we pump out for our fields and cities. Some of it goes into the ocean, to become salt water. The warmer atmosphere can hold 4% more water vapor already, since 1970, and that’s a huge amount. Other water ends up falling in those places that are already wet.
Read a key article by Dr. Famiglietti “Epic California Drought and Groundwater: Where Do We Go From Here?“. And check out his LA Times Op-Ed from 2013, “California’s water house of cards“.
DR. REAGAN WASKOM – Feeding the western food supply
I was referred to Dr. Waskom by Michael Cohen of the Pacific Institute. Even though Waskom is the University of Colorado in Fort Collins, he’s one of the country’s wisemen when it comes to water supplies and our food system.
Reagan Waskom is the Director of the Colorado Water Institute, and Chair of the Colorado State University Water Center.
It turns out Colorado supplies much of the water to Southern California. We are not talking about the big food production areas, but more the heavy populations in places like Los Anglees. So what happens in Colorado matters a lot to California.
The good news is there is a heavy snow pack this year in Colorado. How useful that is depends on how fast the snow melt is, among other factors.
I ask Dr. Waskom what happens if California really is in a long-term drought. Could we replace all that food with farming somewhere else in the country?
Dr. Waskom has also been studying the big use of water by the fracking industry. We touch on that.
My final question is more personal: “You’ve taught a lot of students, and graduate students. Do you think young people are more disconnected from natural reality than when you were growing up?”
DAVID SCHROEDER on the ground outside of LA
I wanted to get you some reporting from right on the ground in southern California. Acting on a tip from a Radio Ecoshock listener, we’ve reached David Schroeder. He’s a Water Conservation Specialist with the Chino Basin Water District. That’s based in Montclair California, right on the edge of one of America’s biggest cities, Los Angeles.
We talk about where water for southern California comes from, and what to do when it doesn’t. Dave specializes in getting the public involved in tearing up grass to install natural vegetation, to use less water in the home, and so on. There isn’t much farming left in the south of the state. Now the challenge is huge cities and endless suburbs.
Dave lives in the mountains that used to be white with snow in winter, when I lived in L.A. many moons ago. No snow there this year he reports. That’s not good news for the coming fire season, for anything.
Download/listen to this 10 minute interview with David Schroeder in CD Quality
That wraps up my Radio Ecoshock special on the California drought, 2014. I hope you learned, as I did, about where our water comes from, where it’s going, and the dangerous tightrope we walk trying to feed a growing world population during climate disruption.
Radio Ecoshock is provided free to more than 75 non-profit radio stations. I depend on your financial help to keep going. Find ways to support this program in this blog, and at the show archive and web site, ecoshock.org
I’m Alex Smith. As always, thank you for listening, and caring about your world.
Photo: Lending Memo.
In the Western World, growth is our mantra. Our schools, our religions, our governments, our businesses, all our institutions bombard us with the same message that to be all that we are meant to be means we have to grow.
Growth in and of itself can be a good thing, but unfortunately the growth that can be our doom is material growth, which has limits.
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Jossey-Bass, 240 pp, hardcover, $19.95.
So instead of thinking for ourselves – we take these messages literally and we over feed our bodies and become obese; we fill our cities with ever expanding populations, we produce more and more babies filling our planet with people; and to try and meet our never ending demand for more and more stuff, our economies drive us to consume more and more resources. As a result, there is little space left for anything else but the material expansion of the human race.
This pure focus on material growth however leaves most of us feeling empty, lonely, hurt, angry, and numbed. So how did we get this way, why have we forgotten how to think for ourselves?
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, provides a good explanation of why we are stuck in a meaningless pattern of growth. The book points out how healthy cultures value two halves of life, but in our postmodern culture we discourage people from growing up.
In the first half of life, our external laws, traditions, customs, boundaries, and morality form a container that helps to shape who we will become. They also provide us with the friction we need to move on and develop our own inner guidance systems that lead us beyond these simple, limited guidelines appropriate to the first half of life but that fall apart when applied to our complex world later on.
As we move through life and experience the struggles that life throws at us – our brushes with the law, our failed relationships, and our other failures – we begin to realize that simple rules and regulations, or escapes, do not isolate us from the struggles in life, or the pain they bring us.
It is by embracing these falls – these failures – that we begin to see the limits of first-half-of-life thinking. We learn to live in tension, instead of searching for ways to avoid it. We learn to transition from conditional love based on compliance, into an unconditional love based on connection. Instead of repeating mistakes over and over again, we embrace our mistakes and learn to try new ways.
That is how real growth occurs – not by clinging to old ways, old rules, or old moralities. That is how we move beyond the limits of our egocentric first half of life.
Yet, by now, it might just be that the friction that all this control produces is reaching a point where the resulting heat can melt down these immature structures of hierarchy. And from the ashes we can rise up to reclaim our second half of life – to really grow up.
As Rohr reminds us,
No one can keep you from the second half of your own life except yourself. Nothing can inhibit your second journey except your own lack of courage, patience, and imagination. Your second journey is all yours to walk or to avoid…some falling apart of the first journey is necessary for this to happen, so do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting, lost job, failed relationship, physical handicap, gender identity, economic poverty , or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal. If you don’t walk into the second half of your own life, it is you who do not want it.
This piece originally appeared on Ecological Leadership.
– Tom Jablonski, Transition Voice
For millennia the presence of humans on planet Earth hardly made a dent in its ecosystems. Humans were at the mercy of their environment as much as any other creature. But with the advent of agriculture, humans began to influence the planet in major ways. Some scientists posit that the clearing of large swaths of land for planting over the past 10,000 years released enough carbon into the atmosphere to delay the next ice age.
Of course, in the past two centuries the pace of those carbon releases has grown exponentially with the industrial revolution through the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions now threaten to flip the planet into a warm state far beyond anything experienced by humans in their relatively brief time on Earth. The question we must now face is whether humans still live in “the environment” or whether they now are“the environment” by virtue of their actions.
The distinction mattered little as long as we didn’t live in what economist Herman Daly calls “a full world.” The introduction to his piece “Economics in a Full World” which appeared in Scientific American in 2005 states: “The global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem.”
And, pretending is all we’ve been doing since the dawn of humans. As it turns out, the biosphere that is our home has been shaped by the very organisms that inhabit it. For example, about 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria which are capable of photosynthesis appeared and began absorbing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and releasing oxygen in great quantities back into it. The period has been dubbed The Great Oxidation Event, and it wiped out most anaerobic bacteria (because, of course, they can’t survive in an oxygen environment). As a result, The Great Oxidation Event is regarded as one of the largest extinction events of all time.
We see the imprint of living organisms shaping the biosphere everywhere. The carbon cycle–the very basis of life as we know it–involves plants and microorganisms both on land and in the sea. Even our human bodies are part of it as we breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Shell-making aquatic organisms use carbon and calcium from seawater to make their shells. When these organisms die, their shells sink to the ocean floor where they become part of the vast carbonate-rich deposits of sedimentary rocks.
And there is the nitrogen cycle, a cycle critical to the survival of all living things. None of us can live without the nitrogen needed to build the proteins and the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) we depend on for our functioning. Nitrogen in the atmosphere, however, cannot be utilized by plants. But, it turns out that soil bacteria convert this nitrogen into a form that is usable for plants and therefore usable for the animals that eat those plants. (Lightening also performs this transformation.)
So the principle is that organisms are both acted upon by their environment and act ontheir environment. They both adapt to their circumstances and attempt to alter those circumstances to enable them to survive and thrive. There can be no doubt that humans do this. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that all organisms will survive, at least not in their current form. And, that’s how we get evolution on Earth. Organisms gradually change over time or go extinct if they cannot adapt quickly enough to changing circumstances or alter those circumstances enough to allow their survival.
All organisms are continuously acting both to adjust to surrounding circumstances and to shape those circumstances. This is a key insight. We earthbound organisms are not, as Darwin implies, mere helpless actors. Each of us has a role to play in maintaining the web of life. This conclusion is logical. How can we say that wolves are influencing the evolutionary development of sheep without saying sheep are influencing the evolutionary development of wolves?
What can we now say about “the environment” when the dominant force shaping it us? We have interfered in the carbon cycle in a profound way, vastly speeding up the introduction of carbon into the atmosphere and the oceans (ocean acidification). What can we now say about the nitrogen cycle after 1905 when Fritz Haber figured out how to convert nitrogen from the air into a form usable for plants–a discovery that led to modern-day nitrogen fertilizers that have greatly expanded the food supply and thus allowed human populations to skyrocket?
But, runoff laced with these same fertilizers is responsible for the eutrophication of bodies of water. And, it turns out that the long-term use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers actually reduces the productivity of the soil. One affectless but nevertheless ominous observation from recent research on the subject summarizes the problem: Long-term nitrogen fertilizer use “has been implicated in widespread reports of yield stagnation or even decline for grain production in Asia.” (For a fuller summary, see this piece inGrist.)
To every action there is a reaction. It just may not show up right away.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times Erle Ellis, a biologist, embraced the idea that there is no “environment” that constrains human action. Here is the heart of his argument:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.
Ellis is one of the few scientists I’ve read who understands that what we humans are doing to the Earth is really a political issue–notice that he invokes social science. And, he has given his advocacy services over to the side that proclaims that perpetual growth in the human domain is possible. To repeat: His conclusion stems not from mere natural science, but from social science, that is, the realm of the political.
But, he makes two obvious errors in his piece when he proclaims: “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish.”
He is referring, of course, to the classic illustration of the petri dish which ultimately runs out of food for the hungry, multiplying bacteria it contains, and that leads to a population crash among the bacteria. His error is in assigning agency only to humans, in assigning the ability to shape our environment only to humans. And yet, as a biologist who must know the history of planet Earth, he is being disingenuous. Remember the humble cyanobacteria and the huge destruction it wreaked on other forms of life. Ellis says in the previous excerpt: “Humans are niche creators.” But, so are all other organisms on the planet, a rather glaring omission. This is, in fact, a key similarity between us and bacteria.
What Ellis imagines is that humans will always and everywhere be successful at creating new niches for themselves–that all the other organisms on the planet will somehow accommodate us enough to allow the human species to grow continuously and its extractions from the rest of the natural world to grow with it. He is right that humans have always altered the biosphere (as has every other organism). But he seems not to understand the current scale of alterations and the rapidity with which they are taking place. Scale matters. Remember Herman Daly’s admonish that we live in a full world. And, that world is on course to change its climate dramatically in just a few decades. Such a time line is unprecedented in human history.
Ellis again has a scientific lapse by simply dismissing the competition and cooperation from other species as inconsequential–for example, competition for basic resources such as food and water and cooperation from such species as bees which pollinate the lion’s share of the world crops. He is too dismissive of human-induced changes in the oceans, the soils and the atmosphere as something humans will always and everywhere be able to survive.
He tells us that 200,000 years ago humans started to transform the planet. What he fails to mention is that it has not been a one-way trajectory skyward. About 70,000 years ago, probably because of climate change, human numbers were likely reduced to just 2,000. The lack of genetic diversity in humans has long pointed to such an event. All of us today come from those 2,000.
But, of course, we’re better equipped than those humans. And today, with our unparalleled knowledge, we wouldn’t foolishly undermine the systems in our biosphere that are critical to our well-being, would we?
Ellis writes with the vast overconfidence of someone who thinks he knows the future with certainty and that humans will always figure something out no matter the scope or rapidity of the changes they face. In his opinion piece he gushes: “Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future?” Actually, nobody knows.
But, we humans are not “in charge” of the biosphere. We are only competing and cooperating with various parts of it in a struggle to survive and thrive. Isn’t it obvious by now that the biosphere does not always do what we want it to do and only what we want it to do? It’s as if the law of unintended consequences has never occurred to Ellis.
Given that we know now that all organisms try to remake the biosphere to their liking, this should make us far less confident that we can make everything turn out just fine for humans. Keep in mind that we face a bewildering and essentially incalculable array of actors with whom we are forced sometimes to fight and sometimes to cooperate. In fact, we cannot even know what all of them are and probably are only familiar with a small sliver of all that lives. Our knowledge of the biosphere and the Earth is not just imperfect, it is wildly imperfect. If we’re so smart, why didn’t we avoid changing the climate, devastating the fisheries, degrading the soil through rapid erosion, and lacing the air, water and soil with toxic chemicals in the first place?
Even though Ellis is right that there is no fixed human carrying capacity–because humans, their social and technological circumstances, and the world of other organisms and Earth processes are changing all the time–this is but a red herring. No bona fide scientist has said otherwise. When most scientists refer to human carrying capacity, they mean long-term carrying capacity; they mean thousands of years. And, Ellis never even contemplates the possibility that this fluctuating human carrying capacity might go down! The human story forever goes upward (except, for example, 70,000 years ago, when, due to climate change, it didn’t).
So we have a semantic sleight-of-hand that ducks the long-term problem and places Ellis (whether he knows it or not) firmly on the side of interests that only think short-term, primarily the industrial and commercial interests. We are back to politics, again. With which interests should we ally ourselves? The well-being and futurity of the human race or the short-term interests of powerful elites?
William Catton Jr., author of the ecological classic Overshoot, prefigured the coming of the Anthropocene, an age of the Earth dominated by human actions–where menacing geological changes such as changes in the chemistry of the ocean and the atmosphere take place by dint of human action and within a human lifetime. Catton gave humans a new name, homo colossus, a human-tool hybrid with immense power to shape the globe. With worldwide geologic changes coming this fast, what will it mean from now on to refer to the geologic time scale?
If we are indeed already in the Anthropocene, then “the environment” cannot be “out there.” And, it cannot be “preserved.” The environment is us and everything else together constantly in flux. It is no longer a static scientific construction, but a political one within which we humans are firmly situated along with all the other organisms and Earth processes. We cannot be above or apart from it. We cannot “save it” as actors from beyond.
But, we can decide which values we want to defend. With apologies to some of my geologist friends who understand rightly that the human project on planet Earth will just be a blip in Earth’s history–please stop identifying with the rocks! Rocks are an excellent area of study; and, we have geologists to thank for much of what we know about Earth’s systems. But, the time has now come to realize that that knowledge has political implications for what we as humans will actually do from here on out.
The advent of the Anthropocene has wiped out the distinction between human history and natural history. And so, my minor temper tantrum over geology applies to all the other natural sciences. There is no distinction between us and the natural world. There is just the thin membrane of life and life processes clinging to the Earth’s surface which we call the biosphere and of which humans are merely a part.
It has always been thus. But now, it is imperative that we understand this if we wish to salvage anything we call human in the century to come.
P.S. The inspiration for this piece comes from Bruno Latour who gave the Gifford Lectures last year, particularly the third and fourth lectures. And, I thank my friend Jim Armstrong for some thoroughly stimulating discussions about these lectures and Latour’s latest work.
As we embark on a new year, it’s important to keep the really big elements of our global predicament squarely in mind. To that end, we’re surfacing this excellent discussion on population growth that Chris recorded in 2012 with Bill Ryerson of the Population Institute.
At the heart of the resource depletion story that we track here at PeakProsperity.com is the number of people on earth competing for those resources.
The global population is more than 7 billion now and headed to 9 billion by 2050. If world population continues its exponential growth, when we will hit planetary carrying capacity limits with our key resources (or are we already exceeding them)? What are the just, humane, and rights-respecting options that are on the table for balancing the world’s population with the ability of the earth to sustain it?
Population management is an inflammatory issue. It’s nearly impossible to discuss without triggering heated emotions, and rare is the leader who’s willing to raise it. And by going unaddressed globally, the risk of problems created by overpopluation grow unchecked. War, poverty, starvation, disease, inequality…the list goes on.
Which is why we feel we need to have the courage to address this very important topic directly. And to have an adult-sized conversation about these risks and what can done about them.
In this podcast, Chris talks with Bill Ryerson, founder and president of the Population Media Center as well as the president of the Population Institute. They explore the current forecasts for world population growth, the expected future demand on world resources, and the range of options available for bringing them into balance sustainably.
We are adding about 225,000 people to the dinner table every night who were not there last night. So that is net growth of the world’s population on an annual basis of a new Egypt every year. In other words, 83 million additional people net growth annually. And that, from a climate change perspective alone, is a huge increment. Most of this growth is occurring in poor countries, so on a per-capita level, the people being added to the population have much lower impact than, say, if Europe were growing at that rate. But nevertheless, just from a climate perspective, with most of that 83 million additional people in low per capita greenhouse-gas output countries – this is between now and 2050 – at this rate of growth, it is the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.
Clearly resources like oil, coal, and gas are non-renewable and will eventually run out or become more and more expensive and therefore not reliable as a source of energy. But what is the renewable long-term sustainability or the carrying capacity of the environment in each geographic territory, and globally? What is the current and projected future human demand for those resources, and do we have sufficient natural resources to meet our needs?
Doing this kind of accounting is not difficult. There are very good robust scientific designs for measuring resource capacity and human demand, and projecting out what do we need to do in some time in the next few decades in order to get from what is clearly population overshoot to achieving something that is in balance. Because as long as we are in overshoot – and the global footprint network’s calculation is we are now at 50% overshoot – that means we are digging into the savings account of our ecological systems, as you mentioned: the fisheries being one, forests being another. We are eating into the capital to sustain the growing population.
They also explore why population management is such a uniquely controversial topic. Not only are moral, civil, and religious beliefs in play, but the debate is also heavily influenced by large corporate and governmental organizations protecting their interests. So it’s no wonder that a calm, respectful, and reasonable conversation on population remains so elusive.
But we’re going to try to have one here.
Needless to say, our moderators are on high alert and will step in if they are needed. Thanks in advance for your conscientious, levelheaded, and respectful comments. We have the chance to do substantial thinking on some really meaty questions here. Let’s make good use of it.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Bill Ryerson (46m:26s):
Lawsuit filed against Canadian government over endangered wildlife and Northern Gateway : thegreenpages.ca
Vancouver — Environmental groups are taking the federal government to court over its continued failure to meet its legal responsibilities under the Species at Risk Act.
The groups argue that a number of industrial projects, including the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker route, are putting threatened and endangered wildlife at risk. The case will be heard by the Federal Court in Vancouver January 8 and 9.
“The federal government’s chronic delays in producing recovery strategies for Canada’s endangered wildlife are forcing species already struggling to survive to wait even longer for the protection they desperately need,” said Devon Page, Ecojustice executive director. “Worse, not having these recovery strategies in place makes it impossible for regulators to consider the full environmental impact of major projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline.”
The lawsuit challenges the federal government’s multi-year delays in producing recovery strategies for four species: the Pacific Humpback Whale, Nechako White Sturgeon, Marbled Murrelet and Southern Mountain Caribou. The habitat for all four species would be impacted by the construction and operation of the Northern Gateway pipeline, among other proposed developments.
By delaying the recovery strategies, and therefore delaying identification of the critical habitat it must then protect, the federal government is making it easier for projects like Northern Gateway pipeline to speed through regulatory review without a full understanding of their long-term impacts on these wildlife species and their habitat.
The government delayed its final recovery strategy for the Pacific Humpback Whale until this past October, more than four and a half years past its due date, and far too late to be considered by the Joint Review Panel (JRP), which recommended in December that Cabinet approve Northern Gateway.
That recovery strategy identifies toxic spills and vessel traffic as two threats to the humpbacks’ survival and recovery. The recovery strategy also shows how the whales’ critical habitat overlaps significantly with the proposed tanker route for the Northern Gateway pipeline — all pertinent information that should have been considered during the review hearings.
“This recovery strategy clearly demonstrates that Northern Gateway would have a significant impact on humpback whales and their habitat, yet by the time this science was released it was too late for it to be considered by the JRP, which calls into question the credibility of the review process,” said Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director with Sierra Club BC.
More than 160 other at-risk species — including the Southern Mountain Caribou, another species that will be impacted by Northern Gateway — still await the release of their recovery strategies.
America was not infinite; it only seemed that way to early European explorers, conquerors, and settlers for whom the size of the known world had suddenly doubled and the quantity of effectively unclaimed resources increased by far more than that. This sudden immeasurable and unearned abundance, it is clear, authorized a new set of cultural practices that would not have been deemed appropriate by a people confronted by visible boundaries and limits. But I am less concerned with past crimes than I am with the beliefs and expectations that lead us into the future. The stories we continue to tell ourselves about the discovery of America, its conquest and settling, the Enlightened awakening from an age of unreason are similar to those that helped develop and profoundly shaped a new way of thinking about the world whose main contours are still in place today. The remaining question is how deep beyond these specific practices and habits of consumption does the false image of the infinite run? Our way of life is clearly not sustainable; but what if our way of perceiving reality–our fundamental political, economic, even scientific categories—were also inalterably deformed by the false image of an infinite land? Is philosophical Liberalism compatible with a finite planet and a way of life designed to live on it? How fundamental are the changes we must make in order to recast the American way of life to fit on a finite, increasingly crowded, planet?
In his one and only full book, Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson provide clear evidence to the first point, that American cultural practices were shaped by this terrible misconception of limitlessness, even if its most destructive and inescapable consequences might come home to roost only decades, even centuries later. In a brief aside in Notes on Virginia, Jefferson contrasts European and American farming practices. Unlike European agriculture, which he admits is more intensive and careful in its approach, the character of American agriculture is formed by the fact that a parcel stripped of its fertility can be abandoned for another: “The indifferent state of that [careful agricultural practices] among us does not proceed from want of knowledge merely; it is from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please. In Europe the object is to make the most of their land, labour being abundant; here it is to make the most of our labour, land being abundant.” This is an astonishing admission by Jefferson; and it is indicative of a remarkable culturally-, or perhaps geographically-conditioned lack of foresight, the apparent unimportance of the question: how much land we might really “waste as we please?” The same lack of foresight appears in most discussions over energy and the environment today, even as we can calculate their finite nature with considerable accuracy. Ours is a history of a certain kind of success enabled by a particular kind of miscalculation.
Am I making too much of an off-handed remark, a moment of hyperbole buried in an otherwise dry and rather boring recitation of fact and figures about the commonwealth of Virginia? I don’t think so and for a number of reasons significant to our topic. Jefferson’s statement about the wasting of land and the constant push westward to find new land was not an obscure sentiment, but was the basic policy and practice of Southern planters. George Washington’s description of plantation management was similar:
“a piece of land is cut down,” its forests stripped away, so that it can then be “kept under constant cultivation, first in tobacco and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it will yield scarcely anything (quoted in Kennedy 17). At that point, it would be abandoned in favor of new land obtained at the ever-receding frontier. As historian Robert Kennedy shows in his book, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, the life of colonial planters was far more mobile and unsettled than the image of old southern families would suggest: “the evidence of local records in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi indicates that the average planter family moved at least twice in a generation,” while the wealthiest planters engaged in ramped land speculation across the western frontier. The result, as Kennedy argues, was “a migrant agricultural capitalism with results deadly to humans and to the land itself.” “As the practice of working soil to death and slaves to exhaustion was repeated over and over again, the desolating army of King Cotton moved on a broad front across the South, drawing people away from home and leaving blighted hopes behind. By 1847, the first cotton lands planted in Georgia were already exhausted; the number of white farmers in Wilkes County fell by half in twenty years” (21, 14, 21-2). This practice was made possible by the low price of abundant land. As Jefferson remarked, “we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one” (12).
This cycle of careless over-use, destruction, and self-displacement was repeated most rapidly by the wealthiest Southern Planters with huge land holdings and thousands of slaves, all of whom were focused on commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton. But these wasteful practices, and an accompanying ideology of short-term profit, can be seen throughout the American experience, from the first fur traders to the fracking industry today. In a chapter entitled “The Economics of Extinction,” in her beautiful Reflections from Bullough’s Pond, Diana Muir tells of the pre-colonial trade in beaver pelts, a trade driven by European fashion, the debt held by many early European settlers, and by the precarious and constant need to hold a surplus against the vicissitudes of life in a foreign land where, as Muir puts it, the Europeans, like us, believed that “one could never pile up too many goods” (11). Between around 1630 and 1675 all the beavers in New England were turned into coats and hats, hunted into extinction.
The loss of beaver however did not spell only the end of a lucrative trade, but the dying of an entire ecosystem that was responsible for the initial abundance experienced by the first settlers, as well as the entire way of life for the Native Americans. The beaver pond, after all, provides habitat for hundreds of species as well as an entire microscopic universe. As Muir describes it, the dead leaves that fall into the stagnant waters of a dammed stream creates algae, which in turn produces “food for the tiny creatures that feed the small fish that feed big fish that feed the majestic osprey. . . . Sedge, moss, arrowhead, pickerelweed, water milfoil—every plant between the ferns far up the bank and the duckweed floating on open water is home to some animal or its young, a necessary food for some growing thing” (6). But the loss of the beaver, nature’s greatest architect and landscaper, has an even greater geographical and hydrological impact upon the land, and in a way that directly affects an agricultural people. A beaver dam is a wonder of water management, moderating “the seasonal extremes of rainfall, trapping the rains of April to release them in slow, even seepage through the hot, dry days of summer and early fall” (6).
When settlers first arrived, Muir notes, New England was home to tens of thousands of beaver ponds. As important as the slow release of water, moreover, was the way millions of gallons were held behind the dams, creating a constant seepage into the ground. The result: a “reservoir of ground water so abundant that it burst in ever-flowing springs [even] on the beach,” a ground water source necessary to all “the abundance of every kind [that] impressed the first Europeans to reach these shores, abundance of strawberries in the fields and of deer in the woods, abundance of trees, and an astonishing abundance of fresh, clear water” (7). The beaver gone, the forests felled, the ground turned into fast-eroding fields, this became the hardscrabble New England that we know today. But it scarcely mattered to the European settlers; rivers could be turned into industrial mills and new land could be acquired further west, with little cost to this new economics of extinction that had great and varied abundance to churn through. Recalling Huber and Mills, the logic of the wealth retrieving machines of these new white Americans advanced much faster than the abundance retreated—over the decades, they closed in on the receding horizon.
If this economics of extinction was made possible by the cheap supply of land and the cheapness with which the lives of its inhabitants were treated, how was it justified? Most individual participants in any destructive form of commerce keep their noses down and, for the most part, are just trying to make a living or compete with their neighbors, or live up to some status-filled ideal; for them, no justification beyond immediate gain is required. But a “big picture thinker” with epic ambitions like Jefferson, one who was designing a new way of life, would require something more. This is where the notion of the infinite or the limitless scale of the Americas comes in, a notion that appears repeatedly throughout Jefferson’s work and, more significantly, informs the sort of expansionary policy that Jefferson inaugurated and that has become one of the few political solutions that has proved successful decade after decade ever since Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory: when in doubt, expand and grow, a policy that has evolved from Westward expansion and Indian removal, to foreign conquest and economic imperialism. All of these expansionary solutions have been similarly cloaked with self-congratulatory stories of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, an American Empire of Liberty or Beacon of Hope, a seven-billion member global middle class powered by Windows, and, most improbably, the myth that there are no limits to growth. This has also provides the model for categorical disregard of ecological limits that much of the world has adopted.
It is true that Jefferson is often presented as the patron saint of American homestead agriculture, the spokesman for the virtuous and modest aspiration that American citizens might bind themselves to a piece of land which they would nurture and husband, while engaging in informed participation in the difficult task of self-government. Jefferson clearly favored this agricultural model over the more commercially and financially-minded manufacture or trade promoted by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, with whom Jefferson battled over the identity America might assume. In a famous letter to John Jay, Jefferson writes: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.” In order for the audacious American experiment in self-rule to work, the nation would need to be bound together by people also bound to the earth, or so Jefferson professed. While the image was modest, the ambition was immense and the arc of simple virtue reached towards the infinite: an Empire of Liberty.
This tension between a modest virtue and a grand ambition is illustrated in the same letter to Jay: the stay at home virtues of the yeoman farmer, tied to the land and a local community is also a sort of tool or device to be used in a far more ambitious dream in which “most valuable citizens,” whose way of living Jefferson would never have accepted for himself, appear as pawns in a policy of expansion and growth that did not develop any strategies, in the end, to limit itself. “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else. But our citizens will find employment in this line till their numbers, & of course their productions, become too great for the demand both internal & foreign. This is not the case as yet, & probably will not be for a considerable time.”
Our first clue to this broader motive comes in the very question that Jefferson is addressing: the paternalistic one that asks, how should we put our new citizens to work? What occupation might best serve the political needs of the nation? But beyond the social engineering, as people on the right would refer to this today, the answer exemplifies a common Jeffersonian assumption buried in his similar response to other political questions, many of which employed for political advantage the seemingly unlimited space of the American continent. That we could waste as much land as we please makes the virtues of being tied to the land and the liberty of the nation optional and, like everything else, disposable. “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation.” Was there really room for an infinite number of farmers? Is Jefferson serious? While he may have admitted that it wasn’t really infinite, only infinite for all practical purposes, here and elsewhere he nevertheless proceeds as if it were truly infinite or that any distant limits need not be a concern of his. The only foreseeable limits that Jefferson can even imagine are established not by land constraints, but by limits to the demand of agricultural products.
It is also interesting to consider these words in light of the post-Keynesian economic theory of Krugman and Reich, in which economic problems are generally presumed to be ones of demand rather than supply, and in the light of our multi-billion dollar advertising and marketing industry, whose main function is to address problems of demand by goading us into wanting and needing more. If there is a limit to how many farmers Jefferson thought the United States might support, it is not land. It is instead demand for their products, food, but also fiber and tobacco. This belief in infinite land pops up repeatedly in Jefferson’s writings and speeches. We have seen the way Jefferson has made some sort of truce with the wasteful techniques of agriculture in Notes on Virginia, assenting to the sacrifice of soil and “lasting bonds,” alike, to some principle of productivity or profit, and a corresponding inability to anticipate how long it might take to waste all our land. The same sort of indifference to the quickening power of exponential growth appears in his first Inaugural Address, where Jefferson predicts that this “chosen country” would have “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” This, we might note, is more than ten times the generations there had been since the birth of Christ. We should also note that in the same address Jefferson spoke favorably on the exponential population expansion that the young nation was experiencing: “you will perceive that the increase in numbers during the last 10 years, proceeding in geometric ratio, promises a duplication in little more than 22 years.” This growth is viewed with nothing but optimistic pride: “we contemplate this rapid growth and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits to the multiplication of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price.”
Jefferson’s comments on agriculture can be slightly, and perhaps purposefully, confusing. The wealthy planters who received the benefit of most of Jefferson’s policies do not share the ethic of the family farm. Likewise, it is disingenuous to suggest that labor was not plentiful in the new world, where millions of slaves toiled and were necessary to this economics of extinction. In the above mentionedMr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause, Robert Kennedy argues that in addition to the better-known divide between Jefferson’s agrarianism and Hamilton’s commerce and industry, agriculture had two distinct strains of its own. One of these, represented by the Yeoman farmer of the sort written about to John Jay, was the kind of farming Jefferson favored, at least in principle and within his soaring approbations. In contrast, was the slave-based, commodity-centered, Southern plantation, a clear precursor to today’s industrial agriculture. While Jefferson despised the slavery upon which the plantation system was built, and was eventually to mourn the devastation to the land that it wrought, he nevertheless suited his policies around the needs of the wealthy planter and at the expense of the yeoman farmer. The Louisiana Purchase and the spread of slavery westward was the most significant example of this, but the same sacrifice of his ideal pervaded a much broader series of decisions, all of which are well-documented by Kennedy. An Empire of Liberty founded on the virtues of the cultivators of the earth was the “lost cause” referred to in Kennedy’s title.
The yeoman farmer was less dependent on the money economy and foreign markets. Small family farms were far more self-sufficient and, because they were less capital-intensive, were not as ready or as able to uproot themselves even for the cheap land at the frontier. In Jefferson’s day it was already apparent that the small and diversified farmer, often laboring without slaves, provided what we would today call as more “sustainable” model. They would manure an acre of land rather than abandon it for another. This model of agriculture and its attendant virtues is significant to our broader understanding of Liberalism and America, and our attempt to find a path towards a sustainable future. As Kennedy would tell it, American history is a struggle between these two competing strains of freedom and democracy, a struggle that tore at Jefferson himself. Kennedy argues that the struggle between the free, independent, and ecologically minded family farm, on the one hand, and the more exploitative and destructive plantation, on the other, often hung in a close balance. It could have gone either way. He is particularly critical of Jefferson, who for a variety of personal and political reasons, never had quite the courage necessary to defend his ideals. In this way, Kennedy believes Jefferson could have possibly prevented the growth of slavery, the underdevelopment of the South, and even the civil war.
Kennedy’s thesis also suggests that Liberalism contains within it a sustainable strain based on lower levels of consumption and waste, and an economy tied more closely to an ecology. This view would in some sense cast doubt on my thesis that Liberalism is inherently expansionary and inherently anti-ecological. My primary response is: good! All the better if Liberalism and Enlightenment reason have the seeds of a sustainable rebirth buried within them. My goal is not to overthrow the principles of the Liberal Enlightenment just for the fun of it, but to articulate ways in which our Liberal Expectations, as they have evolved, might be reformed to fit into a finite planet. The future prospects of my two year old twin sons become all the more better if, indeed, we can retrace our steps and take some other fork in the road. They will care not a bit whether they inherit an inhabitable planet with an intact society that is Liberal, Post-Liberal, or something with an altogether different label. I am more than happy to welcome those parts of our tradition and our reigning political ideology that accept limits to consumption, that don’t value growth for growth’s sake, or believe that every problem will be solved with more technology and a step further from the soil and the land.
In any event, a number of questions still remain even if we except Kennedy’s thesis: why, most significantly, has our tradition of the yeoman farmer given way time and time again to the powers of expansion and growth? What forces or internal logic has transformed our family farmers into an industrial agricultural complex, our tradesmen and artisans into assembly line workers, our store-owners into cogs in a big-box machine, our local bankers and accountants into Wall Street masters of the universe, the good earthy folk of the North East and the Mid-West into iPad-punching account executives, marketers, and global salespeople? We have, I will argue, designed all our life supporting systems—our food, our trade, our manufacturing, our waste disposal, even our political elections—as if the world were limitless, our resources and dumps infinite. Was there ever really anything else? Did ecology ever stand a chance in the face of so profitable an economy of extinction?
It is of course satisfying to think it did, especially if we can find a villain to blame. Kennedy’s description follows the pattern we saw in our discussion of partisan warfare: the forces of destruction are thus isolated into a particular group. In this case, the Southern, slave-owning plantation owners provide a welcome target for educated, progressive, northern middle-class people. They, we can happily say, were the problem. Those values, not ours, are unsustainable. But one need not look very far to see that Jefferson’s yeoman farmer may have just been a somewhat slower version of the Southern Planter. While Kennedy emphasizes several times that the Yeoman model was successfully instituted in the North East, and areas north of the Ohio River, the marks they may have left on the terrain have long since been plowed under. A state like Wisconsin or Illinois was, at one time, the seat of diverse agriculture and then for a time the center of grain production. But wheat will deplete the soil quickly and thus the wheat belt was forced west, leaving Wisconsin to Dairy pastures. The only thing that has allowed states like Iowa or Kansas to remain in grain production was the introduction of chemical fertilizers, which have temporarily obscured the complete destruction of its soils.
Perhaps, to answer the questions posed above, like absolute power, unlimited space corrupts. Or perhaps the scales of judgment and reason cannot be balanced except against a background of limits and finitude. The illusion infinite space, like infinite energy or resources, at the very least lets one off a number of ethical hooks and solves all sorts of practical problems: without limits “and” replaces “either/or” and governing becomes the far easier project of adding benefit to benefit. Expansion helps fill the coffers; free land, like today’s tax cuts or stimulus checks, stills unrest. A bigger pie means less struggle over the relative size of one’s piece. One must believe that there is infinite land or develop some economic fantasy about a permanently growing dematerialized knowledge economy in order for this sort of “solution” not to look like you are just kicking the can down the road. Which is more or less what Jefferson did with regards to slavery, where we can see a similar sort of tension between short-term gain and the deeper principles necessary to a democratic nation. The immediate economic gain of a slave economy provided exports of sugar, cotton, and tobacco that a young cash-starved and highly indebted nation needed. For even as Jefferson believed that slavery would destroy the national soul, the lure of fantastic gain from wasted land and lives was too much for his virtue or his reason or some other part of him that was not as strong as we retrospectively might have liked. But as long as there were no visible limits, the day of reckoning could be postponed. This “problem” would have to be solved, but only later. We may scorn Jefferson’s views on slavery and remain unforgiving towards his obvious historical cultural and racial bias. But do we not tell a similar sort of story about our tremendous waste and destruction of the planet? Yes, someone needs to do something. But not yet, not until we fix the economy or make sure everyone has good internet access, or a job free from manual labor. Part of the work of reworking our political and economic beliefs and expectations involves the tricky task of separating various threads from our history.
In his magnificent portrait of the United States, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry observes that “one of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.” America was of course discovered, and its inhabitants misnamed, in the course of a ill-navigated search for a short route to India; despite this fundamental and originary disorientation–or perhaps because of it–the continent was, Berry points out, thereafter “laid open in an orgy of goldseeking” whose object of desire was “always somewhere further on.” This combination of misplaced intentions and spatial bewilderment marked the beginning of a restless settling and unsettling characteristic of our culture, to treaties brokered only long enough to be betrayed, to trails of broken bodies and broken spirits and the demeaning of life and work upon which the unstoppable push westward was beaten and eventually paved. From the first days plunder to the present, Berry argues, we the inhabitants of the Americas have continued to “displace ourselves. . . with the same mixture of fantasy and avarice” (3) that Columbus and Cortez first combined with such explosive results. Jefferson is of special interest to this story precisely because he is not entirely given over to this fantasy and avarice, but is concerned about the virtues necessary for peaceful democratic self-rule. Jefferson was no conquistador. Peace and independence ranked far higher in his scheme than sudden riches. And yet he cannot resist what Berry refers to as this tendency to displace ourselves and what I would refer to as the mist-taking of America, both of which cannot be fully dissociated from the disorientating experience of an incomprehensibly large space at the edge of which Christopher Columbus ran aground.
Contrary to popular legend, Columbus did not believe the Earth was flat. That myth was brokered by Washington Irving in an attempt to make pre-modern Europeans appear irremediably stupid and ourselves, in contrast, impeachably advanced. But Columbus did believe the Earth to be significantly smaller than it is and, because of a simple, almost comic, transcription error, insisted that the 19,000 mile westward trip from Europe to Asia was more like 2,000. Had he not run aground when he did, on an unmapped land, Columbus and his men would have soon starved to death as they drifted off into obscurity. Until his death, nevertheless, Columbus maintained that with his landing in the “East Indies” he had indeed found passage to the edge of Asia. But given the overriding purposes of the day, it scarcely mattered which hemisphere Columbus had stumbled upon, and his staggering geographical disorientation did nothing to diminish his jubilation, nor inhibit the ensuing orgy of plunder or the grandeur of the fantasy and avarice with which he carried it out. His initial impression of the first Native Americans he encountered was how their open friendliness and thus how easy they would be to slay or enslave, both of which he promptly set out to prove. In his first report to his sponsors in the Spanish Court, Columbus likewise promised them “as much gold as they need. . . and as many slaves as they ask.” The mortality rate in the Islands Columbus visited approached 90% in many cases. Although we don’t like to think about it too much, we, middle-class Americans, are the beneficiaries of this mistaking of America, and it is only by turning away from the details of his three eventual rampages through the Caribbean and the coast of Central America that Columbus remains a celebrated hero in the United States.
In this way did Columbus begin a process which I would call the mis-taking of America: where cognitive, accounting, or navigational errors actually leads to a great and successful plundering, where “Indians” are either removed or made invisible according to a philosophy based on a distinction between civilization and savagery; where civilization attempts to wash itself clean in a state of nature, which it then proceeds to clear, mine, and develop into oblivion; where the political and spiritual renewal that an empty frontier promises is used to justify the emptying of that frontier of its native inhabitants so that it might be reworked according to European ideals of property, cultivation, and advancement, often by slaves kidnapped from Africa—with the whole charade of avarice held together with high-sounding philosophical and scientific fantasy. Thus do cognitive and error and moral blindness feed off of each other and thus do they create a disorientation and moral unmooring–one which can be seen most vividly today in our relationship to energy and the environment.
I am not of course the first to depict the particular moral and political development of the United States in terms of the vast space of the Americas. This honor likely goes to historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his late nineteenth century “Frontier Thesis,” according to which our national development was best explained by our history of westward expansion. Turner’s overriding purpose was to explain the uniqueness of the “American character,” especially in comparison to the European one, which was at the time mired in conflict. My question, of course, is quite different in that it asks “how is it that we, the most enlightened and technologically advanced people, are unable to see where our current trajectory will take us?” But the role of a vast and bountiful space takes center-stage in both approaches. While for most nations, according to Turner, “development has occurred in a limited area,” America has developed through its continued expansion into an open frontier: “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explains American development” (The Frontier in American History 1). More specifically, as the frontier line advanced, Jackson proposes, settlers were continually confronted with primitive, even savage conditions, and the newly cast civilization was repeatedly forced its forge itself anew out of the wilderness: “this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (2).
Turner, of course, remains oblivious to the peoples and the cultures who did in fact inhabit a frontier that was neither free nor open. His is a history most clearly written from the standpoint of the conqueror. Armed with Enlightenment principles such as the “state of nature” in which human civilization would be laid bare and cleansed of its sediment so that it might enjoy perennial rebirth, Turner provides one more example of the mis-taking of America. The American character, according to Turner, is marked by:
a coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom–these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them.
Not adequately characterized, here, is a blinding arrogance that is shared by Turner, an inability to understand who, at this meeting point between “savagery and civilization,” the real savages were. The terrible “expedients” that these restless heroes were so quick to find need to be named, the “great ends” need to be defined. For these were a people who had tools and weapons of great power, and beguiling trinkets; they carried devastating disease, were unmoored by exuberance and opportunism, and were animated by new beliefs that released them from any sense of bounded limits. They were smart, no doubt, and quick. But they were not wise. They knew how to conquer and exploit, but it is unclear they ever learned how to settle.
In discussing the “unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry suggests that “the first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided that we are—both against each other and within ourselves (11). The roots of this divide—which, in contrast to Turner, Berry believes to be the most significant product of our restless advance against a settled frontier–of course lie in our history: in a history where we have been competing with each other and the earth at the expense of both. In contrast to the illusion of infinity provided by the immense stretch of land embedded in our modern picture of the world, Berry looks to the divine as a source of wholeness that might heal these divisions. But “we can make ourselves whole only by accepting our partiality, by living within our limits, by being human—not by trying to be gods” (95).
To this I would only add that the lure of infinite reason becomes insensible to that reason’s limits. As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, “reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent” (After Virtue 54). But our reason and logic has been ruthlessly self-assertive. In the age of infinite reason, and upon the land where it was unleashed, our ends, unguided by anything else, are given to the aggressive impulses of expansion—bigger, faster, more, and yet more still. Liberalism, at least as it has evolved so far, might be described of as a system where the ends—the values and goals that guide our practices—are a reflection only of the calculating and opportunistic means we have mistaken with truth itself: expansion, because we have cleared the space for it; wealth, because it makes everyone wealthy; growth, because it permits future growth; competition, because it keeps us competitive; freedom, because it prevents any hindrance to our aims, whatever they might be.