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▶  More from Ancient Combat Book Reviews Plantation America
‘Playing God’
Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner


1986, Penguin, NY, 634 pages

I was leant this book by a water operator with much experience with water utility needs and water politics. Something he did tell me that was not in Cadillac Desert was that a golf course takes a million gallons of water a day to maintain in the high desert. As I read Cadillac Desert I heard home buyers discussing water shares at dinner, wondering if there was any small town they could move to where they would not be followed by the hipster millionaire scourge fleeing the East Coast and Left Coast cities and suburbs their kind have managed into uninhabitable wastelands for the human soul. Buying their way unto municipal councils in self-sufficient working communities, these people engage in land speculation, drain the water resources for recreation and residential subdivisions and drive away food production and other sustainable lifeways in order to find a refuge from the desert that they created in the desert that God created. How many ways could this go wrong, when the municipal mentality that brought into being the “urban food desert” is transported to an actual desert?

Marc Reisner traces the war on the world as shaped by God in a fashion that springs from Plantation America, where the wilderness was not conceived of as being made by God, but rather by the Devil and that Man is God’s tool for bringing about a garden of plenty. As largely New Englanders, many Mormon, migrated west, it was though that “rain followed the plow,” that God would reward the destruction of the natural environment that somehow he was powerless over, by giving rain in return for work. This ended in horrific famines, recounted in Cadillac Desert.

Before the book delves into the logical conclusion of a national ethos dedicated to destroying the natural world, the author does a very nice job of charting the heroic deeds of those who explored the American West, who in many ways and places exceeded the deeds of the Amerindians and went places were no man had gone before just to see what was there. A rational report on hydrolic engineering potential in the high deserts of the American west, beyond the 100th meridian, was penned in the 1800s by John Wesley Powell, whose advice has gone entirely unheeded and who predicted the great a calamities such as the Dust Bowl and the collapse and silting of numerous dams. It is a terrible irony that the Colorado River, perhaps the most energetic hydraulic force in North America [especially when one considers relative water volume] now no longer reaches the sea, but ends as a venomous trickle near the U.S. Mexican border.

Powell was ignored because he spake against the American God, the dollar. The cruel and crass facts are laid out time and again in exacting detail by Reisner as, project by project, American water programs in the West are revealed to be huge welfare schemes, by which land speculators buy arid land, then get eastern taxpayers to subsidies the destruction of a neighboring habitat to water the desert they bought so that it can provide water for housing or for growing and eventually form a wasteland. Our artificial society is not just confected of plastic and steel and concrete, but is fed from deserts that have been made to bloom against the natural order and will eventually become toxic wastelands of salt and chemically tainted silt. In the meantime, like a caged dog seeking that final corner to lay upon which is not covered by his own feces, suburbanites and millionaires race to drink from the dwindling streams and rivers I have seen over and over again rather than live in the wastelands they have built.

River after grand river, with great names, trickle before me as emaciated veins inferior to creeks such as I sailed toy boats on in suburban Maryland, even as my guide paints the horizon with his calloused hand and declares that another subdivision or ski resort is going up on a barren hillside, which nature does not provide with enough water to keep alive the vegetation necessary to hold the soil in place in case it ever did rain. The entire land is fed by snow melt from the mountains.

As the author of Cadillac Desert points out, no desert civilization has ever survived the destruction wrought by manmade irrigation and that one day, archeologists of the future will count the men of America who lived only for short term gain, as greater fools than the Anasazi, the Mayans, the Sumerian or the Easter Islanders, who all asked more of their gods then came to them in the wake of their rape of the earth.

Reading Cadillac Desert in the midst of the ongoing insanity it chronicles was quite a telling experience and does elevate my opinion of mankind, from evil to suicidal.

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Add Comment
BobDecember 2, 2018 3:35 AM UTC

On water, play and gods:

https://www.nydailynews.com/news/link-trump-bloomberg-stinks-article-1.1007648
BobDecember 2, 2018 3:32 AM UTC

Chinatown to be rewatched.
MannyDecember 1, 2018 11:58 PM UTC

I’ve had occasion to think about moving out of NJ. West of the Mississippi always seemed like a risky location due to water and extreme weather.
c7November 29, 2018 4:37 PM UTC

The great American writer Edward Abbey wrote much on this very topic. His novel, "Good News," is about the post-apocalyptic, Godforsaken, waterless Phoenix, which Abbey thought the greatest blight on the landscape imaginable.

Desert Solitaire remains one of the finest books written in late 20th c. America. And of course Monkeywrench Gang, with its hero George Hayduke.
responds:November 29, 2018 10:07 PM UTC

The water operator who hosted me showed me his favorite movie, based on an Edward Abbey novel. The movie starred Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave. The influx of people into the Phoenix area is still accelerating like lemmings nearing the sea.
Tony CoxNovember 29, 2018 4:18 AM UTC

“The King Of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire” Might as well be a companion piece to “Caddilac Desert”. It’s one family that owns most of the central California farmland, and they were behind a lot of the push for dams and draining lakes, introducing the negro along with cotton production to California, and really just fucking over anyone they can to make more money.